SteamOS, Steam Machines and Steam controllers: Valve innovation, or just hot air?

28 Sep 2013  by   Peter Parrish
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steam

Peter Parrish: As PC users everywhere will no doubt be aware, Valve has been up to stuff this week. We’ve had three announcements: SteamOS, living room Steam Machines to start rolling out in 2014 (and 300 of Valve’s own to be community beta tested,) plus a fancy dual trackpad controller that looks like an owl.

It’s pretty clear that Valve fancies getting some of us PC gamers out from behind our desks and into the living room (or, indeed, pull some console users towards a PC-based box instead,) but is it going to work? There’s a fair bit to discuss here, but let’s start with something simple before we try to address a wider context. Can you see any of these announcements changing your own PC gaming behaviour?

Paul Younger: As far as I’m concerned it won’t be changing the way I play PC games. I actually like not playing games in the living room for the simple fact that where my PC is removed from other distractions like TV, and (dare I say it) other people. I find nothing more boring that watching someone else play a game when I could be doing it myself.

Tim McDonald: That’s because you’re a hideous unsociable troll, Paul, while the social highflyers like myself need to be seen. Playing games with other people – sitting on a couch, sharing the controller, joking and laughing and screaming – is fun. You weirdo.

Anyway: I really want a Steam Machine (which would be a wonderful name if it didn’t immediately make me think of Amnesia), but I’m not sure why. I can’t honestly see it changing my habits all that much and, in truth, if I want to play Steam games on a TV I can do that already with Big Picture mode and a 360 controller. Which I’ve actually been meaning to do for awhile, except that I’m phenomenally lazy.

Still, this might make doing so a little bit easier. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve been “meaning to do” with regards to my PC and a TV, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. I guess this might alleviate that problem.

Steam Big Picture

Paul’s nightmare comes to life.

Peter: Yeah, I’d also like to get some Steam gaming on the main living room TV if only for the fact that I’d actually be able to see my wife during weekends where I have a game to review. Right now my options are “buy a rather long HDMI cable and run it through in a messy way” or “move my desktop tower every time”; neither of which are especially attractive. Some sort of Steam Machine may be what I’m interested in, although I don’t really want to just shell out for what is basically a second powerful PC.

The varieties of machine are kind of up in the air at the moment, but as SteamOS can handle game streaming if there was a low-cost box that just let me stream (with low enough latency) from my desktop in the office, then I’d be interested in that. I’m potentially quite keen on the controller too, if only to just try it out and see how those trackpads feel. Like a lot of this stuff, I’m at the “well, I like the idea of this” stage, but need more concrete details to decide whether any of it is really for me.

Okay, so that’s us, but what about the wider games playing public. What do we think Valve’s target audience is with these ideas? Are they hoping to lure a few console-exclusive players over? Wanting PC players who currently have a console in the living room (like me) to ditch that and just do a Steam Machine instead?

Tim: It comes down to what the Steam Machine actually is, because as you’ve said there’s still a load of stuff we don’t know. I mean, most of the questions in the actual Steam Machine announcement were answered with “We’ll tell you more about that soon.”

Paul: Yeah, it did all seem  a little vague so I’m not getting excited about the hardware so much, but messing about with a new OS could be fun.

Tim: I’m going to assume that there will indeed be a box that’s doing basically nothing but streaming (I want to say that it might also do some calculations on its own, to lower latency and improve performance, but that would probably require games to be specifically written with that in mind so I doubt it’ll happen). I’m also going to assume that there will be various boxes tailor-made for running certain levels of games. I imagine a machine capable of running FTL and Defense Grid will be cheaper than a box capable of running Sleeping Dogs, after all.

steammachines

But will they come in delightful shapes?

As such, I think the target market is as broad as is humanly possible. Bored tinkerers like me will find it an interesting novelty that’ll let us play games curled up on the bed; people who want to actually spend time with their family, like you, will likely find it a useful way of actually sharing your life with the people you care about. There’ll probably be cheaper boxes for those who want to play relatively low-end stuff but don’t have a PC, and absurdly expensive boxes for those who want to play Crysis 3 with everything on maximum but don’t have a PC.

As I said, we don’t know enough. We don’t know how customisable the hardware will be, or what the options will be. But this seems the likeliest to me. I think there’s certainly a market for this sort of thing, but the dangerous question is how much it’ll cost.

Peter: We’ve kind of hit the main problem with the second announcement here, I think. Not enough specific information to really make meaningful judgements. It certainly sounds as if there’ll be a Steam Machine to suit all tastes (much as you can build a PC to pretty much any specs,) but crucial matters like price are still unknown. I guess that’s partly because third-party manufacturers are involved in this part of the process.

Paul: I think the fact that there are multiple manufacturers involved is a good indication that the specs are going to be quite varied. The price is the key though, I wouldn’t pay big bucks for what could effectively be a receiver for a signal sent from your PC to my TV where I don’t want to play games anyway. I will never leave the man cave!

Peter: Come on Paul, join us out here on the sofa. It’s lovely and comfy. More options for people is fine, and I like the idea of an open platform with the power of a top-end PC (since it is a PC) that can sit in the living room. I’m just not yet convinced how many people will take that option up over the one they’re already familiar with, be it a console or a decent desktop.

SteamOS

It’s pretty hard to make an image of an OS interesting, let’s be honest.

Anyway, we should probably move on from the vaguest part of the announcement and look at SteamOS for a bit. Is this Valve giving an official “fuck you” to Microsoft, and Windows 8 specifically?

I know very, very little about Linux, but at the very least this seems like it’ll be a positive move for those who want to play games on that architecture. Both AMD and Nvidia have made noises about supporting this, which is presumably a whole lot more support than Linux gaming had from them before last week.

Tim: Actually, you raise several interesting points there – twice, with the mention of “price” and “Microsoft.” Maybe three times, with “open platform.”

The box, as far as we know, will be hackable to the extent that you can put whatever OS you want on it. Second, there are some advantages to it, price-wise, already. For one thing, Steam accounts are free, while Xbox LIVE Gold (and, assuming Sony sneak it through, PlayStation Network) both cost money for online play. Second, SteamOS is also 100% free, with even the source code being made available to everyone. You’re kinda battering the current console champions there already, and making it very easy for the more technically-savvy people to try it out if they’re even curious.

To answer your question, this is all a pretty huge middle finger to Microsoft, although I don’t know whether it’s deliberately intended that way. I mean, doing something good isn’t exactly an overt poke at something shit. It’s just… not being shit.

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