Valve, the Gabe Newell-led paragon of PC gaming, has officially entered the battle for the living room. With the recent announcement of a new operating system, device, and controller input, the elite developer has everything in place to begin their ascent into the hearts and minds of entertainment consumers around the world.
Note that I did not specify ‘gamers.’ While Valve will certainly take very good care of their own, the company’s ambitious long-term plans go beyond simply providing a more convenient way to play your favorite games, they are looking to revolutionize the way we consume entertainment. The endgame for Valve is bigger than the PC market or the console market, their meta-strategy involves placing a Steam Machine in as many households as they humanly possible, giving users the ability to possess a one-stop shop for all of their entertainment needs.
Is Valve displaying delusions of grandeur? Maybe. Is this task too much for them to handle? Possibly. Could this ambitious venture become a powerful and universal source of creativity, progress, collaboration, and fun? Most definitely.
But before we can walk, we must crawl. To get a better understanding of the sheer potential of such a device, let’s go over the major aspects of each announcement:
The Operating System
The first of the trio of announcements was the operating system which will run the devices. The SteamOS is a free, open-source, Linux-based operating system built around Steam, and is designed to stream games, music, television, and movies from PC hardware to your living room screen.
The operating system will have a sharp focus on several new features, including: in-home streaming, family sharing,”family view” (customized libraries for family member), and the ability to access movies, music, and TV shows from outside media services (ala Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, etc..)
Being Linux-driven, it offers a gamer-centric operating system which surpasses the graphics processing performance of Windows OS, while also increasing audio performance and reductions in input latency.
SteamOS, unlike consoles and other walled programs, allows for constant updates, regular additions, and new features, along with the ability to access the source code in order to develop modifications and new content directly. This removes a huge barrier for content creators by forgoing the lengthy and expensive process of developing on closed sources.
As for games, there is a steadily growing number of Linux titles on Steam, currently over 200, and Valve is looking to expand this figure greatly over the next year. The OS announcement itself was also likely a catalyst for a large number of developers to start looking into porting or dedicating future titles to the platform.
Valve is taking an interesting route when it comes to the hardware itself. In essence, the Steam Machines are devices built around the Steam OS, which allow you to seamlessly play games through your PC onto your television. Rather than develop in-house, the Steam Machines are being manufactured by many different companies. In this case, we can call Valve a “fixer” or “facilitator,” laying the groundwork by providing a platform and audience. Through creating this Steam Machine initiative, they are breaking down traditional barriers of entry for developers, and allowing them to put their unique spin on the device from a technical and aesthetic perspective.
The boxes will be optimized for size, price, noise, and other factors, opening up choice and scalability for consumers. The value spectrum will run from super efficiency tobeast mode, with pricing to match. Prices could realistically range from around the low hundreds to well over $2,000, but Valve needs a defining sub-$1k unit to have a shot at competing for a broad audience beyond core gamers.
The prototypes being sent to 300 influential beta testers (a move Valve hopes will serve to legitimize the machine as a viable gaming device to the primary users, as well as create a subtle but effective form of viral marketing, ala Google Glass) are outfitted with the following specs:
GPU: some units with NVidia Titan, some GTX780, some GTX760, and some GTX660
CPU: some boxes with Intel : i7-4770, some i5-4570, and some i3
RAM: 16GB DDR3-1600 (CPU), 3GB DDR5 (GPU)
Storage: 1TB/8GB Hybrid SSHD
Power Supply: Internal 450w 80Plus Gold
Dimensions: approx. 12 x 12.4 x 2.9 in high
In direct opposition to the monolithic, one-size fits all console market, the Steam Machine’s allow consumers to choose the proper setup for their individual or family situation, not only personalizing entertainment to your exact preferences, but also demystifying the process of buying PC hardware (a major roadblock for many consumers who want convenience and simplicity). Another important selling point is that it is cost-inclusive, providing users with varying, but universally workable, levels of graphical performance.
And now on to the final announcement….
