Ken Levine: SteamOS is "a brave and powerful idea"

Cory Banks at

“I have a huge amount of confidence in Valve,” Ken Levine tells PC Gamer. The creative director of Irrational Games and writer of BioShock Infinite is excited about Valve’s newest plan for PC gaming: SteamOS. Levine took a break from working on Infinite’s Burial At Sea DLC (which he says is “nearing the end” of development) to discuss how Valve’s Linux-based operating system might change how we play games through our PCs.

Open is good

Levine characterizes the move to use Linux as a base for SteamOS as “a brave and powerful idea,” and thinks the open nature of Linux matches up with how gamers want to interact with developers.

“I think we’ve seen a move toward openness,” he says. “There’s been a democratization effect with Kickstarter or the Humble Bundles, or even Steam Workshop, where you putting faith in the audience to help enhance the experience and make the experience better. And that requires openness to a certain degree.”

We’ve worried that getting the games running on a Linux-based system could be tricky, but Levine doesn’t see it as a large hurdle. “There’s a lot of Linux porting to do, but if you’ve done a Mac version of something, you’re pretty close already, because Mac is based on the Unix kernel,” he says. “It’s nice to have [a platform] where nobody can say, ‘Okay, this is what we’re doing with it, whether you like it or not.’ I think that’s interesting, because it’s not something we’ve traditionally seen.”

Levine thinks the focus should be less on Linux and more on the fact that Valve is building an operating system specifically for gamers. “The message to me is that it’s an operating system designed around gaming, and it’s pretty open,” he says. “Linux is a means to an end.”

Any screen you want

Porting aside, Valve plans to let gamers stream existing Windows and Mac games to devices running SteamOS. It’s this concept of local streaming that Levine finds the most exciting.

“To me, an important part of the future is in-house streaming, where you have a machine somewhere in your house, and you can stream that gameplay out to any screen in your house, effectively turning those screens, whether it’s a TV or a monitor or an iPad or whatever, into a dumb terminal, and relying on the processing power of a central powerful machine.” Levine points out that there are some systems that do this already in the console world, from Nintendo’s Wii U to Sony’s Remote Play for PS3, Vita, and PS4. But instead of using proprietary systems, he thinks Valve’s emphasis on openness could mean a world where you can stream your PC games to any screen you want.

“I would like to see every screen turned into a receiver,” says Levine. “And if you look at the [Google’s] Chromecast, they’re already doing something like that, where they have this dongle that you attach to your TV, and you can stream things out from your computer, your iPad, whatever, to that screen.”

The idea harkens back to mainframe computing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, where terminals acted as interfaces with hulking “super” computers. Levine envisions a world where, thanks to SteamOS, you can use any screen in your home to play your PC games—even pausing in one room and picking up in another, or in bed with a tablet device. Valve already says that SteamOS users will be able to use cloud saving to move back and forth between devices, as we can do now in the Steam application.

Levine is entranced by this possible streaming-friendly future. “It means you can choose to be screen agnostic,” he says. “Like, owning the living room could be less interesting than owning every room. And for the gamer perspective, [it means] being able to play in any room, pause your game, go to bed, go to your iPad, pick up a controller, and play from there.”

What gamers want?

When Steam first launched in 2004 on the strength of Half-Life 2, few gamers saw a reason to require an always-online application like Steam. Today, the digital distribution platform is the driving force of the PC gaming industry. Is that strength enough to get gamers to switch operating systems, or move to the living room?

“The most important phrase in selling anybody anything is, ‘What’s in it for me?’” Levine says. “Steam, at the beginning, had the problem of asking a lot from the gamer and not giving enough back in return. Now when you use Steam, you’re like, ‘Oh you want me to use this thing, and I get to install games trivially wherever I want? You auto-update my games? I never have to deal with patches? I get Workshop? I get community? I can make hats and sell them?” It’s like, I get so much stuff and all you’re asking from me is a little bit of DRM? Okay, I’ll take it.”

“I think it’s always going to come down to—is Valve going to provide a value proposition that is attractive to people? Put that in human terms, are they going to give people stuff that they want? Because gamers aren’t stupid. The gamer’s going to say, ‘Fuck you dude, that’s not what I want’ if they don’t want it. But Valve has traditionally been excellent at understanding that it needs to provide value to the gamer. They have to give you something that works for you.”

Levine says his studio isn’t currently developing natively for SteamOS—“Right now, honestly, the truth is that we’re developing Burial at Sea for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360, and nothing else right now.”—but confirms his excitement for the concept. "I think what they’re building is going to be awesome,” he says. “I don’t think anyone ever lost any money betting on Valve.”

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