In 2012, Valve released an update to their Steam platform called Big Picture, which essentially consisted of a new user interface tailored towards the needs of the living room where people use large HDTVs and gamepads in place of the usual keyboard and mouse interface. We’ve seen 10-foot UIs before – Windows Media Center and most of the game console interfaces being prime examples – and they’re pretty much required if you want a UI people can use while sitting on the couch. Along with Big Picture, the past several years have also seen Valve and Steam branch out from being a Windows-only software solution to something that’s available on OS X, Linux, and even (in a more limited fashion) on the PlayStation 3. Not every game within Steam is currently available on every platform, but increasingly we’re seeing more titles launch with support for all of the supported Steam platforms.

With all of the pieces in place, we started hearing rumblings about the “SteamBox” earlier this year, with most people assuming that Valve would put together something akin to a gaming console with a predefined set of hardware. This week, Valve has released additional details about what they’re planning, and it’s a move that will definitely shake up the gaming industry. Valve is taking a three-pronged approach, and they released some information about each aspect over the course of the past week: SteamOS, Steam Machines, and the Steam Controller. Many details are not yet finalized, but let’s quickly go over what we do know.

The Triple Header

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the announcement is that Valve will be releasing a new operating system, SteamOS. Similar to Google’s Android and Chrome OS, SteamOS will be based on Linux, and obviously there will be a lot of tuning to make SteamOS work well as a living room OS. Valve specifically mentions support for in-home streaming; music, TV, and movie services; and family options to allow the sharing of games between Steam profiles.

Valve is also promising the ability to play all of the current ~3000 titles available on Steam, but unfortunatley it appears Windows/OS X titles will only be available via streaming (e.g. similar to NVIDIA's SHIELD streaming games from your PC to your SHIELD device). It would be nice to see Valve do something similar to WINE (Wine Is Not Emulator) for those titles that don’t have native Linux support, but that's perhaps more of a long-term solution. Needless to say, it comes as no surprise that recently both NVIDIA and AMD made note of the fact that they will be doing additional work to improve Linux driver support moving forward.

Other aspects of SteamOS basically build off of everything that makes Steam as a platform so attractive to many users. All of your games that you purchased – any time in the history of Steam – are available anywhere you log in. Your friends list comes with you, save games and settings are stored in the cloud, and the Steam Workshop provides a wealth of user created content. Steam is currently available in 185 countries and 25 languages, and as anyone that has used Steam since it first debuted a decade ago can attest, Valve is constantly looking on ways to improve the platform. SteamOS may be the next evolution of Steam as a platform, but of course Valve will continue to support other operating systems as well.

The second bullet point is perhaps the easiest to understand: the Steam Machines are preconfigured hardware solutions from various partners that will run SteamOS. We don’t know precisely what the hardware will be, but all signs point to it being mostly off-the-shelf hardware that you could use in building any modern PC. There will likely be entry-level hardware, midrange hardware, and high-end solutions that cover a range of price points and performance.

Valve will be releasing a prototype Steam Machine to 300 beta testers over the coming months, selected more or less randomly from applications received before October 25. We’ll know more about the precise hardware configuration Valve is using in a month or so. It will also be possible to download and install SteamOS on your own (though we're not sure when SteamOS will go public), so at its most basic level a Steam Machine is just any PC that happens to be running SteamOS.

The third and final item that Valve announced is their new Steam Controller. Gamepads are nothing new for gaming consoles, but the Steam Machines are in a somewhat unique position of providing a vast library of games where many titles were not built with gamepads in mind, and certainly not the Steam Controller (which hasn't existed prior to this announcement).

The Steam Controller is significantly different than what we’ve seen with most gamepads. Instead of the usual dual thumbsticks, the Steam Controller includes two high-resolution circular trackpads, which are also clickable. In addition, there will be 16 buttons (with the ability to shift between left or right hand configurations via a software switch) and a touchscreen in the center – though the initial prototype will have four buttons in place of the touchscreen. Valve is also promising improved haptics (i.e. force feedback) via dual linear resonant actuators (small, strong, weighted electromagnets attached to the circular trackpads).

As with SteamOS, Valve is promising full compatibility with the entire Steam library, which means they need a way for their gamepad to work in place of the keyboard and mouse that some titles are going to expect. The combination of a touchscreen, various buttons, and the circular touchpads together provide the necessary platform, and a utility will allow users to customize any game for the new controller. Valve will also be leveraging the power of their Steam Community to allow users to share custom configurations, so similar to NVIDIA's GeForce Experience and AMD's new Gaming Evolved (powered by Raptr), you won't necessarily need to roll your own for each game you play.