The stout looking device with beady eyes is quite a piece of tech. There are a pair of circular, textured, concave, high-res, clickable trackpads that offer “far higher fidelity input than has previously been possible with traditional handheld controllers” that “approaches that of a desktop mouse.” It also features a total of 16 buttons and precise haptic feedback which will create “a wide range of force and vibration, allowing for precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement.”
Completing the gamepad is a high-resolution touchscreen that Valve said is “critical to achieving the controller’s primary goal—supporting all games in the Steam catalog.” This touchscreen will enable players to select from any number of commands on the screen (or swipe through pages of commands) and then click the touchscreen to activate their choice.
In order to keep the experience fluid, the touchscreen will also offer an overlay on the main screen, so you can focus on playing without the worry of constantly looking up and down while in game.
For the traditionalists, a “legacy mode” will allow the controller to emulate a mouse and keyboard setup on all Steam games, with players having access to configuration sets for download in order to allay the issue of customizing for each game.
Valve mentioned that every genre will be playable, including those which are traditionally keyboard and mouse, including RTS, 4X games, and Simulations. First Person Shooters are also a worry amongst keyboard and mouse enthusiasts, but the developer specifically mentioned that FPS titles designed around precise aiming within a large field will benefit from the track-pads high resolution and absolute position control.
There you have it. The three announcements in a nutshell. But as mentioned before, the real question becomes, “Is this enough to change the way we consume entertainment?”
Bridging the Divide
While the reception of these announcement were generally favorable, many critics have immediately questioned the viability of such a broad and ambitious strategy. The most outspoken point to a sort of Catch-22, discussing the difficulty Valve may have in not only convincing core PC gamers to make a transition to the living room, but (even more challenging) convincing general entertainment consumers and console loyalists to start using a Steam Machine.
The platform could very well end up as a niche within a niche, or it could bridge the divide, and allow those only comfortable with consoles to confidently cross over, while PC gamers can have their cake and eat it too, by adding a whole new dimension to the experience they were already having.
Success depends on whether Valve can find the happy medium. A coup de tat will come in the form of families and gamers transitioning to the Steam Machines not only for gaming, but also for their other preferred sources of entertainment. If Valve develops a product that is attractive enough to be your ‘go-to’ for television, music, and movies, without the thought of gaming, the device will be a direct competitor to the future television titans, namely Google and Apple.
This could effectively destroy consoles in the process, because the install base for ‘idevices’ and smartphones dwarf that of the home console market, and offer far more adaptability. From a numbers perspective, it seems as if systems like Xbox and PlayStation are the battle, but global multimedia platforms are the ultimate war.
Gabe & Company are well aware that the marginal cost of having a PC in the living room is much lower than building an entirely new platform, and that these savings will likely translate into lower prices for consumers. As long as Valve can keep the price of the Steam Machines down (big subsidies from Nvidia help this), and if the buyers themselves can recognize the economic truth, the Steam Machine could certainly evolve into a much cheaper and more dynamic entertainment experience than many of the proprietary business models currently dominating the market.
Open-Source is the Future
Even if Valve is successful in finding a market for the Steam Machines, the size of that market will depend on whether or not the developer has a “killer app” to convince the masses to make the switch. This is where SteamOS can make or break the idea of PC gaming in the living room. While it is too early to tell, just knowing that an open-source OS platform is being created by a world-class PC gaming and digital distribution company, provides an extremely positive sign for its prospects.
If this were just a streaming device with an input (which is all some people see at the moment) then Valve would be screwed. They would basically become a Roku that play’s games. Not the most interesting of products. But Valve has an ace-in-the-hole, a secret hiding in plain sight, which is the linchpin of the entire concept: Open-Source.
Having a free OS that allows for customization, modifications, and user-generated development, is just what the market needs. While everyone is following the lead of Apple and religiously congregating into the stifling business of walled gardens, Valve is taking the opposite stance, and betting on the freedom of open systems as the true evolution of technology.
Mr. Newell himself has fully acknowledged (even though Valve’s developer chops are of elite status) that some of the greatest company triumphs were brought about by community users with access to the right tools.
This is Steam’s greatest asset, the support of an open interplay between players, their games and the developers.
