I’m a big lover of Steam. Whilst it had a rather rocky start, something that was exacerbated by the fact that I was still on dial up, since then the platform has managed to make me part with many of my dollars and I have done so gladly. Sure part of this is due to me moving up in the world, no longer being a poor uni student whose only indulgence was his World of Warcraft subscription, however Steam providing titles at a very reasonable price has also led me to spend more than I would have otherwise. So when rumours start to spread that Steam might be bringing things like music, TV shows and movies to the platform you can imagine the excitement I have at that prospect.
There’s been talk of Steam expanding beyond it’s current games and software market for some time now, ever since Valve announced the Steam Music overlay at the beginning of this year. There’s also already a few movies on the platform, like Free to Play and Indie Game: The Movie, and whilst they’re specifically about games it’s not much of a stretch to think that they’d extend the platform further. The only precedent not set so far is for TV shows however it’s not much of a stretch to see the same system working for that kind of content. There’s still a few questions to be answered about the service (When will it debut? How will its costs compare to other services? ) however if Steam can do for what it did for games for movies, TV and music you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be an incredibly positive thing for consumers.
The reason, for me as an Australia at least, is that there’s really no other alternative available to us. I was excited when Dendy Direct was announced, mostly because I’m a fan of their cinemas, however their pricing is nothing short of insane with a single season of a show costing anywhere from $20 to $40. Other services available here are either similarly priced or simply don’t have the catalogue of shows that many of us want to watch. Even if the services available here do have the shows they’re either significantly delayed or released in such a way that’s incongruent to the way they were released overseas, like Netflix original series being released weekly instead of all in one hit.
There’s always the geo-unblocking tools to get us Netflix of course but that’s really only a stopgap to a better solution.
We’re getting closer to a proper solution though as there’s been at least one notable entrant into this field that’s not completely bullshit. AnimeLab, run by Madman (the Australian anime distributor), offers up complete anime series for any and all to watch for free, including ones that are only just being released in Japan. Whilst I’m sure the free ride won’t last forever it does show that there’s demand for such a service in Australia, even within the niche interest area that is anime. I’m hopeful that this will encourage other services to start considering branching out into Australia sooner rather than later as it honestly can’t come fast enough.
I never really had a taste for competitive gaming mostly because my less than stellar Internet connection usually put me at a disadvantage for any game that I played. Even after I remedied that I still found shied away from them, fearing that I’d simply end up losing game after game, never to make any progress. Starcraft II changed that however and I found myself deeply engrossed in ladder play, feverishly battling my way through opponents in the hopes I could make it to the top. That faded over time as my interest turned towards DOTA2 and much to my surprise I’m still horribly addicted to it. This has then evolved into a love for all things about the game including the competitive scene, something which I’d never thought I’d find myself interested in. Of all the tournaments and events that happen over the year none compare to the spectacle that is The International, a DOTA2 tournament hosted by Valve themselves.
I was only tangentially aware of the first 2 Internationals having been a keen DOTA AllStars fan back in the day and one of the many wanting an invite to the beta but was yet to be in possession of one. They made headlines for their gigantic prize pools for a game that was still relatively unknown, a cool $1 million for the first place winner. For pro gamers that’s an incredible amount of money, more than many other tournaments in more established eSports scenes, and is enough to sustain an entire team for a long time. On the surface it appeared to be just another marketing tactic by Valve to get people interested in the game but since its introduction 3 years ago The International has taken on a life of its own, becoming the standard for eSports events across the world.
Last year however Valve did something curious, the released a compendium (an in game item) for $10, $2.50 of which would go directly into the prize pool that would be awarded to the players. The result was incredible, players and supporters of teams alike contributed over $1.2 million to the prize pool which saw The International retake its crown as the largest prize pool eSports tournament. Valve, looking to replicate the success of last year’s tournament, released another compendium for this year’s The International as well with the same price point and contribution levels.
The results speak for themselves: yesterday the prize pool exceeded $6 million and it’s not stopping there.
