Are Valve and AMD about to ruin PC gaming?


— 12:25 PM on October 11, 2013

When the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were announced earlier this year, I saw it as a victory for the PC.

Soon, it seemed, bringing major blockbusters to the PC would be easier than ever. There would be three major gaming platforms—the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One, and the Windows PC—and each one would be only a slight twist on the same basic formula. Each one would feature an x86 processor, a DirectX 11 graphics chip, and its own, custom-tailored operating system. How could it get any simpler?

It couldn't. Instead, it got more complicated.

Last month, Valve announced SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system built around the eponymous game distribution service. SteamOS will show up on a whole lineup of Steam machines next year, and although it will let users stream games from Windows PCs, it will also run games natively. On the operating system's reveal page, Valve teases, "Watch for announcements in the coming weeks about all the AAA titles coming natively to SteamOS in 2014." In other words, big, third-party publishers may soon offer games for both Windows and SteamOS.

On the heels of Valve's announcement, AMD revealed Mantle, an API that lets developers optimize games for AMD hardware. Unlike Valve, AMD wasn't shy about naming one of its partners. A version of EA's Battlefield 4 optimized for Mantle will be released in December, not long after the game's scheduled October 29 debut. Other partners will no doubt follow, as will other titles.

Now, all of a sudden, next year's gaming landscape looks to be shaping up very differently. Instead of three major platforms based on a common hardware architecture, game developers will face two monolithic platforms and a fragmented one—the PC—that will have two starkly different operating systems and three different APIs—Direct3D, OpenGL, and Mantle.

SteamOS will complicate things by virtue of its existence. I wouldn't be surprised to see it become so successful that games must be ported to it, yet not successful enough to dislodge Windows completely. If that happens, then developers will have no choice but to support both Windows and Valve's operating system. This will mean extra work. Given the funding and time restrictions game studios often grapple with, we may see longer delays between console and PC releases as a result—not to mention lower-quality ports.

Mantle is kind of a double-edged sword, as well. While it may simplify some facets of cross-platform development, allowing console optimizations to be shared with the PC, Mantle may also encourage developers to prioritize AMD hardware at the expense of Nvidia GPUs and ever-faster Intel IGPs. In a worst-case scenario, non-AMD systems will end up delivering a second-rate experience, with worse performance, worse image quality, and more bugs.

This could all make PC gaming somewhat daunting to newcomers. Today, buying a decently powerful PC opens up access to a huge library of games, from point-and-click adventure titles to the latest cross-platform shooters. Next year, things will be different. Because of SteamOS, not all gaming PCs will be able to run all PC games, unless one is prepared to install a second operating system. And because of Mantle, buying a machine with a GPU from the wrong vendor could mean missing out on critical optimizations.

Now, don't get me wrong. SteamOS and Mantle also have the potential to do great things for the PC. Microsoft's custodianship of the platform has been marred by stagnation and split loyalties, and Valve could do a far better job, especially in the living room. Mantle may also enable optimizations that let PCs match or surpass the performance of next-gen consoles more easily. That could make PC gaming more, not less accessible, even if buying an AMD GPU is required.

Nevertheless, I think it's a dangerous time to tinker with the PC gaming formula. We're on the verge of a new console cycle, and the PS4 and Xbox One are about to reduce the PC's performance and image quality lead by a long shot. Next-gen consoles will likely be more affordable than comparable gaming PCs, as well. If the PC becomes too fragmented, and if playing games on this platform becomes too complicated, then I fear we'll see many folks take the easy road and switch to a console.

There's always been talk about innovations on the console front spelling doom for PC gaming, and it's never been true. Today, however, I worry that innovations from within the PC camp are threatening the platform. At a time when the line between PCs and consoles is getting blurrier than ever, too much fragmentation could damage the platform beyond repair. And PC titans like AMD and Valve would only have themselves to blame.

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