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Thoughts on the Future of Steam

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steam_logoLast week Valve rolled out teasers and announcements concerning their future plans for Steam. After a week of contemplation and speculation, I thought I would pen down some of my thoughts.

At first blush

I have to stress that these announcements were leaning closer to the teaser side. Specifics? There were none. Most of what Valve announced could fit within Twitter’s 140 character limit and you have the complete picture.

It felt like these announcements were premature and were drawn out for no good reason. Valve started with Steam OS, which was light on information already, and then moved onto something with even less info, the Steam Machines. On the bright side, the Steam Controller divulged the most information but it was also the one that caused the most ruckus on the forums.

Steam OS

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If you read Valve’s comments prior to the release of Windows 8, you should not be surprised by this move. The cause of their discontent over Windows 8 was the inclusion of this:

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If Microsoft ever flexed its muscle and mandated all applications had to go through the Windows Store, Valve and Steam would not be in a favorable position. Even if Microsoft didn’t mandate this, the inclusion of the Windows Store still offers Microsoft an advantage for selling applications. The Windows Store may not be a roaring success now but who knows what will happen in the future.

It’s not a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket and Valve realized this. They were looking into this issue for awhile now and have been addressing it with the release of Mac and Linux Steam clients. The next logical step was to create a viable gaming centric operating system for developers and consumers to rally behind.

We know Steam OS is Linux powered but which distribution did they spin off from? Did they do all the hard work themselves and packaged their own distribution from scratch? Unfortunately Valve were not willing to divulge this basic info.

On the bright side, others have rallied behind the renewed Linux gaming effort. NVIDIA have given lip service to improving their Linux drivers and AMD are developing a low level API for their GPUs in “Mantle“. Whether or not any of this will help bring more games to Linux remains to be seen but it is a start.

Valve were willing to claim improved gaming performance but without firm commitments from third party developers, all the performance improvements in the world will not help games running only on Windows.

To help with that limited library and help bring PC games into the living room, Steam OS will stream Windows or Mac compatible games over my home network. That sounds good in theory but I am concerned about the latency. It seems everyone is getting in on this home game streaming but will it actually end up as a viable alternative?

The nitty gritty details are scarce but it’s nice to know Valve is doing something to address the Linux gaming situation.

Steam Machines

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After going over the Steam Machines announcement, I couldn’t help but think of Microsoft’s Major Nelson Twitter post that he directed at Sony earlier this year:

Announce a console without actually showing a console? That’s one approach

I can forgive the lack of physical box shown for a single console launch but how can Valve not show one of their Steam Machine variants? They even have one which they developed for themselves.

What’s more vexing is the lack of specifications or pricing targets. What are they aiming for? We know that they’re supposed to be “living room machines” but that includes everything from $50 media streaming boxes to $1000+ gaming centric ITX boxes.

I’m also very curious who the manufacturers of these machines will be. Will it be Dell, HP and their ilk? They’ve never shown long commitments to Linux efforts on the consumer front. Dell still has a single XPS 13 Ultrabook on their catalog but that was stashed away in their “Work” section.

Or will it be the more enthusiast centric players like ASUS, MSI and Falcon Northwest? I can see a future of cheap streaming centric Steam Machines from the likes of ASUS and at the same time, I can see an $1800 gaudy rig from Falcon Northwest as well.

If Valve managed to convince all of those hardware manufacturers to at least give Steam OS a shot, that would be wonderful; a more competitive landscape is great for consumers. I also hope they’re priced competitively. The last thing I want to see is a $300 streaming centric Steam Machine. That would be the definition of dead on arrival in my books.

In my mind, it’s the streaming function of a Steam Machine that would be appealing to most users of Steam today. It’s the one box that would allow people to access and play most of their Steam library and then some.

But what about a more expensive option? I can see a ~$1000 gaming centric Steam Machine being an attractive proposition if it were cheaper than a Windows equivalent machine (due to lack of Windows license) and came bundled with one of those new fangled Steam controllers.

Steam Controller

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Where the Steam OS and Machine appear to be attempts to fit in, the Steam Controller appears to be an attempt to conquer both the keyboard & mouse and traditional controller.

Traditional gamepads force us to accept compromises. We’ve made it a goal to improve upon the resolution and fidelity of input that’s possible with those devices. The Steam controller offers a new and, we believe, vastly superior control scheme, all while enabling you to play from the comfort of your sofa. Built with high-precision input technologies and focused on low-latency performance, the Steam controller is just what the living-room ordered.

I wasn’t a fan of Valve’s messaging surrounding the controller. Trying to attack what traditional controllers are known for was a mistake. There are those who prefer directional pads and traditional buttons on the right hand side. They should have kept their sights on the keyboard & mouse problem and left it like that.

Whole genres of games that were previously only playable with a keyboard and mouse are now accessible from the sofa. RTS games. Casual, cursor-driven games. Strategy games. 4x space exploration games. A huge variety of indie games. Simulation titles. And of course, Euro Truck Simulator 2.

Messaging aside, I hope Valve finally bridges the gap between mouse & keyboard and the controller. However, regardless of input method, there are games out there that just aren’t made for the big screen. There are UI elements that need to be reworked for the big screen. And sometimes, games utilize assets that were made for a more intimate personal viewing experience.

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Still, I am very curious how this wacky looking controller will fare with games that were made with it in mind.

The Steam Service

Google has many services under its belt. Gmail, YouTube, Google Search and any number of the Google owned services were all created to do one thing: keep people using their services and expose them to ads. A vast majority of Google’s revenues come from their advertising ($43 out of the $46 billion in 2012). So you can see why it’s important for them to do whatever it takes to draw people into using their services.

Valve is after the same thing but their business isn’t in selling ad space; it’s selling games. And like Google, Valve is doing whatever it can to keep Steam lucrative for businesses and attractive for consumers. The Steam OS and Steam Machines could be viewed as Android/Chrome OS and Nexus/Chromebooks.

Obviously, Valve would like both of those products to evolve into Android and Nexus but that doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that Valve is casting out a wider net and giving people ways to play the games they want in their living rooms. If these Steam Machines can direct the funds of just a few hundred people from the console manufacturers in 2014, it would be an early success.

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