News, Views, and Reviews
The title says it all.
Three days ago, Valve started a countdown timer to three big announcements they would make this week, starting today. The first announcement is a huge game-changer:
Valve is offering a free Operating System, based on Linux, that is designed to push gaming to new heights. I’ll try to break down the many ways Steam OS could accomplish this.
The reveal website hints at performance improvements:
“In SteamOS, we have achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we’re now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level. Game developers are already taking advantage of these gains as they target SteamOS for their new releases.”
Gaming enthusiasts love arguing which console is better than the other and how superior PCs are to consoles. But consoles have one advantage: they are “closed” systems with a defined hardware set and a streamlined operating system, all designed to get the most out of gaming programs as possible. On the other hand, Windows OS is a reliable plug-and-play platform that handles a huge range of programs and devices, one of which, happens to be gaming. By designing the new SteamOS to cater to gaming, Valve could get increased performance from games that regular PCs can’t.
There have long been rumors that Valve has been developing their own hardware, a console-like “Steam Box” that will no doubt take advantage of this new Operating System. But Valve repeats over and over on that website that SteamOS is intended for “any machine in the living room”. The PC industry has a wide range of name brands and parts manufacturers. It can be confusing for PC enthusiasts, let alone regular gamers, to keep track of. Game develoeprs are challenged with that wide range of “specs” to program games for. Even after games are released, it can be a struggle to keep them optimized with different patches, software updates, and new “drivers” released for dedicated graphics cards. Already, Steam has provided a great service by auto-updating and optimizing games FOR you, behind the scenes, provided you have them purchased in your Steam library. This makes it a little easier on the software side, but the challenges of finding the right hardware can still be overwhelming to many people. If Valve does release a “Steam Box” that could remove a lot of the guesswork for gamers and non-gamers, and possibly even other parts manufacturers. Valve is calling this a “Co-Operating System”:
“Steam is not a one-way content broadcast channel, it’s a collaborative many-to-many entertainment platform, in which each participant is a multiplier of the experience for everyone else. With SteamOS, “openness” means that the hardware industry can iterate in the living room at a much faster pace than they’ve been able to. Content creators can connect directly to their customers. Users can alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want. Gamers are empowered to join in the creation of the games they love. SteamOS will continue to evolve, but will remain an environment designed to foster these kinds of innovation.”
But what if you already have a gaming PC and a library of games in your Steam account? Valve lists a variety of ways these games can be shared with your family – and streamed to other rooms in your house. They keep saying “living room” but I would guess it would work anywhere you have a TV or monitor. This suggests they will reveal some sort of mini-console that is just a streaming device. My guess it would be cheap, like $99, and is an option ONLY for those that have already spent the money on an awesome gaming PC. For anyone else, the “Steam Box” will be a stand alone, hard-to-resist, piece of equipment. Which brings me to my theory of why this is a game changer:
Think about it: adding Windows OS to any PC adds about $100-150 to the price. Gaming PCs are intimidating to regular consumers because they are expensive and, well, intimidatingly powerful machines. Valve could hit the “sweet spot” with their “Steam Box” if no other way than making the OS “free” and immediately knocking $100-150 off the price. Other manufactures could jump on board and create SteamOS-PCs for the exact same reason: they’ll be cheaper than their Windows-PC counterparts. By marketing them as not just “gaming” PCs, but “Steam-Powered” PCs, they could also remove the other intimidating factors. The world has already embraced tablets over PCs and laptops, for example, because they are simple and easy to use. By making an affordable and less intimidating device, many people that have previously passed on PC gaming will give it another look. Valve could sell their system for even less money, just to get them into people’s houses where they will make that money back from game purchases. That means they could push the price down even further, maybe even down to a price that could compete with consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation.
Marketing a “Steam Box” to families lowers some of the perceived barriers to PC gaming, and adding more entertainment options will sweeten the deal. It’s hard to remember a day when Xbox or PlayStation did NOT include additional services like Netflix or Hulu, but now it’s practically mandatory. Valve intends to be competitive:
“We’re working with many of the media services you know and love. Soon we will begin bringing them online, allowing you to access your favorite music and video with Steam and SteamOS.”
Again, this could be streaming from another device, like the PC you already own, or it could imply the new “Steam Box” will be partnered with the same services like Netflix. I’m guessing we will find out on Wednesday.
Of course, this is just part one of three big announcements. I can’t wait to see what else Valve has to say. Already, my head is spinning with ideas of how far this can go, and how it will shake up the industry. They kept saying “on any living room machine” as if there are plenty to choose from. Of course, there is the common assumption that Valve is making their own hardware, and other manufacturers could jump aboard, but what about existing machines? Say…consoles? What if you could install SteamOS on your Xbox or PlayStation?! I doubt Microsoft will allow it, but Sony might. Can you imagine how good it sounds to buy a $400 PS4 that can access your Steam library, too? How would Microsoft even compete with that? IF neither MS or Sony allow it, a “Steam Box” will surely compete with both, anyway. As I mentioned, they could make it very affordable and remove the intimidation of PCs, and introduce gaming to a huge market. The value of buying games on Steam (and their many ridiculous sales) will definitely compete with the traditional $60 console game, even if the Steam Box itself is more expensive than consoles. Opening up your existing library to be played anywhere in the house could also appeal to a lot of families. But my head doesn’t stop spinning at just games.
Could this shake up the entire PC industry? Will Microsoft finally have another OS rival? If Valve provides it for free – and it can accomplish more than just power games and entertainment – how will Microsoft compete with THAT? Will they have to lower the price of Windows?? Regardless, the PC industry IS in decline. Sales numbers tell a troubling story of new tablets and similar devices outselling PCs. As I mentioned, they are cheaper and simpler and that’s all that many people need. If people can get a cheap SteamOS-PC and access their email and social networks like Facebook, we could see a further decline in Windows-PCs – but a BOOST in overall PC sales. Assuming other manufacturers jump on the “free OS” bandwagon.
I also think it’s possible that Valve could enter the PC space with not just a stand alone “Steam Box” or “mini-console” alternative – they could market their own Steam-branded components. It’s a little more confusing, but they could get their parts on regular store shelves with the marketing of “buy these parts = easy PC building/upgrading” which also lowers the intimidation factors of PCs. Maybe when a new game comes out that pushes the current technology too much, they could include some sort of “free upgrade with trade-in and purchase of this new game” or other promotions. There are tremendous opportunities here, so I can’t wait for the next announcement!