Tuesday, 24 September 2013

All Aboard The Steam Train!

Continuing their ever-onward march to world conquest, PC developer and digital-download pioneers Valve have just announced the upcoming release of SteamOS.

SteamOS is to be Valve’s first major push into the living room space currently dominated by Xbox and PlayStation, and is one of three announcements promised for this week. The others are certain to include the oft-rumoured, but never seen, “Steambox” and one other surprise which many are hoping will be the announcement of the most anticipated PC game of all time. Half-Life 3.

I’ll cover those announcements as and when they happen but for now I want to talk a little about SteamOS.

As a highly customised version of the Linux operating system, it is designed to run on a dedicated living room PC, and will offer an experience similar to a home console. Friends lists, web browsing, etc. Not to mention all the features they’ve not talked about yet.

So why should you bother? What will Valve offer that you can’t find on PlayStation or Xbox? What are the potential hiccups and obstacles in their way?

Both SteamOS and standard Steam have a number of key plus points. The first, and arguably the most important of these is variety and pricing of games.

The value for money and sheer size of the Steam catalogue is astounding. There are games dating back over many years, at mostly reasonable prices. Almost every major multiplatform title (With the exception of EA games) is available and usually at a lower price than its console cousins. The legendary Steam sales offer tremendous numbers of games at massive discounts. Even when a sale isn’t on, you can often find “Steam Keys” available from other online retailers at a lower price than Steam itself (These let you add the game to your Steam account). It creates a healthy market where competition is encouraged, resulting in great deals for gamers who shop around.

So SteamOS comes with a vast library of PC games, past and present, at your disposal. If you already have a Steam account every one of those games you own will be available, in some form (More on that in a minute) through the system. Unlike PS3 and Xbox 360 you won’t lose all your purchased downloadable titles when you move to a newer model.

However it’s not all perfect. One issue is that SteamOS itself is based on Linux and not Windows. This means that all the games on Steam that currently have a Linux version available will run just fine on SteamOS. However anything else will not run on the system. To get around this you have the option to stream from another PC in your home to the SteamOS. So you could have one dedicated gaming PC in another room and still play your games in the living room. It’s not the most elegant solution, but until Linux ports of games become common it’s going to have to do.

But for me, the main stumbling block is that many PC games just aren’t suited to TV and controllers. Mouse and Keyboard has been the standard control scheme for PC since the eighties. FPS on PC are mostly tweaked to take advantage over the greater degree of accuracy and speed it offers over a traditional gamepad. Real-Time-Strategy titles like StarCraft, Company of Heroes and the Total War series just do not work with a controller. It’s not a massive problem, as most games today offer support for pads, especially the Xbox 360 controller, but there will be games that will not play well on anything other than a mouse and keyboard.

But it’s still early days. It’s a great experiment from Valve and one that could create a viable alternative to Xbox One and PS4 in the next couple of years. I personally cannot wait to see how it pans out.

For those curious about PC gaming in general you can’t really go wrong with downloading the Steam client and having a look at the store. Many games have demo versions and there are even several Free-To-Play titles such as Star Trek Online and the ever popular Team Fortress 2.


To see the announcement for SteamOS, with more details, then visit this link: http://store.steampowered.com/livingroom/SteamOS/

Join me on Wednesday night for some discussion about the next announcement.

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