Tying It All Together

So that’s the short overview, and as usual the proof is in the eating of the pudding – a pudding that we don’t have yet. Given that digital entertainment is a rapidly growing market, it’s easy to understand why Valve would be interested in moving beyond Steam in its current form to something that can compete with game consoles (and perhaps even Android and iOS at some point, though Valve makes no mention of such a use case right now). SteamOS will be available for free, both to end users and manufacturers, but it’s interesting that there’s no mention of it being open source – the core OS will continue to be open, naturally, but I suspect all of the custom code that speaks to Valve’s servers will never see the light of day (which is fine by me).

A more cynical perspective might say that there’s nothing particularly new or shocking in this announcement. Sure, we’re getting a new gamepad at some point, and another Linux-based operating system, but if you already have a Windows PC connected to your HDTV and running Steam, this hasn’t really changed the equation much. And depending on how many games need to be streamed from a Windows/OS X system to your Steam Machine, it's even less of a big deal.

Still, Microsoft is going to get even more competition from alternative OSes, and as someone that enjoys competition I’m not going to complain. It also means that Valve has the potential to increase their revenue stream, not so much from the hardware side but rather there’s the potential for inexpensive Steam Machines to take over the roles that are currently filled by traditional consoles, and of course every game purchased on a Steam Machine is going to come through Steam. You can almost hear the “ka-ching”!

There’s a difference between Steam Machines and traditional consoles of course – or at least there appears to be. There’s no specific set of hardware being dictated by Valve, which means for better or worse users will still have to deal with customizing graphics settings, resolutions, etc. and developers still need to worry about catering to a wide range of hardware with sometimes radically different levels of performance. On the bright side, it also means that Steam Machines won’t have to last 7 to 10 years between updates.

What I’m most interested in seeing right now is what sort of performance we actually get out of SteamOS, on a variety of hardware, with native SteamOS (Linux) games. We all know that Windows is a tremendously bloated operating system – just look at the default install size of Windows 7 or Windows 8. However, just because there’s a bunch of extra stuff that we may not use all that much doesn’t mean that Windows as a gaming platform isn’t viable. I haven’t personally done any testing of gaming performance on Windows versus gaming performance on OS X or Linux, but anecdotally Windows performance has been substantially better in nearly every case.

Valve has the potential to change the equation; with an OS focused much more on gaming, performance in SteamOS could be competitive or even better than what we see under Windows. Of course, for non-Linux titles that are streamed from your Windows/Mac system, performace will be no better and you'll incur a small penalty in latency. Even if SteamOS were to get something similar to WINE, we’re talking about adding additional overhead to DirectX/OpenGL, at least initially. It’s a pretty big stretch to expect better performance from SteamOS when it initially launches in 2014, but down the road we might see some real changes in the status quo. Give NVIDIA and AMD some time to work with Valve, and maybe we’ll see porting of AMD’s Mantle to the platform as well (and NVIDIA’s CUDA, etc.).

Short-term, we have more questions than answers, but this is definitely a bold (if somewhat expected) move from Valve. They’ve gone from creating games to becoming perhaps the largest “game publisher” around, and their next step appears to directly challenge behemoths like Microsoft (on both the Windows and Xbox fronts), Sony, and Nintendo. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I would really like to see Valve succeed at altering the gaming system landscape yet again. How long might it take to get that? Probably more than a year or two, best-case.

As noted above, Valve will be sending out 300 prototype Steam Machines, mostly to randomly selected applicants. You can read details on how to apply for the beta program on the Steam Machines page, which would get you not only the prototype Steam Machine but also the prototype Steam Controller. You need to apply before October 25, and participants will apparently be selected and receive their prototype machines before the end of 2013. (Wish me luck!)

Source: Valve/Steam

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  • LarsBars - Sunday, September 29, 2013 - link

    I think I would agree with this. Steam machines basically give me the opportunity to buy parts for, upgrade, spend time on, tweak, troubleshoot, feed power to, and invest in yet another gaming rig, except this new one won't run Excel when I need it to.

    Is Valve competing against Windows PC gaming, or console gaming? I think both. Not sure that anything useful is being offered here. I would much prefer to set my PC in my living room and use big picture mode if I wanted a big screen experience for my PC games. The problem is, when I want that experience, I buy the game on a console. And I guess I just don't have any problems with the way things currently are.

