The future of PC gaming: the living room

Illustration by Marsh Davies

All week long, we're peering ahead to what the future holds for the PC gaming industry. Not just the hardware and software in our rigs, but how and where we use them, and how they impact the games we play. Here's part one of our five-part series; stay tuned all week for more from the future of PC gaming.

If anyone can direct and dictate the course of PC gaming for the next 10 years, it's Valve. The creators of Steam—and a little game called Half-Life—have already changed how we get our games, and the prices we're willing to pay for them. Now the company is going one step further, with an initiative that will expand where PC games are played.

It's a plan comprised of three parts: SteamOS , the open-source operating system compiled by Valve and running on the Linux kernel; Steam Machines , PCs that are custom-built for living in an entertainment center; and Steam Controller , Valve's solution to the input issues that have made living room computing, at best, an uncomfortable compromise. The message, according to Valve, is simple: “You want to bring your Steam library onto your sofa, and we're building the best way for you to do that.”

Well, kind of. The message from Valve has actually been far more mixed than that. The company has trumpeted what it sees as the primary value in PC gaming—openness—and pitched its entire initiative as a means to open the borders of what PC gaming has traditionally been: namely, tied to the office. Moving our gaming to the living room is a more complicated change than just putting a controller in our hands, however. If the future of PC games also includes the living room, the types of games you play could be drastically different.

Valve's plan

The first step to move PC gaming toward the couch is both simple and hard: put more computers in the living room. To do that, Valve has partnered with 14 different hardware manufacturers, who are building their visions of what a small form factor, living room-centric PC should look like. These range in both price and concept: Gigabyte's Brix Pro is a tiny box with a Core i7 and Intel integrated graphics with no set price point, while Digital Storm's Bolt II includes an Nvidia GTX 780 Ti graphics card and costs more than $2,500. Most of the Steam Machines unveiled will be user-upgradable, while the in-development prototype from Alienware will be more of an appliance box, like the consoles from Microsoft and Sony. There are few unifying factors here, except that these machines will all run Valve's SteamOS and come with a Steam Controller.

Valve positions these machines as full PCs, just optimized for the living room. As such, its operating system, SteamOS, will be tailored to get gamers into their Steam libraries quickly, but open enough to allow for everything else you'd expect: web browsing, music, and working with documents. It's Linux, but with Steam's Big Picture mode on top. The current beta of SteamOS is even available for download right now, for those who want to build their own machines or give the OS a test run on their machines.

But it's the Steam Controller that could be the biggest challenge—and the biggest hurdle—for PC gamers. The keyboard and mouse setup has been the cornerstone of our hobby since its beginning, but Valve is designing a controller that it says will provide the accuracy of a mouse and the flexible binding of the keyboard, all in a compact controller. It uses two high-sensitivity trackpads instead of analog thumbsticks, and haptic feedback makes it crystal clear when you push in any direction on either pad. The controller also now had eight buttons on the front, in two, plus-shaped configurations, and Valve has abandoned plans to include a touchscreen on the front. These changes indicate that, while Valve wants to build the ultimate gamepad for living room PCs, it hasn't solved all of the problems with its current prototype pad.

At this point, you may be asking yourself what Valve is thinking. “Why should I buy a second computer for my living room?” you may ask. “Play my PC games with a controller?” And sure, at first it sounds like Valve wants to create its own console to take on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. But that's too simple a reaction to have to what's happening here, and the potential future that Valve paints is one I'm cautiously optimistic about, for three reasons.

The first reason is simple: living rooms are social areas. The most exciting part of playing your PC games in the living room will be sharing them with friends and family, face-to-face. Traditionally, PCs have been resigned to the office, the bedroom, the desk. Playing games there is a solitary experience—you don't typically have an audience when you're conquering the world in Civilization V, unless you're livestreaming. Putting that experience on a couch, where you can sit with your friends, your spouse, or your pets will also change the way developers think about PC gaming, which I hope will lead to more social experiences in games that don't require server browsers or anonymity. Someday soon, we'll be able to play the deep, complex games that have always been on the PC, but right beside our friends and family. We've been playing together across the world for years—now we can play together on the same screen.

It's also an initiative that assures we'll get more use out of our rigs. One of the most exciting features of SteamOS is its ability to stream games from your existing PC to the Steam Machine connected to your television. It's important for two reasons: One, most games won't support SteamOS or Linux right off the bat (just 307 do now), so streaming games that run in Windows to your Steam Machine will allow you to access your whole library. But it doesn't have to stop there: imagine a world where your Steam Machine isn't a PC at all, but a device that can plug into any screen in your house. You could then play your Steam library on your living room TV, “or your bedroom TV, or even on a tablet device, like an iPad. It's unclear exactly how inexpensive a device one could build to get flawless in-home streaming performance, but that'll become clearer in 2014 as Steam's in-home streaming leaves beta. My dream is for a streaming dongle that I can plug into any screen in my house.

Opening doors

The final reason we're excited about Valve's initiative is the one that could most easily go away: openness. Since Valve announced SteamOS in November 2013, it's proclaimed that the ultimate goal is to provide more options for PC gaming. To Valve, that openness is defined by having the ability to move away from Microsoft, whose Windows 8 OS strikes as one giant move toward closed, app store-like platforms for all software, including games. That would be devastating for Valve, since it runs the largest “app store” for videogames, but it's not a great situation for us gamers, either. Valve's solution is to shift the industry toward Linux, an operating system that is free in all of the important ways: free as in cost, and free as in, “do whatever the hell you want with it.”

The immediate effect of SteamOS' success is that DIY system builders can save $100 on a Windows license. That alone isn't so bad. The longer-term effect, however, is that PC gamers may have many more choices in how they play their games. And that's fantastic.

All of this is dependent on the success of SteamOS, of course. At this early stage, I'm skeptical that there is as large of an audience for a $2,500 living room gaming PC as Valve hopes, and my brief hands-on time with Steam Controller left me curious, but unsure that the input options provided could be universal enough to address all of my favorite games. But it's still early days for SteamOS, and the future looks bright.