Steam OS

After something of a quiet period, Valve are back with some interesting product launches. On Monday they announced Steam OS – a complete free-to-download operating system which will be optimised for their games and open source. This was followed by yesterday’s announcement of the anticipated Steam Machines (often previously referred to as the Steam Box) – a series of PCs with Steam OS already installed. There’s one more announcement due tomorrow, but given the first two crashed Valve’s website now seems like a good time to think about what they’ve said so far.

I suspect Steam OS will be the closest Linux* – and indeed any open source operating system – gets to mainstream desktop usage for some time. Every so often (usually around a major Windows revision) small crowds of Linux users declare “this will be the year Linux goes mainstream”, and to be fair, it’s had a lot of success. Android is Linux-based, a vast number of servers use Linux (including this one), and Ubuntu seems to be on a permanent upward trend.

Valve want to encourage people to mess around with the code and see what they come up with. Releasing the code base is a pretty bold move, and completely separates them from the console market. They already know what people are capable of having seen the effect of mods on their own games – Counter-Strike has made a vast amount of money and began life as a mod. The fact they’ve extended this to hardware is where things get a little more interesting – a return to the philosophy of Steve Wozniak in allowing and even encouraging people to hack their hardware and add to it. To quote Valve’s FAQ:

Can I hack this box? Run another OS? Change the hardware? Install my own software? Use it to build a robot?

However much I’m interested in the prospect of an openly modifiable gaming OS and accompanying PC, I can’t help but feel the whole thing rests on price point. Here’s a quick estimate of prices I found on Amazon for comparison:

  • Playstation 4: £350
  • Wii U: £250
  • XBox One: £450
  • Desktop PC (first search result): £390

If Valve can do it for less than a Playstation 4, they’ll be sorted, but they’ll have a hard time convincing people that they need a PC designed just for gaming if it costs much more than an average desktop. Valve say there will be a range of Steam Machines to choose from at different price points to try and accommodate everyone, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see both.

There’s one announcement left. As much as I really want this to be Half-Life 3 (oh please oh please oh please), it’s looking increasingly like the other theories will prove correct and it will be a new controller. Valve have talked before about measuring biometrics such as heart rate to feed back into a game (if your pulse rate goes up in a zombie game, the developer can change the scenario accordingly), and I can see how this would make for better games, but it will be much easier to sell the idea to developers than to gamers.

Valve clearly want to massively change the gaming industry, and they might well just do that. Steam has already done so for the PC gaming market, although it’s worth remembering how hated Steam was at first. The announcements are impressive, but there’s a lot of marketing for Valve to do.

* I include Ubuntu in this – yes, I know it’s Debian rather than pure Linux!