For fans and players a like this is a great thing as it means that teams that even place in 7th or 8th will likely have enough funds behind them to sustain them throughout the year. Being a pro gamer isn’t as flashy as it sounds and there are some costs that simply can’t be avoided (like flights, not to mention the basics of living). For fans this means a bigger, much more well produced event which judging by last year’s standards will make it nothing short of incredible.
I’m incredibly excited as what this year’s The International will bring as we get to see the top tier talent of DOTA2 duke it out for the biggest prize pool in eSports history. Every year Valve has stepped up their game and this year looks to be no exception with the live floor moving to a much larger arena and the production crew swelling their ranks considerably. As someone who never really understood sports growing up I now know what it feels like for sports fans when grand finals time approaches and I simply can’t wait for it.
My stance on Cloud Gaming is well known and honestly barring some major breakthrough in several technological areas (graphics cards, available bandwidth, etc.) I can’t see it changing any time soon. The idea of local streaming however is something I’m on board with as there have already been numerous proven examples where it can work, a couple of which I’ve actually used myself. So when I heard that Valve was going to enable In Home Streaming as a feature of Steam I was pretty excited as there have been a couple times where I’ve found myself wanting to use games installed on my main PC on other computers in the house. Valve widen the beta last week to include a lot more people and I was lucky enough to snag an invite so I gave In Home Streaming a look over during the Australia Day long weekend.
The setup couldn’t be more simple. At this stage you have to opt into the Steam client beta, requiring you to redownload the client (around 80 MB at the time of writing) and sign into both machines using the same account. Now last time I remember trying to do that I got told I was already logged in somewhere else and thus couldn’t log in but it seems this client version has no such limitations. Once you’re logged into both machines you should be greeted with a list of games available to play that matches your main machine perfectly and, when you go to play them, you’ll have the option to either install it locally or stream it from the other machine.
Clicking on stream will start the game on the other machine its installed on and, should everything go according to plan, it will then appear in another window on the machine you’re streaming to. The first thing you’ll notice though is that the game fully runs on the other machine, including display the graphics and playing sound. This can be somewhat undesirable and whilst it’s easily remedied it shows you what kind of streaming is actually occurring (I.E. DirectX mirroring). Using such technology also places some limitations on what can and cant’ be streamed by simply clicking on the stream button but there are ways around it.
I first tried this on my media PC which is a HP MicroServer that has a Radeon HD6450 1GB installed in it. Now this machine can handle pretty much any kind of content you can throw at it although I have had it struggle with some high bitrate 1080p files. This was somewhat improved by using newer drivers and later builds of VLC so I was pretty confident it could handle a similar stream over the network. Whilst it worked the frame rates were pretty dismal, even in games which weren’t as graphically intense. Considering the primary use case of this would be for underpowered machines to take advantage of the grunt other PCs in the house can provide this was a little disappointing but I decided I’d give it a go on my Zenbook before I passed judgement.
The much better hardware of the Zenbook improved the experience greatly with all the games I tested on it running nigh on perfectly. There were a couple issues to report, namely when the stream broke there didn’t seem to be a way to restart it so I was just left with a black screen and audio playing. The differing resolutions meant that I was playing with a boxed perspective which was a tad annoying and, unfortunately, it appears you’re limited to the resolutions of the box you’re streaming from (I couldn’t run DOTA 2 at 1080p as my monitors are 1680 x 1050). Still the performance was good enough that I could play FPS games on it, although I wasn’t game enough to try an online match.
Overall I’m very impressed with what Valve has delivered with In Home Streaming as it’s pretty much what I expected, bar it being so damn easy to set up and use. Whilst I’m sure they’ll improve the performance over time it does speak volumes to the fact that the end point does matter and that you will have a worse experience on low powered hardware. Still, even then it was usable for my use case (watching in game DOTA 2 replays) and I’m sure that it would be good enough in its current form for a lot of people.
