Gabe Newell’s response to the release of Windows 8 and the associated Windows store was perhaps a little excessive in hindsight, however the underlying principle of the opposition is sound: The trajectory of Microsoft’s strategy towards Windows is increasingly beginning to resemble their strategies to the likes of Xbox and mobile, taking the relatively hands-off approach and abandoning it in the hope of turning the desktop into a service-based profit machine. Valve’s response has been an almost knee-jerk reaction away from Windows, with the Windows 8 fiasco not so much being a disaster in itself but rather a shock to the stability of Steam’s primary platform. Therefore Valve began a move towards establishing a platform that was not tied into a reliance upon the likes of Microsoft and Apple. SteamOS is not designed to replace the desktop operating system itself, but rather provide a gaming specific system, however the compatibility changes do make Linux a viable desktop replacement.
SteamOS itself is built upon a Debian base, a reliable and stable system on which to build the operating system. This use of a Linux base not only frees Valve from their current awkward relationship with Microsoft but does the same for other users too. Games ported to SteamOS will, by definition, be compatible with other Linux-based operating systems. I’ve discussed Linux’s relationship with gaming at length in my discussion article on operating systems, but the crux of the topic is that games were the key thing holding many back from full Linux adoption. My argument may not actually be one of the pure FOSS advocate, whilst I prefer to play games on Linux and find it to be technically superior due to its level of user customisation and control, there are still some instances where I use the Windows partition that I have installed. Recommending for the average user is hard, because I’m not an average user and evidently fail to empathise with their position fully as their technology usage still finds ways to surprise and horrify me. Instead, maybe I can influence the actual self-proclaimed “gamer”, give Linux a try. It’ll cost you a bit of hard-drive space, some bandwidth and time, but you get to learn how to use and customise an operating system to your needs and desires rather than letting Microsoft or Apple decide what you need of theirs and what they need of yours. SteamOS is only a good thing in terms of Linux gaming, it isn’t intended to replace desktop operating systems but will as a natural trickle effect, enhance the experience of desktop Linux. With regards to SteamOS compared to Windows in the environment that SteamOS is designed, it’s infinitely better with no fiddly underlying Windows rubbish eating resources or time under the Steam interface.
The hardware side of thing is where this gets rather interesting, as Valve have not really ventured into hardware before. Valve are simultaneously being radical and conventional with their SteamBox and Steam Controller ideas. The conventional design aspects are almost all drawn from console gaming, a world away from Valve’s normal stomping ground. The interface design is streamlined and designed for the big screen, with basic system configuration options and an overall attitude toward shipping a pre-configured system that the majority of users won’t need to fiddle with. The idea is that Steam Boxes will be pre-built, pre-configured boxes that are plugged into a TV, logged into and used to play games. If anything this actually represents a purer console experience than the modern console offering, like the Xbone for example, which continues to insist that it’s a media centre and a cable box as well for some reason. The more radical elements of the hardware surrounding Steam OS are to be found in the implementation of those console paradigms. Whilst being shipped as a pre-configured system, there’s no real impediment to the user fiddling with the Linux system underneath. In fact Valve are generally quite accommodating of fiddling and hacking, as long as it doesn’t circumvent the publisher’s DRM demands or Valve Anti-Cheat. An extension of this is the fact that Valve’s offering to the console space offers an amazing level of cross-compatibility and cross-device library usage. It is true that not all games run on SteamOS, however due to pressure from the largest distributor of online PC games that is beginning to change. This idea of cross-platform implementation may not be as radical on the face of it, what with attempts by both Microsoft and Sony to push cross-compatibility, however Valve’s is perhaps a better and more open implementation, and radical purely in that.
In keeping with this theme of conventional but radical is Valve’s radical approach to the console convention of the controller. As part of their venture into the living room space, Valve found a problem: most of the games on Steam aren’t controller compatible, in fact many rely on a mouse and keyboard which whilst plausible, doesn’t fit into the living living room paradigm well. So they’ve invented a go between, a controller that can act as both a controller and a mouse and keyboard. The Steam Controller is an interesting and odd looking contraption with the normal host of controller buttons, a thumbstick and two circular touchpads. These touchpads are the interesting bit, designed to have haptic feedback, they apparently feel more like a trackball than a touchpad and act well in terms of cursor emulation. I’ll have a Steam Controller when they’re released in the UK, so I’ll do a more thorough write-up at the time, however for the moment the reviews are intriguing. There is the conservative knee-jerk response from both the controller and mouse and keyboard crowds, which is to be expected when something new and interesting comes along… however for those willing to adapt and learn this seems like a very exciting prospect. The sheer level of customisation available and the adaptable hardware means that the true potential of the Steam Controller is only beginning to become apparent, to be continued on that front then…
Next week we’ll continue with a discussion of the Steam Link, in-home streaming and a general conclusion on where SteamOS sits within the wider market.