SteamOS. We’ve been hearing rumblings about this for over a year now, and we’re finally on the cusp of learning what Valve’s grand scheme is. The trouble with this is that a lot of people are simply unaware of what exactly Valve is trying to accomplish (besides entering the console market). This post is designed to give people a better understanding of the potential direction that Valve is currently heading in.
Who is Valve? Although ubiquitous to most, I still find myself having to explain to a lot of people who Valve is, and why they are currently in the position they are in. Here’s a bit of Valve History 101: Formed in 1996 by two former Microsoft employees, Valve has been a dominant force in the PC gaming industry for over a decade. Under their belt, they have some of the highest rated and bestselling games in the world. Half-Life 2 is still the gold standard for single-player FPS games. Team Fortress 2 is genre-defining class based multiplayer. Counter-Strike is probably the most competitive FPS game ever conceived. Portal 2 is one of the most imaginative and well-designed games of the last five years. DOTA2 is currently taking the entire world by storm, one million dollar tournament at a time. At the center of all of this is Steam.
Steam was originally created as a means to apply updates to Valve’s games in an efficient way. Despite the Internet’s universal love for Steam today, it did have a rocky start. In the last decade, Steam has gone from intrusive auto-patcher to premiere marketplace for PC gaming. Steam is currently home to more than 50 million active users, and it is believed that nearly 75% of all digital PC game sales happen through Steam’s marketplace. Steam is the service that Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network aspire to be. While Steam is far from perfect, it has an unbelievable wealth of content, features and options. Valve has a stranglehold on PC gaming – and I mean that in the best way possible. They’ve saturated their market and are looking to expand into new territory.
SteamOS is a two-pronged approach for Valve. By making a more living room-friendly gaming operating system, Valve aims to capture a chunk of the console market by offering a greater amount of freedom than Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo currently allow. By having a unified platform for third parties to target, Valve is inviting people to make Linux ports of their games. The current state of gaming on Linux isn’t that great. There are currently ~200 games on Steam that natively support Linux, and most of them are smaller titles. When developers start targeting SteamOS and SteamBox devices, that will increase the number of native Linux games by a huge amount. What about older games without Linux support? If you have amassed a sizable Steam library, there’s no need to fear. Any computer can use SteamOS and play your entire library of games – provided you still have a desktop. What SteamOS allows you to do is stream your games over LAN. Remember NVidia’s Shield system? This will serve the same purpose (but rather than streaming to a handheld device, it will stream to your SteamOS device). You now have access to Steam’s full library of content on your TV (sort of like Gaikai, but better).
Why is Valve making such a push towards Linux? The short answer is to retain control of their platform. The long answer involves some speculation into what Microsoft plans on doing to Windows in the next ten years. Right now, PC developers such as Valve are at the mercy of Microsoft. Even if they never directly interfere, there is always the threat that they will take Windows in some bold new direction. We’ve seen the start of that future with Windows 8. Many people see Windows 8 as the beginning of the end of the desktop computer. With a large focus on touch-screen interfaces, mobile-friendly content and the Windows Store, there is a looming fear that Microsoft will eventually close off the Windows ecosystem and turn it into something like iOS, where the only legal way to distribute applications for the system is through Microsoft’s storefront. If that happens, the era of the Windows PC is essentially over. SteamOS and popularizing Linux as a gaming platform is a preemptive strike against this possibility. If all this seems rather strange, here is an easy way to think about it: Valve is creating a safety net for PC gaming. In the event that Microsoft does something astronomically stupid in the next 10-12 years, Valve will already have a solution in place. If Microsoft never chooses to wall off Windows, then this simply exists as an alternative to Windows for PC gaming.
What about that SteamBox thing? At the time of writing, the SteamBox has not been officially announced. The rest of this paragraph is my own speculation. Treat it as such. I believe that Valve is doing to consoles what Google did to phones. A SteamBox will be a Valve-issued branding that OEMs can slap on a PC to indicate that it meets Valve’s certifications as a gaming platform. There will be a variety of different SteamBoxes to choose from, ranging from an entry level low-profile device built primarily for small games and streaming, to a high-end gaming PC that will be able to max out the year’s best looking titles. If this is not the case, then we can expect to have something more like Google’s Nexus devices. Every year, Valve will partner with a different OEM to produce that year’s SteamBox. For example, Valve could partner with ASUS for the initial 2014 SteamBox. It could feature a GTX 760, an 8-core CPU and 8 GB of RAM. It will be mass produced and cost around $600. This would serve as a direct competitor to the PS4 and Xbox One. You can expect to play games at a similar level of graphical fidelity as you would on PS4 and Xbox One, maybe even more. An added bonus of this is that this device can also serve as a general purpose computing machine. You can do your homework on it. You can use it as a desktop computer. You can literally do anything you want with this device, and it doesn’t cost much more than a PS4 or Xbox One. The best part is that it’s not a static box. Every year we will see a new iteration of the SteamBox from a different vendor with new features and new hardware. People suffering from the mid-generation stagnation will have an alternative. From now on, you don’t need to stick with your 5 year old console while you wait for the new one. You also won’t have to spend >$1000 to reap the benefits of PC gaming. Valve is creating a beautiful middle ground.
What if I’m already content with PC gaming? How does this affect me? If you’re like me, you’re the type of person that loves having a big, fancy desktop PC. You love all the freedom that PC gaming offers you. You might also be thinking that all this SteamOS hullaballoo doesn’t really mean a whole heck of a lot to you. To put it bluntly: SteamOS isn’t made for you. It’s made for console gamers that want an easier transition into PC gaming. The real meat and potatoes of this is that Linux can be a better platform for PC gaming than Windows ever was. The problem with Linux gaming right now is that it has very little support from NVidia and AMD because there is very little demand for it. Suddenly, there is a big demand for it. All the people that have used Linux in the past will tell you how much better and faster it is than Windows. This is generally true. Windows is fundamentally slower than Linux because of all the legacy code and layers of abstraction it carries with it from version to version. Linux will allow developers to aggressively optimize their game in a similar way to consoles, freeing up a lot of power for better graphics or greater performance on lower end machines.
Good lord, what does this all mean? What we’re seeing right now could be the start of a major disruption in the gaming industry. It’s no longer a three-way war. Valve has waged war on Windows and traditional consoles. Valve has potentially solved many of the issues that plague both PC and console gaming. Anyone opposed to this revolution should consider themselves misinformed. There are far-reaching implications for the entire industry that will become more apparent in the years to come. Console gamers will benefit from having a fourth alternative to the Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo oligopoly. Having Steam in the living room means that the big three now have to compete with Steam’s pricing (which could mean more deals and cheaper games for everyone). PC gamers and people willing-but-wary of PC gaming will now have a breadth of new options to choose from. People content with their current situation are not being forced into anything against their will.
How much of this will actually happen? Who knows? It’ll be an interesting few years. Get your popcorn ready.