This week was a very interesting week with Steam. Steam kicked off the week on Monday by announcing SteamOS. SteamOS is a free Linux based open source operating system centered around Steam itself. SteamOS is meant to bring Steam to the living room. Many of you have probably seen Steam’s “Big Picture” mode which is an optimized version of Steam for use with a gamepad. SteamOS is supposed to be a much bigger version of that. Since SteamOS is free and open source, it allows any computer to be optimized to run as smooth as possible. Games that are optimized to run on SteamOS can be installed on the machine itself, however, games that aren’t optimized will not be able to be installed on the system.
There will be 4 features that will be added to Steam/SteamOS for living room use: In-Home Streaming, Music/TV/Movies, Family Sharing, and Family Options. In-Home Streaming is the way to get around the inability to install most of the previous games onto SteamOS. With this feature, you will be able to stream games from your Windows or Mac desktop to your SteamOS capable system. This means if you want to play Rise of the Triad (not optimized for Linux/SteamOS), you will have to boot up the Windows computer it’s on, then stream the game over your network to the SteamOS system, then you can play it on that machine. The Music/TV/Movies feature is similar to the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 apps. The intent there is to help with the distribution of these materials through Steam so you won’t have to switch between systems if you want to watch Netflix (not announced). The Family Sharing feature is similar to the Xbox One’s, initially announced, Family Sharing program. This will allow “family members” to play games that are on your list, provided you’re not playing it at the time, as if they owned it themselves. The Family Options feature consists of what everyone’s profiles are able to see. As of now, any game that is installed on the system is visible to all profiles. However, let’s say you don’t want your 7 year old son to even think about Grand Theft Auto V, this feature will allow parents to limit what their kids can see. So, in my profile, I can see all games on the system, but on my son’s profile, he’s only able to see games rated T and lower. Thus, eliminating said Grand Theft Auto V from his list.
My initial thoughts on this were along the lines of “why is this a thing?” Why create a completely new operating system when most people are most comfortable with Windows or Mac. Linux is a scary idea to many consumers. The only reason why I could see this being a good idea is if this operating system was going to be for the rumored “Steam Box.” I don’t see many people changing operating systems just for a more optimized Steam. My desktop is connected to my TV already, and I don’t have an issue running the Steam client on it.
Which brings us to Wednesday…
Wednesday’s announcement was what many people were expecting in part 2 of 3 of the Steam announcements this week, hardware meant to run SteamOS. Steam announced that there will be a variety of systems that would be available to purchase with SteamOS as the main operating system releasing in 2014. Steam said, “Entertainment is not a one-size-fits-all world. We want you to be able to choose the hardware that makes sense for you…” There was much less information in this announcement because the rest of the page was filled up with information regarding the upcoming hardware beta. Steam announced that they would be selecting 300 users to beta test some hardware with SteamOS. If you would like to become a part of the beta, here’s some criteria you’ll have to follow.
I liked this idea. This would really be the only way to get SteamOS into people’s households. I think of these Steam Machines as a new console. It’s meant to be played on a TV, a dedicated operating system, controller support is already enabled by using a wired Xbox 360 controller among other options. I wouldn’t use this machine as a computer since I already have a computer that I’m comfortable using for most of my needs. However, if I could play Steam games without having to boot up my “rig” and play on my couch, it would be quite fun.
Now, for part 3… Is it the fabled Half Life 3 announcement that everyone has been looking for?
NOPE! On Friday, Steam announced their own controller, right now called the Steam gamepad. The Steam gamepad is said that it supports all Steam games — past, present, and future.
Steam announced that the gamepad was going to go away from the joystick and replace them with dual trackpads. Instead of having a “rumble” feature, like in most generations of controllers, Steam opted for a “haptic” feedback way of vibrations. Steam announced, “The Steam Controller is built around a new generation of super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators.” Between the trackpads is a touch screen. This touch screen allows for additional buttons to be programmed for each game. For many PC games, a traditional console controller doesn’t have enough buttons, and it makes the player feel handicapped. In addition to adding additional buttons, Steam announced, “When programmed by game developers using our API, the touch screen can work as a scrolling menu, a radial dial, provide secondary info like a map or use other custom input modes we haven’t thought of yet.” Since all games released were built prior to this announcement, a “legacy” mode can be used to configure the controller to play as a keyboard/mouse. Steam also announced that this controller was designed to be hacked.
The controller looks like it could have many unique uses. However, the lack of joysticks worries me a bit. One of the very first controllers was a joystick with a button (Atari 2600). Joysticks have been ingrained into our head as “this moves the player.” I also worry about the trackpad idea. I’ve played mobile games with a virtual joystick, and they always feel weird and get in the way of the game itself. I’m very interested in getting one of these in my hands though. The touch screen could be both an asset and a hindrance. By that, I mean it could have a map on the screen, but it takes some concentration away from the game itself to glance at the map on your controller. I’m reserving judgement on this until I can see some real world use.
So, that was this week in Steam. All in all, if I viewed this as a big PC announcement, it would be a little lack luster. However, viewing this as a console announcement makes me wonder if this could be a contender in the “console wars” between Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. I would definitely like to see another company get in the console industry to add some new ideas. Most of the new generation of consoles feel pretty much the same as the previous generation, making me not want to buy any of them. With Steam having as much of a loyal backing as they do, and with their track record of releasing amazing things, I can see this quite possibly being a success. At least, let’s hope.
Note: Half Life 3 still not confirmed…