My mind is in twain. Part of me wants to say “Well, we saw that coming.” Another part of me wants to say “Holy mudcrabs!”
Valve has been teasing three big announcements for a while now, and they’re all expected this week. The first? SteamOS, which is (almost) exactly what it sounds like. And the whole earth trembled.
Building a game engine from scratch is one of those monstrous projects you should only undertake as a hobby, or because your business is set up to develop and market engines. I tell clients this constantly; they never listen. 36 months later they’re fifteen million in the hole and and armed with two million lines of code that still can’t render an image on screen. Under the best of circumstances they produce something workable that cost twenty times as much as licensing a third party engine would have, while running one-twentieth as well.
The only computational undertaking more immediately staggering is developing a new operating system. Which Valve is not doing, to their eternal credit.
SteamOS is built on the Linux kernel – unclear whether a specific distro or they’re modding the kernel so much it’s essentially unique – so an enormous amount of foundational work is done for them. Linux has been around for a long time, and it’s well-liked. Mainstream acceptance still eludes it, but that’s due more to inertia than anything inherently unfriendly about the OS. These days you can work in some Linux distros without ever writing a line of code or seeing a command line, though in general you’ll still need computing skillz greater than your average bear’s.
SteamOS, which will be free to all and available “soon,” is built with Steam Big Picture in mind – that latter being Valve’s living room skin of the Steam environment, designed for controllers and friendlier to gamers who sit ten feet away from the screen. I actually fired up Steam Big Picture for the first time just a few days ago, and… well, for me at least, it needs some work. The interface itself is quite beautiful, but it takes 2-3 minutes to load any screen, and I can’t successfully launch a game from it… yet. I don’t know what these issues stem from, because I haven’t had a chance to look into them. My guess is they’re pretty easily solved since there’s nothing unusual about my setup.
Beyond that, the OS is viewed as a content platform rather than just a gaming platform; one can imagine that (eventually at least) you’d boot into SteamOS and stay there, period. It’s not an overlay like Windows Media Center or a shell like Windows 3.1 was atop DOS. How potent will it be as a, like, computing computer on day one? Not sure. But I suspect Valve has eyed Microsoft’s current vulnerability and at least considered that the right foundation, plus a built-in customer base of 50 million, might just carve a nice slice out of Redmond’s pie.
Valve specifically calls out the following features in SteamOS:
- Windows and Mac Game Streaming: one big drawback Linux has is software support, especially with commercial games. According to Valve, SteamOS will be 100% compatible with your existing Steam library on a Windows or Mac – they just stream from one computer to the other across your home network. Latency issues are the question mark here, especially for those with wireless networks. Valve will need this to be fantastic out of the box if SteamOS is to gain traction, because it’s going to be a while before games consistently ship for SteamOS natively and most people have tons of Steam games for Windows already and wouldn’t like buying them again for SteamOS.
- “Significant” performance increases in graphics processing: smart move to highlight this. Linux is a great OS no matter how you slice it, but driver support has always been dicey. Plus, since you’re already streaming your games across a network, you’ll want booku performance on the receiving end to prevent any additional issues. This line might be a hint that lower-end hardware will still play nice with top shelf games under SteamOS, which could in turn lower the expected price of Steam Box, which has been announced sort of generally, and confirmed by Valve, but about which we know surprisingly little.
- Media support: they’re working with “many of the media services you know and love.” Netflix, probably. Hulu for sure. Amazon Video, maybe. HBOGo… one hopes. When it comes to SteamOS, people need to be impressed by the OS part, not the Steam part. Valve understands that. For people to switch – either ditch Windows for SteamOS or just use SteamOS instead of using the perfectly good Steam client for Windows, the OS part needs to do all the things users want it to do, which in the living room means act as a home theater PC.
- Sharing and family tools: we already heard that it’ll soon be possible to lend your Steam games to a list of friends. That alone is a big deal. It looks like SteamOS will support family sharing, so achievements and saves for a single game can be stored under multiple same-roof user accounts. They’re also including family tools so that big stack of porn games Steam doesn’t actually sell can be kept out of your four-year-old’s game library but still one sticky-fingered click away from you. Pervert.
Valve’s release indicated that lots of games – “hundreds” – would ship with native SteamOS versions in 2014. Understandable given Steam’s dominance, and desirable for developers if Valve’s serious about the performance improvements they’ve accomplished. Indeed, Valve’s enormous clout may be all it takes to eliminate many of the chicken/egg problems that Linux OSes have always had, most of which fundamentally boil down to software support. I can’t switch to Linux even if I wanted to, because there’s stuff I need (Adobe) and stuff I want (my games) that don’t work on Linux. Plus the driver support is nowhere near as good.