    On the positive side, the controller looks very cool, I could see myself picking one up. I would love if they made the touch screen wide enough to fit a cell phone style virtual keyboard.
  • quagga - Saturday, September 28, 2013 - link

    I don't think that WINE was ever really a viable option for this. It's always been a perpetual moving target and games which might have worked on it today, are broken by an update tomorrow. It adds overhead to playing games and it denies Microsoft revenue which might make them inclined to throw some more wrenches into the operation. It's a ton of work with minimal potential payoff. I think Valve realized they were either stuck tethering to a Windows machine or doing a native port. On this machine which dual boots, the games run just as fast in Linux as they do in Windows (provided you get the drivers running). There's just still not much content there.

    I think the unwritten aspect to all of this is I imagine there will be Steam Machines running Windows. Similar to the Ubuntu laptops, you can get the Steam Machine with SteamOS or vendors will throw in a version running Windows for $100 more.

    The real question is how much overhead / latency the streaming adds to the experience. I think for the games I play, that'll be fine. But we'll have to see. I want to know the bandwidth requirements as well. I have gigabit wired running to my TV; I imagine in a wifi-crowded apartment like mine the experience wireless might not be as enjoyable.
  • willis936 - Saturday, September 28, 2013 - link

    Well the meta would be windows steam titles shipping with WINE packaged for that specific release. It's a hell of a lot of work on valve's part but it might be easier than porting every single windows title to linux. Game gets updated? Get it working with WINE again and release it. They do something similar with C++ and DX redistributables but the WINE dream is asking a lot more.

    As for streaming: it doesn't take too too much bandwidth to stream 1080p @ 60fps. I'd wager most basic 11n networks would be able to handle it. The real overhead comes in real time encoding. Even with fancy new GPUs it's a lot to ask while trying to render a game and have less than a few ms of latency. Obviously it can be done and we've all been waiting patiently for a soltion (WiDI was a fail, and UWB doesn't really solve the problem of getting media rendered in one room to another). Shield is nice but it's low level and nowadays everyone loves having everything high level so it can work with any system every time. There's nothing particularly challenging about encoding and streaming content otf and it's nice to finally see a few implementations.
  • piiman - Saturday, September 28, 2013 - link

    "The combination of a touchscreen, various buttons, and the circular touchpads together provide the necessary platform, and a utility will allow users to customize any game for the new controller."

    SUURRRRE I'd like to see them customize it for ARMA or any other game that has 200 key commands. Good luck with that.

    "As noted above, Valve will be sending out 300 prototype"

    According to their FAQ it will only be 30 testers. I wonder if the FAQ is missing a zero.
  • KitsuneKnight - Saturday, September 28, 2013 - link

    No, the FAQ says 30 testers will be chosen based on their record, with the remaining 270 randomly selected.

    From the Steam Machine FAQ:
    "How will you choose the 300 beta participants?
    A small number of users (30 or less) will be chosen based on their past community contributions and beta participation. The remainder will be chosen at random from the eligible pool."

    From the Controller FAQ:
    "How will the beta controller differ from the one that’s for sale next year?
    There are a couple important differences: the first 300 or so beta units won’t include a touch screen, and they won’t be wireless. Instead, they’ll have four buttons in place of the touch screen, and they’ll require a USB cable."

    So yes, it's 300. Where'd you see one that says 30?
  • dwade123 - Sunday, September 29, 2013 - link

    Any game that is bloated with 200 keys is questionable.
  • tuxRoller - Sunday, September 29, 2013 - link

    With 16 buttons, and only looking at the number of combinations using up to three fingers, you have 696 mappings.
  • hobbz - Saturday, September 28, 2013 - link


    "Can I download the OS to try it out?
    You will be able to download it (including the source code, if you're into that) but not yet."

    So, yes, source code will be available.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, September 28, 2013 - link

    Source code for to kernel (which is Linux) does not mean full source code for everything. I suspect Steam will be an app that sits on top of the OS still, more or less, and I would be amazed if Valve were to open up any of the DRM related source code. We'll see I guess -- if they did the encryption/DRM properly, having it be open wouldn't hurt them, but that's rarely the case.
  • augiem - Saturday, September 28, 2013 - link

    Circular trackpads?! This had been done before... anyone remember the Intellivision? Worst control EVER.

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