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.
In my Next-Gen Hopes article, I mentioned that I hoped the “Steam Box” would ultimately be the winner of the next generation of consoles. Gabe Newell’s ambition to save PC gaming from the blundering greed of Microsoft is much more important than bragging rights in a “console war” that lasts for a few years and then becomes irrelevant.
SteamOS is a real operating system designed to not only replace your keyboard and mouse with a controller, but do it in a way that looks comfortable at a distance on a big screen. Here’s why SteamOS is an interesting proposition:
1. As it stands, Steam runs on top of Windows (or Mac, or Linux) which hogs a certain percent of the computer’s power for itself in the background. But SteamOS wouldn’t run on top of anything, so it uses 100% of the computer’s resources for itself and the games. This means less waiting for a game to load, less overheating, and more efficiency overall. Anyone who suffered with Windows Vista knows how big a difference a shitty OS can make when you want to play something. Of course SteamOS won’t do nearly as many things as Windows does, but why should it? It’s for games and multimedia, not setting up an office network with a shared printer.
2. Windows has always been an open platform, but Windows 8 is threatening to move toward a “walled garden” system, which is terrible news for PC users. Right now you or I can create programs for Windows and share them with everybody else, or download stuff freely. And we take this for granted. But it seems Microsoft would like to become the one who dictates what is and isn’t acceptable on Windows, which is why SteamOS needs to exist, to be a safe haven for developers who don’t want to bargain with the devil. 100% free.
3. Being designed “for the living room” means the buttons on the screen will be large, simple, and easy to see at a distance. Steam’s “Big Picture Mode” already does this well, and can be navigated by a gamepad or a traditional mouse/keyboard. They even have their own on-screen keyboard for typing with a controller, which is… interesting. The emphasis on “living room” is because people who hook up their PC’s to their TV’s are always squinting and trying to find the cursor, having a super high resolution and tiny interface designed to be seen up close, on a monitor. It’s about ease of use. Turn on the system, SteamOS loads up, and suddenly you have access to all your stuff in a clear and cozy display — like a gaming console!
4. Each and every computer running SteamOS is supposed to be able to relay signals to and from your primary gaming rig without actually doing the heavy lifting itself; which means you’ll be playing your PC in another room, wirelessly. This is a new phenomenon, but an awesome one; the PS Vita will be able to relay the PS4’s signal as well, with minimal latency problems. Think of it this way: you hook up a tiny, cheap computer to your TV, install the free SteamOS instead of expensive Windows, and when it boots up, suddenly you can play your entire library of Steam games instantly. (I assume you’d need to have your PC turned on, with Steam application opened and synchronized.) And because Steam uses cloud storage, you wouldn’t need to even save your game on the cheap device hooked up to the TV, or transfer saves back and forth between your primary gaming rig. The more next-gen games get ported to Steam, the more silly the tiny catalog and limited functionality of your PS4 or Xbox One are going to look in comparison.
Hardware is another matter, and I’m sure that will be the subject of the next unveiling, in just a day or two! I want to see what kind of controller they’ll be creating, and how it will stack up to Sony and Microsoft’s gamepads. I want to see what kind of super-efficient “Steam Box” consoles their partners will develop, and how they’ll be sold. I want to know everything!
(For the record, I agree with the theory that the third announcement will be the long-awaited Source 2 Engine, which will be 100% free to use, and automatically compatible with SteamOS. That would be an awesome way to get big developers to develop for SteamOS, that’s for sure. Of course it should ship along with Half-Life 3!)