Now nVidia and AMD will have no choice but to release excellent SteamOS drivers for all their hardware, right alongside Windows drivers. If gamers switch over to SteamOS, they will demand it, and so will Valve. Game developers, obviously, will develop for the platform – exclusively, one imagines, should we find ourselves in a world where SteamOS is a large proportion of gamers’ only system.
The technology behind this home streaming thing is a question mark, an important one since even if all games forever go to SteamOS, most of us still have dozens or hundreds of Windows games in our regular Steam libraries.
Then there’s the simplest challenge: give me one reason why I should go to SteamOS instead of sticking with my current setup. After all, the Steam client for Windows is fantastic. What does SteamOS give me that I need?
Now, I recently said that I’d be right on board with a SteamOS if Valve were to announce such a thing, so this is all pretty exciting news to me. But older pronouncements aside, we can’t – and shouldn’t – expect the world in the first release of the operating system. I highly doubt that SteamOS will replace your Windows or Mac PC for all activities, at least not out of the gate, and possibly not ever. It all depends what Valve sees SteamOS to be.
Gabe Newell came from Microsoft, where he worked on Windows. He knows that operating systems drive the computing world. People can’t switch completely to a new one unless everything they need works on it. Even like programs aren’t good enough, because people work with other people. I can’t switch to GIMP because I need absolute compatibility with Photoshop’s .psd format. I can’t switch to SteamOS unless I can be absolutely sure that it can be my operating system through sleet and snow. Once again, however, Valve knows this.
If they just see SteamOS as a friendly living room media OS, one that runs Steam Boxes and offers a nice mid-range option between a console and a hand-built, Windows-running HTPC, fair enough. That road is more challenging because give me one reason why I should go to SteamOS instead of spending a little more and licensing a copy of Windows for my living room PC. This road is also simpler and safer, because they’re not prodding any sleeping giants.
But if Valve has ambitions for SteamOS, ambitions that maybe see it one day becoming a competitor to Windows and OS X, that could be something really… earth trembly. Valve may be one of the few companies capable of entering the OS fray. The Steam user base, customer loyalty, and technical capability enjoyed by the company puts them in a great position.
Of course they don’t say what SteamOS won’t do on the announcement page (not surprisingly), yet I find myself thinking that if Valve does a Valve, many of us may be more or less done with Windows within the next few years.
Remember, the PC was dead recently. And it’s not outlandish to say that it would still be dead were it not for Steam. Remember, not long ago we bought our games from stores, in boxes. Valve changed that, with Steam – a system I despised as intrusive and wholly unnecessary in 2004. Look at me now. In fairness to me, I didn’t see Steam becoming what Steam became.
Throughout the post I’ve been saying “Valve knows this” as regards certain business facts. Something else Valve knows: where we are today, Cloud-wise, is still transitional. Eventually the world and all its applications will be served remotely to fairly thin home PCs. The idea makes me nervous, plus I dislike losing my hobby as a PC enthusiast, but it is going to happen. Valve *ahem* knows this.
Eventually games, too, will do it. OnLive may have failed but the idea was good. Sooner or later games will stream. Valve wants to be part of that, so SteamOS may be a foundational effort. I’d bet OnLive would have done better if it had controlled the entire process, from servers all the way to the customer’s operating system. Valve may very well simply be laying the groundwork for the future of Steam – a Steam that streams games rather than sells digital product. Technically it’s just simpler for them if they say such a service requires (or runs best on) SteamOS.
I keep waiting for Valve to do something evil. I don’t want to hate them. I’m not even looking forward to bearing the same fierce antipathy for them that I bear toward Microsoft and Google, I’m just resigned to it happening. The more of what we do gets dominated by a single company, the more that company seems likely to embark on a Customer Fork Sodomy Initiative. So far, from Valve… nothing. No revelations that they’ve installed back doors, no adware bloated client, no “Steam now costs $19.99 a month,” no stories of hellish working conditions, nothing. I mean my god, people, Steam’s worst crime against me is that I was once locked out of my Steam account for an hour because their Steam Guard code thingy got messed up. Could they buck the tradition? Could there be no fork sodomy?
SteamOS has been a sort of ill-kept maybe-secret for a while now; they’ve long said that the Steam Box would run on Linux and Steam for Linux is already with us. Booting directly into Steam, rather than launching Steam when you boot, is a logical next step regardless of long-term plans for the system. You can bet that curiosity, if nothing else, will see me downloading the thing on day one – a day I anticipate to be before the end of this year, I might add – just for curiosity’s sake. Which means I will have to get that damned Steam Guard system working correctly.
Remember, they’ve promised three big announcements this week. Three. one two three. Could Announcement Three be something we’ve waited half our lives for, nudge wink?
Actually probably not, since they said all three announcements were tied to their living room efforts. But you know.
You can learn more about SteamOS here: http://store.steampowered.com/livingroom/SteamOS/