How SteamOS will bring PC games to the living room

Rise of the machines

Sales always attract customers, but the news this week that Valve Corporation’s digital distribution platform Steam hit an all-time record of more than eight million concurrent players offered a timely reminder of how the service has changed PC gaming in the last decade. With a total userbase topping 75 million, Valve has revolutionised how PC gamers get hold of their games. Now it’s keen to redefine where they’re played.

The unexpectedly huge success of Steam’s Big Picture Mode has seemingly accelerated Valve’s desire to push forward with its plans to challenge consoles’ dominance of the living room. As much as anything else, it’s a psychological shift, moving PC gaming away from the desktop - and, by extension, the workplace - and towards a more social, inclusive experience.

The more family-friendly focus of Valve’s plan is evident in the family sharing features of its new operating system. On SteamOS, each family member will be able to play one another’s games (there will be parental locks for age-restricted titles, of course) while earning their own Steam achievements and cloud-saving their individual game progress. In other words, your 60-hour XCOM save file has a substantially better chance of not being overwritten.

"It’s clear that Valve sees Apple and Google as its main competitors rather than Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo"

Valve says that hundreds of games are already running natively on SteamOS, but those with large existing collections will be able to stream games from their current PC to any Steam Machine, along with music, TV and movies. It’s clear that Valve sees Apple and Google as its main competitors rather than Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo – managing director Gabe Newell believes the two Californian giants have a bigger chance of dominating the living room over the next few years, and admits Valve is keen to get there first.

Of course, if Valve wants to do just that, it first needs to get more hardware underneath TV sets. To which end, it has partnered with a number of manufacturers, from Alienware to Zotac, each of which has very different ideas for the kind of device players would like to see replace or supplement their existing game consoles. A small form factor is a common link, but otherwise they vary greatly in specifications and price: iBuyPower’s tiny box will retail for just $500 while the price for Falcon Northwest’s “fully loaded” machine – squeezing 6TB of storage and a GeForce TITAN into a unit just 4 inches wide – is said to be in the area of $6000.

Then there’s the matter of configurability. Most of the manufacturers Valve has partnered with have said their units will will be user-upgradable, but the likes of Alienware have said their hardware will instead be updated on an annual basis: you’ll have options for CPU speed and storage space, but beyond that you’ll be unable to update it. That said, there are plenty of people who’ll happily invest in a new iPad every year, and your game collection will naturally still be there if and when you choose to buy a new box.

Over a year in development, the Steam controller is currently undergoing rigorous testing, with Valve promising tweaks based on user feedback.

There is a risk that so many different models will confuse consumers, potentially affecting its mass-market penetration, while the initial prices of even a mid-range Steam Machine could be off-putting for all but the most serious gamers at this stage. And yet the costs will inevitably come down over time, while the evident performance increases over Windows will make SteamOS instantly appealing to existing players who use their PC primarily for gaming. Having improved visual performance, Valve is now targeting improved audio and is attempting to reduce input latency still further. “Game developers are already taking advantage of these gains as they target SteamOS for their new releases,” is the official line, suggesting that Valve is working with publishers to ensure that all future games will run natively on the new operating system.

If the benefits are obvious from a technical standpoint, it’s also worth considering what this means for PC games in a broader sense. Big Picture mode is already exposing PC gaming to a wider audience, allowing what was previously a solitary pursuit to feel much more social. Whether you’re playing with friends or family, you now have an audience for single-player games, while already indie developers are capitalising on the increased demand for local multiplayer with the likes of Towerfall: Ascension and Nidhogg - and you can be sure that larger publishers will follow suit, particularly if the Steam Machines are an instant hit. Couch co-op has traditionally been the domain of the console, but perhaps that won’t be the case for much longer.

"The Steam controller combines the convenience of a console pad with the precision of mouse and keyboard"

And then there’s Valve’s other potential revolution to consider: the Steam controller. It’s designed to combine the convenience of a console pad with the precision of mouse and keyboard controls. Valve claims that its two circular trackpads “allow far higher fidelity input than has previously been possible with traditional handheld controllers”, and while initial reactions have ranged from enthusiastic to sceptical, it’s encouraging that Valve is prepared to delay the launch of the Steam Machines in order to ensure the best possible experience for users.

In the meantime, if you want a prototype Steam Machine of your own and you’ve got a PC with 4GB of RAM or more and 500GB of hard drive space – and don’t mind everything on there being wiped – you can download the SteamOS beta right now.

It’s a shame we’re going to have to wait a little longer for this potential new dawn for PC gaming, but as Shigeru Miyamoto once quipped “a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad”, and the same applies to hardware. Valve has a strong reputation to keep and wants to make sure it’s properly ready to bring PC gaming to the living room rather than release a sub-standard product that might forever harm its potential of breaking away from the desktop. And, given how radically it has changed the face of PC games in the last decade, only a fool would bet against Valve repeating the trick over the next ten years.