It’s no secret that my preferred gaming platform is the PC and the platform I run on top of that is Microsoft Windows. Whilst OSX and Linux might be gaining more momentum as of late they’re still quite far behind in terms of support from major titles, with the indie scene being the catalyst that’s driving them forward. With the introduction of SteamOS though Valve signalled that they had lost confidence in the Windows platform to deliver the same gaming experience as it had done for decades previously, predominately due to the changes that came in with Windows 8 and the WinRT platform. This is where I and Gabe Newell start to disagree and if the latest numbers are anything to go by so do a good chunk of his customers.
The Steam Hardware Survey is a monthly data collection that Valve does through Steam to give an overview of the current trends in PC gaming. The results are a great insight into what gamers are using to play their games and is a great source of information for developers and pundits alike. The December 2013 results show a trend that even I didn’t think would be possible: a staggering 20% of Steam’s user base is now on Windows 8 or 8.1 64 bit. Compared to wider PC adoption rates this is even more impressive as it’s less than half of that of Steam users. Whilst I wouldn’t go as far to say that these figures should change Gabe’s mind (and indeed I believe he should stay the course with SteamOS) it does call into question the reasoning behind his recent musings about Windows as a gaming platform.
Another interesting titbit of information buried in the survey is that the fastest growing platform by far is Windows 8.1. Whilst it’s arguable that this is likely due to the improvements made in 8.1 (like the return of the start bar and the straight to desktop mode) I think it’s far more likely because this is the first Windows update that’s been made freely available to end users. Indeed it’s kind of hard to avoid upgrading to it as Windows will nag you every so often about it and since the update is completely non-destructive there’s really no barrier to getting the upgrade past a few hours. Still a raw increase of 2.5% of market share in a month is quite impressive and shows that Microsoft has done something right with its release.
I think it’s clear that Windows is still a very viable platform for gaming, even with Microsoft’s big push for things to start going the WinRT way. I’ve always been of the stance that the traditional desktop isn’t going to go anywhere, even in the face of tablets and other touch devices taking a bigger slice of the market that PCs used to occupy, and it seems a good chunk of the gaming community agrees with that idea. I’m sure Microsoft is also keenly aware of how much revenue the gaming community brings to them and how much of that is due to Steam so it’d be very surprising to see them do anything to push them away from the Windows platform.
I’ve been reviewing games for about 4 years now and since I’m not exactly a top tier reviewer I’ve had to employ other tactics to get my reviews in front of other people. Primarily this just used to be via my Twitter and Facebook accounts however after I noticed my reviews getting submitted to other sites (by other people, no less!) I decided to start doing that process myself rather than wait for some unknown individual to do it for me. Primarily I used to just post to N4G and Reddit however after the launch of Steam Communities I started posting my reviews on there, figuring that people who were buying the game would likely sift through there before purchasing. Seems I wasn’t the only one doing this as Valve has decided to formalize the idea in Steam Reviews.
It’s essentially just another part of the Steam Community Hub that every game has (which now includes things like game guides and trading posts) where users can leave and rate reviews for that particular title. If this sounds similar to the recommendations that steam has had for ages you’d be right and this new review system will be replacing it wholesale. All your old recommendations will be upgraded to reviews however which means that it’s somewhat useful right off the bat (although unlikely to have anything negative due to the way the old system worked) and none of the work anyone put in gets lost in the transition.
One of the marked improvements that the Steam platform can give to reviews like this is that users will not be able to review a game they haven’t played. This doesn’t extend to needing to own the game either so if you played a game on a free weekend or got a title shared to you from a friend you’ll be eligible to write a review on the Steam page for it. Whilst this won’t entirely eliminate the bad review train that tends to happen with certain titles it does limit the scope to people who’ve actually had a crack at the game rather than anyone who feels like jumping on a bandwagon.
