The amazing Valve strategy, part 2

[Here is part 1]

So now we know about Steam Machines and the Steam Controller, both of which are in beta testing phase along with the earlier announced SteamOS.  You’re probably confused, so let me try to explain why this makes perfect sense, and why it’s great.

steam_controller

The Steam Controller allows for mouse speed and precision, according to Valve and those who’ve tried it

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The first thing you need to realize is that Valve is not trying to make the next PlayStation.  Valve is trying to forcefully detach the idea of PC gaming from the Windows environment, plain and simple.  They want developers, gamers, and technology companies to realize that unless they migrate toward supporting a free, open system like Linux, they will get outmaneuvered by Android.  Yes, that’s right, I believe the real competition is not the Xbox One or the PS4, but Google’s explosive mobile platform.  Android is threatening to replace traditional operating systems because its so simple and open, and I’d say machines like the Ouya prove that there’s theoretical demand for a console powered by it already, so if rumors about Google or Amazon releasing their own Android consoles are true, developers would flock to it.  However, they’d all end up facing the same problems Valve are trying to solve on their own right now: control methods, upgradability, big name support, and core appeal.  Valve wants the philanthropic Linux to beat Microsoft’s Windows and Google’s Android.  It’s a tough challenge, but they are being smart.

You see, the “war for the living room” doesn’t seem to make sense until you realize it’s actually a war for content creators.  We know the traditional Windows/PC market is a shrinking, and mobile is still exploding.  The tech world has already declared the PC dead for this reason — they want everybody to just forget about the ongoing potential of the PC and move on.  And they have a point: something easier, faster, and cooler needs to replace the traditional PC.  Right now everybody’s talking about tablets, phablets, phones, and weird laptop hybrids.  But I think SteamOS sounds like a much better candidate.  Besides the track record of Valve and the existing library of software, it’s got a massive built-in community which happens to be passionate about modding, content creation, incentives for involvement, and buying stuff at a great price.  That’s attractive to a content creator, and Valve knows it needs to get rid of all the bottlenecks such as Steam Greenlight.  Add the decision to let content creators spread the profit around so that even those who made the tools they use will get a piece of the pie, and you’ve got a recipe for happy creators.

“A powerful new category of living-room hardware is on the horizon.”    –Steam Machine page, emphasis mine

Hardware is another matter.  Valve says their machines are a “new category” of hardware, and we shouldn’t take this statement lightly.  It won’t be a console or a traditional PC, but it will be something nice and powerful that can be easily upgraded down the road.  Best of both worlds if you ask me.  You don’t need SteamOS to use these machines, and you don’t need to use the machines with SteamOS; that’s because Valve knows that hackers will always win, so you may as well be their friends.

Nobody knows what kind of business model Valve is hammering out with its hardware and software partners, but we all know that they aren’t a corporation.  They don’t do things in corporate fashion.  They don’t have to convince shareholders every fiscal quarter, or pander to the trends of the market, they just have to cut through bullshit and please real customers like you and me.  In Gabe we trust.

 

The controller

I mentioned that one of the challenges that anyone (including Google and others) face when trying to design a living room machine is the controller.  Touchscreens and hand-waving are the best people can come up with right now.  Both of these input methods are inaccurate, slow, and oversimplified, but we’ve compensated for this by buying into a whole school of design built around these problems, and better yet, we’re willing to learn silly gestures and voice commands if we need to.  We’re programmable that way.  What is the future?  We don’t consciously realize it, but the tech world’s idiotic pipe dream of a neural VR interface that hooks directly into our brain is just a coping mechanism to convince ourselves that all the crap we’re putting up with today are simply growing pains, as we strive for something amazing and actually intuitive.

The Steam Controller is a step in the opposite direction, which is a very big risk.  It’s a real piece of physical engineering, finely tuned and very flexible to programmers.  The wisdom of our day says that “simple is better”, no doubt about it.  This article says it might end up being “the Homer of controllers”.  And while I share the same fears as everyone else, the early reports are positive.

Within five minutes of picking it up, I went from newbie to controlling an FPS camera better than I’d ever done with a gamepad.

Valve will need to follow the classic example of Nintendo and use their first-party titles show off how viable it is.  I don’t think the point is to have anyone make stuff that can only be played with the Steam Controller, but rather to make the ultimate PC controller.  To this end, they’ve already shown us how Portal 2 could be played using “mouse and keyboard” inputs…

You can see that the left track pad has “WDSA” and “LShift” bound to it at the same time, depending on where you move your thumb.  The right track pad has mouse looking and “E” (the use button) when you click it.

It’s safe to say that interface-heavy games that have tons of key bindings couldn’t be ported over easily.  But maybe that’s fine.  I think it’s missing the point to say that every PC game should be playable with this thing, as long as most games work like a charm.

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