Steam and the Future of TV Gaming

These last two weeks have brought us huge news from Valve about new ways to game in the living room. From shared digital titles to gaming centric operating systems it looks like Valve is ready to bring the Steam platform from the personal monitor to the big screen. This is huge as it will introduce PC gaming into the “console wars”. Can PC gaming really thrive in an environment that demands controllers? Are people ready to switch from the “drop-in & play” idea of traditional consoles for a more customizable, albeit more complex, experience?

Lets start with the first steps Valve took towards this: Big Picture Mode. Just under a year ago Big Picture Mode was introduced as a way of navigating Steam with a controller. It also was designed for a PC hooked into a TV so all of the fonts and buttons were enlarged as well to increase view-ability. Big Picture Mode turned out to be pretty intuitive and gave the navigation of Steam a console like experience. It worked well but I doubt many people moved their gaming rigs out to the living room to use it properly. As for using Steam at a desk I found navigating in the traditional sense is still much faster than using BPM.

Rumors sprung up everywhere about Valve getting into the hardware business and making a console that would take advantage of BPM. There was silence from Valve up until a couple weeks ago when they announced Family Sharing. Having a lot of similarities with the original ideas for sharing games on the Xbox One, this update to Steam will allow one account to have its library of games shared to 10 other accounts. Only one person can have access to the library at any time and the owner takes precedence over all other accounts. The biggest gripe, so far, is that this is not a per game share but a per account share. If I list my friend’s account as a shared account he can play any of my games given that I am not playing one. The moment I start a game he will be kicked from his(I’m sure there will be a small countdown so he can try to save his game quickly). This means that he cannot play Metro while I play something entirely different. This does make perfect sense for a household with one PC….or a console! Regardless of who signs into Steam console, all of the games purchased will be playable. Just like the current digital model for PS3 or Xbox360.

This week has had the biggest news so far though. Valve announced an operating system, consoles, and a controller. The operating system is built on Linux but does not seem to use any preexisting distro as a basis. Dubbed SteamOS, it looks just like Steam running in BPM. There is concern about the games available for Linux(for my 780+ games only 100 run under Linux) but Valve has gone a bit further and baked streaming into SteamOS. As long as you have another computer in the house running Windows/Mac version of Steam you can stream the game from that computer to your SteamOS computer. It isn’t much of a permanent solution but it works until developers begin to strongly support Linux. There isn’t much news about the consoles other that they are typical PCs most likely in small form factor cases. There isn’t a central company making them and, since you can run SteamOS on any PC(it is just Linux), you don’t even need a specified Steam Machine. The controller is easily the most bewildering news though. Just look at it…

The tech and ideas behind it sound awesome. Touch screen with on the fly configurations and 4 on screen buttons. 8 accessible buttons that don’t require you to remove your thumbs from the trackpads(2 trackpads click in, 4 triggers, 2 rear triggers). Shareable button configs so you can find one that matches and jump straight into a game instead of configuring yourself. There are some good ideas here. The main thing that sticks out to me are the trackpads. We already use trackpads to replace mice on laptops and I will say it is better than using a joystick to emulate mouse movements, but try playing an RTS with a trackpad. Again, a huge improvement over using joysticks but still not on the same level as mice. There are people who will use it and excel at it but I don’t foresee it surpassing the mouse as the primary input device. It can also emulate mouse and keyboard commands thus allowing it to be used in games lacking controller support.  I will reserve judgement until I get mine day one because I will probably preorder the thing.

Overall I think Valve is heading in a good direction. PC gaming is widely viewed as a “lonely” form of gaming. A single gamer sitting at his desk in front of his monitor. Local coop is usually achieved through LAN parties. Other than Trine and Castle Crashers I’m actually having a difficult time thinking of a game that really supports single screen coop. Regardless, this movement will be huge for PC gamers who love couch coop. I have mixed ideas about the controller. I really hope it takes off as it just might replace the X360 controller as the default controller in games. For controller games I prefer my DualShock 3 but all of the on screen commands are still Xbox visuals. Hopefully PC can finally have a unified “PC controller” other than the X360 one.

I do have concerns for it though. Valve is trying its best to shove its way into the console scene. Emphasizing ease of use, open environments, and better visuals is definitely going to help bring console gamers over to PC but there is a lot that is going to push them away. The requirement for a streaming, higher end PC to play most AAA games is a huge blow. This will be rectified if/when developers really push Linux support but at the moment SteamOS really only has strong indie support. The controller is also likely to scare console gamers away as it does not look intuitive. Again, the technology and theory behind it are amazing but it looks completely different from the “regular” idea of 2 sticks/4 face/4 shoulder that console gaming is stuck on. Ideas that are revolutionary to some are usually scary to most. With these concerns I believe that the whole idea of moving PC into the living room will benefit PC gamers by giving them more options as to how they play their games. Ultimately though I don’t see the SteamBox competing directly with consoles as most console-only gamers will not even notice it.

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