Currently they’re just worded reviews with no score indicator on them however that’s apparently set to change during the beta. Whilst some will lament their inclusion I still believe that they have some value so long as we, the gaming community, use them appropriately. Since I’ll be actively participating in this open beta (I’ve still got a ton of reviews on my blog that haven’t made their way onto Steam in one way or another) I’ll be submitting feedback to encourage use along those lines so that games can more easily compared against each other, rather than some subjective view of perfection. How this will come about I can not be entirely sure but if anyone can change the way scores are used in the wider gaming world its Valve and Steam is the platform to do it.
Whether this will translate into more exposure for small time reviewers like myself will be something of interest as whilst I’ve had a few people come to read my review from Steam it pales in comparison to other platforms. Steam Reviews could change that as they’ll be given a prominent location in the Community Hub rather than being lost in the wash of the general discussion forum. That’s really a side benefit for people like me however as the real value here will be from getting a much better view of what the gaming community thinks of a title, hopefully free from much of the bandwagoning that’s made Metacritic what it is today.
I was never particularly good at RTS games, mostly because I never dug deep into the mechanics or got involved in higher level strategies that would have enabled me to progress my sills. However I found a lot of joy in the custom maps that many RTS games had and this was especially so for WarCraft 3. Inbetween my bouts of Elemental Tower Defense, Footman Frenzy and X Hero Siege I inevitably came across Defense of the Ancients and like many others became hooked on it. Whilst I still favoured the less directly competitive maps, much preferring the spam fest that other customs offered, the original laid the foundation for my current obsession with DOTA2 a game which has claimed almost 1400 hours of my life so far.
However DOTA2 wasn’t my first reintroduction into the MOBA scene, that honour goes to Heroes of Newerth which I was somewhat intrigued by whilst it was still in beta. I had a small cadre of friends who liked to play it as well but for some reason it just wasn’t enough to keep us interested and eventually fell by the wayside. The same crew and I had tried League of Legends as well but the experience was just too far away from the DOTA we knew and after a couple games our attention was turned elsewhere. If I’m honest though we were mostly excited to hear about Blizzard’s own version of the MOBA genre as that was one of the reasons that WarCraft 3 DOTA was so enjoyable: it had many of the characters we knew and loved.
It was looking like Blizzard DOTA and DOTA2 were going to launch around similar times and indeed once Valve officially announced DOTA2, with the original map maker IceFrog at the helm, news of the work on Blizzard DOTA went silent. Whilst this was partially due to the court battle that Blizzard and Valve became embroiled in afterwards there was little doubt among the community that Blizzard’s original vision for their MOBA title was going to clash heavily with that of Valve and the work we had seen up until that date was to be scrapped. What was less clear however was what they were working on instead as whilst no one doubts the calibre of Blizzard’s work they were going up against 3 already highly polished products, all of which had dedicated communities behind them.
Well it seems that Blizzard has done something completely out of left field, and it looks awesome.
Heroes of the Storm is the final name of Blizzard’s entrance into the MOBA genre (although they’re hesitating to use that term currently) and whilst it shares some base characteristics with other titles it’s really something out of left field. For starters the typical game is slated to last only 20 minutes, something which is a downright rarity in any other MOBA title. Additionally some of the signature mechanics, like individual hero levels and items, don’t exist in the Heroes of the Storm world. It also has different maps, various mechanics for helping a team achieve victory and a talent tree system for heroes that’s unlike any other MOBA I’ve played before. The differences are so vast that I’d recommend you take a look at this post on Wowhead as it goes into the real nitty gritty of what makes it so unique.
From what I’ve seen it looks like Blizzard is aiming Heroes of the Storm primarily at people who aren’t currently MOBA players as it seems like the barrier to entry on this is quite low. Traditionally this is what has turned people off playing such titles as the learning curve is quite steep and quite frankly the communities have never been too welcoming to newer players. Heroes of the Storm on the other hand could be played 3 times in the space of an hour allowing new players to get up to speed much more quickly. At the same time though I think it will appeal to current MOBA players seeking a different experience, whether they’re feeling burn out on their title of choice or just want something different every once in a while.
