With Sony and Microsoft releasing their long-awaited new consoles to the world this month, see our Xbox One vs PS4 comparison review, the battle for dominance in the living room has begun in earnest.
It came as quite a surprise when, on the eve of hostilities, game manufacturer Valve threw down a pretty hefty gauntlet: SteamOS. In the closing days of September the company, which is responsible for such games as Portal, Half-Life, and Defenders of the Ancients (DOTA), announced it had developed a new Linux-based operating system that it saw as the future of gaming.
See also: all game reviews
This was accompanied by the promise of dedicated hardware from multiple manufacturers, and a brand new controller with a plethora of buttons and no joysticks. This sort of announcement is usually met with the slow nodding head of certainty that within a couple of years all this will be forgotten. Valve, though, is a big deal, and while consoles may be under threat, the biggest victim might be Windows.
This new initiative from Valve comes shortly after it celebrated the ten-year anniversary of its Steam online gaming platform. Originally launched in September 2003 exclusively on Windows, Steam has since gone on to become the dominant force in PC gaming, with some estimates giving it 70 percent of the online market.
The service, which is famed for its price-slashing sales, has nearly 60 million members and offers around 3,000 games to purchase and download. With such a huge installed user base already heavily invested in the platform, Valve is in a unique position when it comes to selling the idea of a new hardware approach.
Of course the biggest challenge will be supplanting the already ensconced consoles that offer years of service without the need to upgrade components, install software, or read system requirement lists to work out whether or not your PC can run a game.
These inconveniences were some of the main reasons that PC gaming found itself taking a backseat as the games consoles strode forward to assume centre-stage. Although far from perfect, consoles also had the advantage of being relatively small and quiet compared to a large, noisy PC tower with its associated keyboard and mouse, so PCs tend to be relegated to the study or bedroom rather than used in the lounge.
Valve is conscious of these factors and has outlined reasons why gamers should look to SteamOS instead. It’s designed specifically for use as a gaming platform and pretty much nothing else. This means that everything is optimised for that one task, freeing system resources from the other considerations that a Windows machine is burdened by. Essentially, SteamOS allows you to have a small PC ‘games console’.
Valve has also been working on another feature within SteamOS where your game runs on your existing PC and is streamed to your TV via a ‘Steam Machine’. This is clever because it allows those who have already invested money in a gaming PC or laptop to bring their games out of the spare room and onto the main TV at little cost.
To tempt the classic PC player away from their more advanced control systems Valve has also developed the Steam Controller. This unconventional unit features two curved trackpads instead of joysticks, a touchscreen, and several additional buttons to the ones usually found on Xbox and PlayStation controllers. The reason for this redesign is to give PC gamers the finer levels of control that they expect from a mouse and keyboard. How it works remains to be seen, but if Valve can pull this off then it could provide a roadmap for the controllers of the future.
Although the Steam Machine hardware has yet to be revealed, Valve has said that it is working with several different partners who will release machines in 2014. There will be various options ‘optimised for size, price, quietness and other factors’, but one of the real strengths of the system is that users will be able to build their own PCs then install the Steam OS for free.
The existing online Steam service will also continue to operate on Windows, Mac and Linux in just the same as it always has. In many ways this compares to Google’s attitude to its Android mobile OS, which is now the most widely used platform in the mobile space.
The biggest hurdle of all is undoubtedly that of the games themselves. Developers are already set up to write for Windows, they have a marketplace, so why would they want to jump ship?
How this plays out will be the deciding factor in the Steam OS story, but Valve is bullish on this aspect, saying that hundreds of games already run natively on the OS and that big-name titles will be announced soon.
It also points to the streaming functionality that makes all games compatible in the short term. Of course, if Valve was to announce Half Life 3 as a Steam OS exclusive it would be very interesting to see how gamers react.
The real question about Valve’s switch to Linux though is why. The existing system has worked very well for years. There didn’t seem to be a groundswell of voices demanding the switch and game developers are hardly desperate to learn a whole new programming environment.
The answer seems to rest very much with Windows 8. Gabe Newell, Valve’s Managing Director, has been very public in his criticism of Microsoft’s troubled release. At a conference last year he said that “Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space”, and in his recent Linuxcon 2013 address he intimated that the OS had caused problems for the PC manufacturing industry and that “we'll see either significant restructuring or market exits by top five PC players. It's looking pretty grim”.
Some analysts point to the fact that the Windows 8 store would pose direct competition for Steam and that maybe this is a defensive posture by Valve to protect its business model. This would make sense, as Apple’s App Store is proving a very successful portal for software sales on the OS X platform and Microsoft will have taken careful note of the way it has performed.
But there is another, more troubling possibility. With more and more services heading online (such as Microsoft’s own Office365 suite), declining PC sales, and the continued rise of tablets, is it actually possible that industry figures are beginning to plan for life after Windows? Gaming has always been a strong feature of Windows computing, but even that is now dwindling against consoles, with PC revenues projected to be only a fifth of their living-room rivals in 2013.
Whether Steam OS and its proposed hardware makes a dent in the gaming market is still a huge question mark, with plenty of obstacles looming large for the fledgling system. User loyalty and a few key titles will get you only so far if it means a considerable upheaval for customers. One thing’s certain though: 2014 is going to be a fascinating glimpse at where the future of home computing is heading.