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Cloudy With A Chance Of Steam

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With Valve’s recent announcements that SteamOS is coming and, indeed, hardware will be running it sooner, rather than later, read on to find out why you should be Officially Excited about this, and what it could mean for the future of gaming.

For a while now we’ve been in a gaming oligopoly. Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox have been the dominant console players for over a decade, trailed by Nintendo’s Wii/Wii-U and now 2DS/3DS. It wasn’t so long ago that there was a third heavy hitter in the mix, namely Sega. Sadly, Sega departed the hardware business in 2001 to become a third-party developer following disappointing sales of its Dreamcast console in Japan. This removal of such a big hardware creator, who had previously had such hits as the Master System and the Mega Drive (called the Genesis in North America), left a big vacuum. Sony aggressively pushed the PlayStation 2 then the PlayStation 3, Microsoft followed up its Xbox with the Xbox 360, and the rest is history.

I yearn for a console without right angles

Stage left, enter Valve. Rumours swirled for a number of years that they were developing some kind of “Steam Box” in order to migrate your Steam library to the living room in a small PC-based console. “Big Picture Mode” was seemingly the first step in this process, getting people used to being able to play games and navigate the Steam UI on larger displays, such as flatscreen TVs. Thanks to Valve’s recent announcements, we now know much more about what exactly their future plans are.

The first big thing is that Valve are creating an entirely new operating system. Known as SteamOS, it will be Linux-based (so therefore open-source) and Valve will be giving it away for free, meaning that if you wished to you could make your own LAN box and install SteamOS on it, giving you instant access to your Steam library wherever you wished.

That’s good for the tinkerers, but many people are drawn to consoles specifically because they don’t have to do anything like that, they just plug them in and go. Valve have this market segment in mind too, since there will be pre-built “Steam Machines” available which will essentially be exactly that. Third-party developers will make their own hardware with SteamOS pre-installed, meaning that you can literally plug them in and start gaming, exactly as consoles function now. Even better, there will be different hardware configurations and different manufacturers actively making them; competition should allow prices to remain reasonable but consumers will actually get to choose what hardware and features they want in their particular Steam Machine. Right now you can choose the size of your hard drive for the existing consoles (sometimes), but that’s about it.

Finally, Valve are also redesigning controllers, which have remained fairly static for almost a decade. Gone are analogue joysticks, replaced by two touch-sensitive trackpads on the left and right, with a combined touchscreen/LCD panel between them from which you can swipe through various actions before “clicking” to make your selection. There’s no need to divert your attention from your game to use this touchscreen, since it will be overlaid across your game as you use it. I am a diehard mouse and keyboard gamer and this controller has me very interested indeed. It seems to be one of the first to actually redesign the controller from the ground up, instead of accepting what has been the de facto standard all of these years, with the familiar double joysticks, shoulder buttons, and then more buttons everywhere else.

Valve actually carved the Steam logo into the Moon as a promotional stunt. They also painted the Moon purple

Three hundred early prototype units will be handed out by Valve early next year to lucky Steam users who have expressed an interest, with production units following later in 2014. SteamOS, Steam Machines and their redesigned controllers could be the “killer app” that breaks the PC into people’s living rooms in a big way. PC games tend to be cheaper, run at higher resolutions with more visual fidelity, and are usually mod-able in ways console games are not. Couple this with Valve’s savvy business acumen and maybe this could be the industry shake-up we’ve been promised for a few years. Other potential consoles have promised great things but wound up failing to deliver; the Ouya (an Android-based micro-console), for example, has had several issues since its recent launch, the Nokia N-Gage just plain sucked, and Sony managed not one but two of their own misfires, first with the PSP Go and then the PSP Vita, both receiving extremely lukewarm receptions from critics and consumers alike.

Will the Steam Machine become a Wii, or an Atari Lynx? Certainly the innovation seems to be there, but it will depend on whether Valve can manage to capture the attention of people who would usually gravitate towards either a PlayStation or Xbox as to whether this will be a success. I feel the industry is ripe for another major player, and hope that Valve’s Steam Machine will be the Chosen One to lead us out of the darkness (of the bedroom) into the light (of the living room). Viva la revolution!

Simon Nash
I write about PC games and sometimes it even makes sense. I'm a refined Englishman, but live in Texas with my two young children whom I am training in the ways of the Force.

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