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It is not every week that a video game company decides to unveil a truly ambitious plan to heighten their means into a full-fledged technology company. More so, it is even less frequent to see the same company challenge an already established infrastructure of technology with such zeal and potential.
Naturally, as we've come to know Valve over these past 17 years, quality and ambition are two traits the company has come to exemplify. Not as if they operate “out of the box”...there is no box for Valve just as there was no spoon to Neo’s young muse in The Matrix.
Does this make Valve impervious to impunity? Of course not; as the few months left in 2013 pass, we all shall come to see how true or false that statement is. Throughout last week Valve announced a three-fold plan to bring not only the Steam client, but Steam's verbose video game library from the desktop to the couch. Through the combination of an operating system, proprietary machines, and a console-inspired controller; Valve will seek to bring the computer-gaming experience into the living room. The beta period doesn't expect to last long, a few months at most, as registration for the Steam machines ends on October 25, 2013; the production machines from a variety of manufacturers are scheduled to release early in 2014. However, within that time frame a challenge to the throne of the console-verse will occur. If it works the developers of the highly-anticipated next-generation of consoles may find themselves backed up against an unforgiving wall; abandonment.
Though no fortune-teller, I present to you but a few humbled thoughts as to why Valve’s plan to turn your living room into a Steam-room are no longer pipe dreams, but viable and revolutionary.
As a product industry console gaming offers gamers one truly distinguishable feature, convenience. Drivers are not a concern, faulty hardware modules are not a concern, the RMA process is not a concern, an operating system that cares less about the games you play, messages you send, and hardware you own is not a concern, performance is equivalent from console to console. a veil of thrift exists as game titles cost the same whether purchased for a computer or console but the current consoles are cheaper than lower-end computer rigs. Consoles are much less of a hassle to own, operate, and maintain when compared to a computer.
Despite that I can type or talk at great length for my love of personal computer hardware along with the debate between computers and consoles; Valve may very well end that debate once and for all through the SteamOS and Steam controller. Though the beta for Steam machines have been announced, third-party manufacturers along with the potential for those to do it themselves leaves the marvels of Valve’s latest revelations on the porch of the operating system and controller; as Steam users can simply build their own Steam machine with the hardware and case of their choosing, the box may be a moot point depending on the price once the production models are announced.
As an operating system, SteamOS stands as a custom-tailored Linux system for video games which focuses on processing just what the games need, rather than other extraneous processes and services Windows or MacOS require to function. In theory it ought benefit performance graphically and auditory while reducing input lag overall as a result of running less processes and more gaming-deliberate process delineation freeing up system resources. Being based upon Linux structuring, SteamOS will have greater potential to handle modern CPU hardware which has evolved into multiple core or thread chips; an aspect of hardware and software that has not been completely addressed by Microsoft, CPU developers, and video game developers in a conjoined effort. The problem that creates is one of optimization. A remarkably powerful capability exists within CPUs today because of multiple cores or threads, yet the most common operating system still struggles to best utilize them, video game engine clients suffer from the same lack of optimization. By not optimizing the entire system from the hardware, to the operating system, and video game, potential performance is reduced. What that means is despite the hardware you paid for, your software is not thoroughly tooled to wholesomely utilize it; like buying a sports car that tops out at the speed limit. To date, the number of software developers that thoroughly utilize multiple processing cores is in short order despite hardware advancements that have made multiple-core processors the standard means since 2009. Having a Linux architecture as the base for SteamOS will be a great benefit to performance as that operating system has some of the best multi-threaded support on the market.
However, the true revolution will not be the box, nor the operating system; rather a cause from the effect of the Steam controller. The console controller is a debilitating necessity for game developers. To a point that certain genres are not feasible for them. For computer gamers the foremost genre that comes to mind is strategy; whether real-time or turn-based low fidelity joysticks lack the precision RTS gamers demand for the best control over their units in the fight and across the map for surveillance. Should the Steam controller work as currently advertised, strategy will have a home in the living room within the first quarter or next year. A feat which though has been tried before, let us not forget Starcraft 64, but not well. Through the high fidelity trackpads precision will have a much greater resolution that joysticks providing a closer threshold of control to that of a mouse while the touch-screen will not just allow users access to whatever menus their game might have but also the mini-map. Drink that in RTS people; imagine being able to simply tap a touch-screen to zip from one place on the battlefield to another. Still, there will be acclimation required on behalf of console and computer gamers when the Steam controller is available; none-the-less for console gamers that jump ship for the Steam-room experience the transition will be one of ease and excitement come the first Steam sale they partake in.
This is the new frontier Valve finds itself at the forefront of. Radically reorganizing living room hardware into a single machine. SteamOS will play your Steam library off the box natively while allowing you to stream games from your desktop to your living room. Nor are games the only media that will be streaming; movies, music, and television shows can also be streamed making media PCs obsolete in quite short order. Add in Steam Family Sharing and the Big Picture Valve has created over the last two years takes on the shape of a tapestry. Should the system dynamic work, Valve will offer your living room all the entertainment hardware it needs; plays your games, plays your friend's games, streams movies, streams television, streams music, has a web browser, is open source allowing the community to partake in it's ongoing evolution, is connected to your television, is connected to your surround sound system, finds you seated on the couch, and all the while negates the potential of spilling your beer all over your keyboard. It is a new frontier that is wild with possibilities, and ought be frightening to the console-verse.