That's not a Steam console; it's a Steam PC

Slowly but surely, Valve's plans for Steam in the living room are coming into focus. On Monday, we learned about SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system that will stream games from local PCs. On Wednesday, Valve revealed that a range of SteamOS-powered machines will be available from different hardware vendors. Another announcement is scheduled for Friday morning. Details about a new kind of input device are expected.

I'm curious about what sort of controller Valve may have devised. Company chief Gabe Newell has expressed an interest in wearable devices before. Valve has also worked with the folks at Sixense, whose motion control tech can be found in the PlayStation Move and Razer Hydra. Steam machines will work with standard gamepads, though, so I've made up my mind already. There's definitely a Steam box in my future.

To be fair, that's not going to be much of a stretch. I already have a gaming PC hooked up to my TV. Throwing SteamOS on a rig should be easy, especially since the gaming-optimized OS will be free of charge. The SteamOS source code will be available, too. Open-source software gives me the same warm, fuzzy feeling I get when shopping at a farmer's market or eating quinoa.

SteamOS is also free to license. If the DIY approach isn't for you, there will be pre-built systems from multiple vendors, at multiple price points, and with varying levels of performance. Some of these machines will likely be inexpensive offerings designed mostly for indie games and less demanding titles. These systems will still be capable of streaming the latest blockbusters from a more powerful PC, though.

I can even envision more basic boxes designed primarily with streaming in mind. Nvidia's Project Shield handheld can stream PC games using an ARM-based Tegra4 SoC, and Nvidia has been collaborating with Valve on SteamOS. If the streaming tech is good enough, you could get by with a powerful desktop rig and a SteamOS-based extender for that system. Such a setup would be a lot more economical than maintaining a separate gaming PC for the living room.

At the other end of the spectrum, I expect high-end Steam machines will rival the best gaming PCs available right now. In fact, they may even surpass the fastest Windows boxes. Valve claims to have achieved "significant performance increases in graphics processing" on Linux, and it's working on optimizing audio and input latency. At least for native titles, SteamOS may offer a better experience than running the same games on Windows.

Just to be clear, Valve hasn't abandoned Windows. "Everything that we've been doing on Steam for the last 10 years will continue to move forward," the company says, and it will bring SteamOS's game streaming, media services, sharing options, and family profiles to the standard Steam client. You'll be able to install Windows on Steam machines, too—though presumably not on ARM-based variants, if such specimens do exist.

Some might view the range of Steam box possibilities as a fragmented nightmare. In some ways, it's the antithesis to the one-size-fits-all attitude that permeates the console industry. But I'm thrilled that we didn't get a single Steam console. We got something much better instead: a purpose-built platform to make PC gaming at home in the living room.

We shouldn't have expected anything less from Valve, which has long exploited the best things about the PC platform to the benefit of gamers. It harnessed the power of the Internet early, creating a digital distribution platform that fundamentally changed how most of us buy games. Steam got off to a rough start, and there are some who will always sneer at the fact that it incorporates DRM, but the service has become incredibly refined over the past decade. Nothing on the PC really compares right now, and Valve already has a Big Picture interface primed for big-screen TVs.

Another PC perk—and something you don't get with consoles—is a robust platform for content creation. Mods have long been a hallmark of PC gaming, and Valve has a history of supporting them. Heck, it even hired the folks behind Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, two of the most pivotal mods from back in the day. More recently, Valve created the Steam Workshop, an online marketplace for user-generated content. Creators get a cut of the proceeds, and Valve has already paid out over $10 million to people who have sold items through the Workshop.

If Valve can create an economy around Team Fortress 2 hats, just imagine what it could do with a content conduit for your television. Valve is already working with "many of the media services you know and love" to bring music, movies, and TV shows to Steam. It also has the systems and infrastructure in place to curate and distribute other forms of media itself. Hmmm.

Valve's engagement with the community isn't limited to fostering content development, of course. Steam has become a hub for gaming discussion, and it has a whole social networking aspect that Valve mercifully doesn't beat you over the head with. Then there's the Greenlight program, which gamers have a say in which titles appear on Steam's virtual shelves.

Now, Valve is bringing the community into the development process of SteamOS. 300 people will be lucky enough to receive the initial Steam box prototype. They'll be encouraged to share their experiences with the community in any way they see fit, and Valve has set up a discussion group to solicit feedback from the public at large. I get the feeling Valve is genuinely interested in what we have to say on the subject. That gives me another warm, fuzzy feeling.

Now, don't get me wrong. Valve's planned expansion of the so-called Steam Universe isn't all about giving PC gamers a perfect system to hook up to their televisions. It's also about making Steam the default distribution service for gaming on another set of screens—and for a potentially much larger audience. And I'm okay with that. Valve has earned the praise heaped upon it by gamers, and there's no one else to take PCs into the living room. You don't expect Microsoft to throw its weight behind anything that might compete with the Xbox, do you? Microsoft has been a poor custodian of PC gaming in general, and I trust the folks at Valve more than I do the minds in Redmond.

Well, I don't trust anyone at Valve who says anything about release dates. Or Half-Life 3. But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that SteamOS isn't part of an evil plan for world domination.

Important questions still remain about SteamOS and the machines designed for it:

  • Will competing distribution services like Origin be allowed to run on SteamOS? The open nature of the operating system suggests they will, but we don't know for sure.
  • What will the hardware support be like for DIY rigs? Pre-built Steam machines shouldn't have issues, but it could be a pain to get SteamOS working properly on different hardware. It would be nice if there were some sort of certification program for SteamOS-approved components.
  • How easy will it be to dual-boot SteamOS and Windows on the same machine? Steam has a limited selection of native Linux games, and even with blockbusters promised next year, it's unrealistic to expect the native library to be sufficient for most folks. Which brings me to the big question...
  • Just how good is the game streaming? This will likely be a make-or-break feature for a lot of folks who already own gaming desktops, and we don't know if there are any associated latency or image quality penalties attached to the scheme. At least we can take some comfort in Valve's assertion that "all your Windows and Mac games" will work with streaming.

Something tells me the next reveal won't provide answers to all those questions. But I'll be hitting F5 at 10AM Pacific Time tomorrow to find out, and I'll be downloading SteamOS as soon as it's available to try things out for myself. Hopefully, my optimism and enthusiasm haven't been misplaced.

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