The essential nature of PC gaming lies in the idea of software as moddable or mutable, whether through switching out hardware, or playing with files. Earlier this year, Gabel even mentioned that:
“the distinction between a content creator and a content consumer will get blurrier and blurrier. Just to be really concrete about that: Valve, we’re kind of a cocky company. We like to think we can compete with any company in the world. But the one entity we wouldn’t ever want to compete with is our own users. They’ve already outstripped us spectacularly. You can’t compete with them once you give them the tools that allow them to participate in the creation of the experiences that they find are valuable.”
With the ability to modify the source code of SteamOS, the potential for widespread innovation is high. This open environment means that the hardware industry can iterate in the living room at a much faster pace, content creators can work hand-in-hand with their customers, users can modify any aspects of the software or hardware they want, and gamers have an important participatory role to play in developing the games they most want to play.
A concern many have about the Linux-focused OS is that developers will be unwilling to port their titles.The market may be small right now. and many happily bring this up as a point of contention, but it is important to consider the future the machines will help create before concluding that the number of games is too small for wide-spread adoption of SteamOS. Who knows, we could even see a boutique industry created where studios focus on porting when developers do not have the time or resources to do it in-house.
The SteamOS also comes free, and removes the cost of a Window’s license, a strategy that will end up offering a highly competitive price incentive for consumers. This is both a business driven decision and an ideological one for Gabe, making it a product he and the rest of Valve is passionate about. This commitment and belief in what they are doing should be overlooked at your own peril.
Gabe has never been shy about his frustration with the business practices of Microsoft, and this announcement is the war cry to let the MS know their way of doing things is now legitimately threatened.
Windows OS has been getting in the way of game development in several ways for years, so SteamOS has a perfect opportunity to get rid itself of all the unnecessary aspects of an operating system that hurts performance and makes it a pain to work with. One of the main obstacles in Valve’s way is related to finding an alternative to the Windows-exclusive DirectX API, so this is whole scenario is easier said than done. But even so, there seem to be a lot of options for Valve as well, like OpenGL
They also must rely on companies like ATI or Nvidia to focus on improving their Linux drivers so that quality is never a concern.
But the biggest challenge is convincing consumers and developers to acknowledge that our future involves constantly evolving, dynamic hardware, operating on an open platform that encourages collaboration instead of competition. Should Valve be able to effectively communicate and implement their value proposition to their potential audience, betting against the visionary developer will become a risky affair.
¡Viva la Revolucion!
The time is right for Valve. The company has never been more popular among the PC community, their name recognition now extends well beyond the space, they have constant and lucrative revenue streams with which to invest in the Steam Machines, and are bound by a philosophy of openness and innovation. Add to this an entire organization of intelligent visionaries who make up the best of what the gaming industry has to offer, and you not only have a good thing going, you have the ability to revolutionize the way we consume entertainment.
To some, the announcement is just a piece of Linux-based hardware and a weird looking controller, but these people need to realize that Valve is operating many steps ahead of these announcements, and they have a strong idea of what must to be done in order for this massive undertaking to be a success.
The thing they need is for users to acknowledge their vision and provide the support. With a paradigm shift in public thought over the past few years towards an emphasis on freedom, liberty, and collaboration, this very “democratic” announcement could not have come at a better time.
Valve has officially turned into an iconoclast with this reveal, which suits the organization perfectly. While I respect the hardware, OS and controller, it is the way they are approaching the ‘problem’ that has me truly excited. Observing what has worked over the past 10 years among the greatest tech companies in the world, and taking a 180 degree turn in the opposite direction, could be considered insanity. But there is a fine line between genius and insanity, and Valve has been proving its genius since 1996. I do not see that changing.
The future according to Valve is one where the entire family uses a PC-focused, multi-screen device that allows each member to consume the entertainment they want in an accessible, convenient, and user-friendly manner. They want an ecosystem that pushes collaboration and creative empowerment, one where each user has the ability to make a profound effect on how we play. Valve can help reverse the trend of isolated competition stifling innovation, and create an open platform which helps bring individuals and communities together in a way that moves us closer to entertainment nirvana. They are certainly off to a good start.