Recently Valve Software, the company that created mesmerizing games such as the Half Life Series, Portal 2, and Counter-Strike. As well as the Steam platform which revolutionized the way PC gamers played and bought games. Announced that they would be moving their steam platform from the computer into the living room. With announcement of the Steam operating system(based on the Linux kernel), the steam machine, and the steam controller.
Valve looks as if they are serious in competing with the likes of Sony and Microsoft, But can they? Lets take an in-depth look at the week's announcements individually and try to piece together the bigger picture. Will Valve redefine the living room gaming experience? Or will the steam machine go the way of the Sega Dream-cast?
The first announcement came with the newly created Steam OS. Steam OS is a new operating system designed by Valve using the Linux architecture. As Linux is open sourced (Windows and Mac are both closed) it allows for more game optimization for game developers while designing a game. The problem has always been that Linux has had poor gaming support due to lack of graphic support and popularity. But with creation of the Steam OS, Valve intends to change that notion with proper developer support and increased game performance.
One of the most interesting concepts of the Steam OS is the ability to stream Mac and Windows-based games from your steam account on your computer, to your tv. At first this was a little difficult to understand and I’m still not sure if this is right due to the lack of info we still have about these announcements. But what I believe they are planning to run all Steam OS based games off the Steam hardware itself, and games that are not developed for Steam OS streaming from the persons steam account on their pc that has the game files installed.
Another interesting thing involved in the steam OS is the “Family Share” option. This option allows families to share games and hold individual save points and game achievements on one steam account. Another family option is the ability to have game locks on an accounts game list. This means that certain family members may have a personal game list that other users cannot see, this serves two purposes; one, keeping game library more organized and two, allowing parental control options for content.
The last thing Valve announced with Valve OS in line with other game console/entertainment boxes is addition of music and video services on the steam machine. Not much more is known of who Valve has partnered with and what plans they have with these integrated services. We’ll just have to take a wait and see approach.
The next announcement Valve made regarded their “Steam Box” which has come as a surprise to no one as rumors and talks have circulated for the last 2 years. But one interesting concept brought to the table is that Valve is not going to develop Steam Machines themselves. Instead of one box fits all model similar to the Sony and Microsoft methods, they decided to give the Steam OS system to a variety of hardware developers to build the box however they choose. I’m sure there is a spec-requirement set in place by Valve, but everything else not counting the prototype is still left to the internet rumor mill.
The prototypes will enter beta testing later this year to 300 steam customers in a pool draw after meeting a list of requirements. The prototypes developed by Valve to test the overall living room performance of their operating system and user experience. The prototypes aren't the released product as hardware developers are producing steam boxes with different sizes, specs, prices, as well as factors that have not yet been revealed.
Now what's a living room console without a controller? The last in the week of valve announcements comes in the form of the new steam controller.
What’s interesting about this controller versus controllers from the other systems is the lack of a joystick whatsoever. Using Dual trackpads as input devices for movement and camera view could be one of the greatest selling points of the system. The problem with past attempts at using trackpads instead of joysticks is the lack of response you feel from the controller, giving the user a feeling a loss of control over their character(s).
Valve realizes this problem and is attempting to fix this issue with integration of new haptic feedback technology. In their announcement article on their website notes: “As we investigated trackpad-based input devices, it became clear through testing that we had to find ways to add more physicality to the experience. It also became clear that “rumble”, as it has been traditionally implemented (a lopsided weight spun around a single axis), was not enough. Not even close.”
In regards to their new haptic technology they continue:”The Steam Controller's built around a new generation of super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators. These small, strong, weighted electro-magnets attached to the dual trackpads.
They are capable of delivering a range of force and vibration, allowing precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement.”
The controller also has a built-in touchscreen allowing integration into Steam. This allows the user to easily skip around games within their library, and allowing Steam Developers to develop personal API’s for their game. Game maps, scrolling menu, radial dial, or something new system that the developer wants to try out for their game.
The controller comes with 16 physical buttons with the user ability to map and key-bind the controls however they prefer.
