Exploring Valve's masterplan: on SteamOS, Steam Machines and the future of the PC
Last week, Valve made a series of announcements that could dramatically impact how people play games on the PC. But slick micro-sites aren't created in a vacuum. Valve have been hinting at SteamOS, Steam Machines and the Steam Controller for years, through interviews and information that goes all the way back to 2010. I've combed through these interviews, in order to find out what the future might hold for Valve's move into the living room.
Just how open will their open OS be? How will Steam Machines evolve to match more powerful tech? Could the Steam Controller be any stranger? And what do these announcements mean for Windows? Read on to find out.
SteamOS: an open and shut case
Back in January, Gabe Newell admitted that he thought of Apple, not Microsoft or Sony, as Valve's biggest competitor in the living room space. Talking to students of the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, he envisioned an unflattering future of a "dumbed down" living room, in which Apple was at the centre.
"I think that there’s a scenario where we see sort of a dumbed down living room platform emerging — I think Apple rolls the console guys really easily. The question is can we make enough progress in the PC space to establish ourselves there, and also figure out better ways of addressing mobile before Apple takes over the living room?"
This wasn't the first time Newell was publicly critical of the mobile phone behemoth. In October 2011, he appeared on a panel at WTIA TechNW, reported on by The Seattle Times, saying, "it’s sort of ominous that the world seems to be moving away from open platforms."
"I suspect Apple will launch a living room product that redefines people’s expectations."
"I suspect Apple will launch a living room product that redefines people's expectations really strongly and the notion of a separate console platform will disappear," he said, going on to call their closed nature the "wrong philosophical approach".
"I’m worried that the things that traditionally have been the source of a lot of innovation are going – there’s going to be an attempt to close those off so somebody will say ‘I’m tired of competing with Google, I’m tired of competing with Facebook, I’ll apply a console model and exclude the competitors I don’t like from my world.’"
Openness also came up during the Casual Connect talk. “In order for innovation to happen, a bunch of things that aren’t happening on closed platforms need to occur. Valve wouldn’t exist today without the PC, or Epic, or Zynga, or Google. They all wouldn’t have existed without the openness of the platform. There’s a strong tempation to close the platform, because they look at what they can accomplish when they limit the competitors’ access to the platform, and they say ‘That’s really exciting.’
“We are looking at the platform and saying, ‘We’ve been a free rider, and we’ve been able to benefit from everything that went into PCs and the Internet, and we have to continue to figure out how there will be open platforms.’”
To point out the obvious: Steam isn't an open platform. While there have been moves to make it more accessible to developers - specifically Greenlight, a service Newell isn't too wild about in its current form - Valve remain the gatekeepers for everything that is accepted onto Steam.
But given how many of Newell's comments praise openness, it seems absurd to think that SteamOS could be anything but. Certainly, it's open intentions are touched on by the announcement page. "With SteamOS, 'openness' means that the hardware industry can iterate in the living room at a much faster pace than they’ve been able to. Content creators can connect directly to their customers. Users can alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want. Gamers are empowered to join in the creation of the games they love."
"On the consumer side, anybody should be able to put up a store..."
Again, though, it doesn't touch on how game creators not currently on Steam will be part of SteamOS. Will there be a separate area for non-Steam Apps, or will compatible games be able to integrate more seamlessly? Newell's previous comments do suggest a broad degree of flexibility. When The Verge asked about SteamOS running Netflix, he said, "absolutely. You can fire up a web browser, you can do whatever you want." Linux users will know that, thanks to its baffling reliance on Microsoft Silverlight, running Netflix is more complicated than opening a web browser, suggesting that the operating system will be similarly supportive of the workarounds needed.
The likelihood is that if a game can run on Linux, it can run on SteamOS, but it would be nice to think that Valve are planning to lower the barriers further: removing some of the requirements to entry for games, even while maintaining their own front-page list of approved titles. That's certainly something that's been hinted at in the past, when Newell made mention of user-created storefronts.
"An editorial filter is fine, but there should be a bunch of editorial filters," he told The Verge. "The backend services should be network APIs that anybody can use. On the consumer side, anybody should be able to put up a store that hooks into those services. Our view is that, in the same way users are critical in a multiplayer experience, like the fellow next to you is critical to your enjoyment, we should figure out how we can help users find people that are going to make their game experiences better."
That could look like a super-charged version of the current recommendations system, in which users become curators of Steam's huge and growing catalogue. The more dramatic and 'open' way to do it, would be to let any Greenlight-submitted game become a candidate for user stores, with the most popular being boosted into Steam's 'official' selection.
On the next page: Steam Machines and Gabe's vision of a connected future.