The Unannounced Announced
With the controller on Friday September 27, Valve was officially done with any new unveils for the time being. A few things missing that many fans and media were disappointingly missing was the potential announcement of their Source 2 Engine. The first source engine developed and used by Valve, third-party developers, as well as a staple for the modding community for the better part of a decade now. Many now have questioned its validity as a top game engine for the next generation, and recent speculation is that they are developing the 2nd engine, we just don’t have any details on the release date and specs as of yet.
The second wanted announcement that never came was the long-awaited unveil of Half-Life 3, the sequel to the 2004 critically acclaimed Half-Life 2. Any video game fan that holds any Internet presence would know the public outcry for the third installment. From forum postings, to YouTube videos, and even a gathering public picketing rally outside of Valve’s headquarters in Seattle, Washington. Many thought this week might be the week to finally get some news and information on this long-awaited sequel. Sadly though, Valve still hasn’t learned to count to three.
The Picture as We Know it
All in all we now know the existence and release of: Steam OS, Steam Machines, and the Steam controller. The three are going into testing immediately and the believed release date will be in the early stages of 2014. But what does existence of the steam living room mean to the industry and consumers?
Steam have been a staple of the PC gaming community since 2003. And Valve taking Steam to the living room is a drastic step for them as console gamers and PC gamers are drastically different types of gamers. Many console gamers have little clue on what Valve and Steam represent as a brand and product. How will Valve market this system and software to people who has never heard or cared for what they did?
Another question is can Valve get their PC fandom to put down a keyboard and mouse and pick up a controller. While Valve has said that nothing will change in regards to Steam on the PC and are fully invested into furthering it as such. PC gamers are a fickle bunch, they know what they like and hate everything else as its simply sub par. Even back in 2002 when Steam was first launched the beta with Counter-Strike 1.6, PC gamers hated it, to them it was just DRM (Digital RIghts Management) drivel with a terrible user interface. Now lets take 10 years later, Steam is the most widely used digital distribution platform in existence, with an estimated 70% market share and multiple billions in revenue per year.
With Valve, history of success has been on their side. I don’t know the demographic they are aiming for with these releases. Steam OS will be the easiest announcement to gain traction. The ability to permeate the game developer landscape without much competition. Independent game developers generally love Valve and getting to program for a system with the potential for more functionality as well as Valve’s vast user base and probable preferential treatment in using their OS seems like a no-brainer to me.
The difficult selling point will getting the machines and controllers into people's homes. As earlier stated, console and PC gamers are vastly different in how they interpret the game industry. While not always the case, console gamers are generally a much more casual audience than their PC brethren. Brands are king, you have Xbox fans, Playstation fans, and Nintendo fans. These systems have a stronghold on the mainstream audience. You’re barraged with ads containing Xbox’s with Mountain Dew, Playstation and Taco Bell, Nintendo and… Nintendo.
Mom’s going into a Wal-Mart or target hounded by their kids to get them one of these consoles for christmas because they see a barrage of ads with bright colors, guns, and sugary beverages. If you told a kid “You should get a Steam Machine, it allows you to stream games from your steam account on your tv, and a game backed with our operating system will be better optimized than either the Xbox one or Playstation 4”. Most kids and casual gamers neither know or care about the cool things Valve is trying to do with this system. At least for the time being.
But Valve has shown throughout it’s history that they have abilities to innovate while also being profitable. If I were hedging my bets I would put them on Valve once again. If they figure out a way to reach the casual audience and get portions of them to try it out, and the hypes met. Word of mouth may spread the systems into a wider audience. The PC Steam gamers are probably slow to adopt but I have a feeling that eventually many Steam users will supplement their PC time with living room time. With Valve already having the PC gaming market by the throat, Gabe Newell isn't having nightmares over his company's budget, though Gabe has always looked at his company with an analytical point of view.
I feel that Valve or the companies making the hardware for them will have to find segments of the casual market to bite to label this attempt a success. But if there was one company that I would put my faith in to innovate and change the way we enjoy our living room experience, it would be Gabe and Valve. In Valve we trust.