I’m quite keen to get my hands on it (I’ve signed up for the beta, here) as I think it’ll be quite a bit of fun, especially with my current group of friends who’ve all taken to DOTA2 with fervour. It’s great to hear that it’s going to be a stand alone title rather than a map within StarCraft 2 and I think that will give Blizzard a lot of freedom with developing the idea in the future. Whether or not it can have the same longevity through a competitive scene like all MOBA titles before it thought will remain to be seen but I get the feeling it’ll be something of a LAN favourite for a while to come.
Valve spent all last week teasing the greater Internet community about how the Steam Universe was going to be seeing some massive expansion in the coming year. The first announcement, SteamOS, set the tone for the rest that followed them even though many a Valve fanboy hoped that the last announcement would be Half Life 3 (although honestly they do that with any announcement from Valve). Whilst it’s been known that Valve wanted to make an attempt on the living room for some time now, as Big Picture mode demonstrated, these last 3 announcements form the basis of their first dedicated attempt to bring PC gaming into the world that consoles have dominated for decades.
And the crazy thing is it might just work.
PCs were the dominant platform for quite a long time, indeed those of us who grew up with games during the 80s and 90s would have had it as their platform of choice. Many of us would have had consoles as well however but the best games that we played would always be found on a PC. Over time the convenience of consoles started to attract more and more people to gaming and this snowballed to the point where the vast majority of gamers now get their experiences through a console of some type. However to many of us there is still nothing better than a PC for gaming and with the time frames between console generations getting longer and longer the PC has seen something of a resurgence of late, especially with distribution platforms like Steam backing it.
However the primary interface for a PC, the mouse and keyboard, isn’t exactly conducive to the living room environment. Most of us PC gamers have been at a LAN where we were confined to a couch or attempting to play games on our big TVs just for the fun of it only to find that the experience is sub-par when using traditional PC input methods. However whilst you can get around this with a controller there are genres of games where a mouse and keyboard are required (any RTS and, personally FPS). The Steam Controller seems to be an attempt to bridge these two worlds together and I can see some situations where it would work however there are others where it will still struggle. I’ll reserve final judgement until I have one in my hands but suffice to say that I feel that RTS style (like DOTA2) games will struggle with it.
What I’m particularly interested to see is what kind of hardware Valve will make available as part of their Steam Machine platform. Traditionally PCs required fairly regular refreshes in order to play the latest games (I do mine every 3 years at the latest) although that has been stymied somewhat by the consolization of games. The specifications of their hardware will determine where the line is drawn between games that have a great experience and ones that don’t as whilst it’d be great to run Crysis 3 at 1080p @ 60fps the hardware required to do so would push the cost of a potential Steam Machine far beyond that of a traditional console. In short if Valve is trying to compete with consoles they’re going to have do it in the same price range and that will put an upper limit on its capabilities.
The sum total of all these different parts is a clear strategy from Valve to increase the PC platform’s market share and, consequently, grow Steam’s potential market. It’s a smart move as they’ve effectively dominated the PC as a platform and the next logical step is to grow it further. This can only be done through cannibalizing gamers from other platforms and the best way to do this is to bring Steam to them rather than try to convince them to switch to PCs. Whether that value proposition works for current console gamers is something I’m not completely sure of however if anyone can convince them to come across it’s Valve.
In the digital distribution world there’s really only one player: Steam. Sure there are alternatives like GoG or Desura but they’re essentially niche branches that cater to a specific audience, ones that favour no DRM and modding respectively. The one notable competitor to Steam is Origin, the platform that was built solely for the purpose of distributing EA’s games. Love it or hate it if you want to play one of their games you’re going to have to download Origin and, for people like me who like to review games, this means a non-zero portion of my game library is on there. The only reason it exists is so EA can capture that part of the market that it was losing to Steam although if the words of EA’s EVP Andrew Wilson are to be believed it’s all about creating a better experience for gamers:
“I think your perception is absolutely correct,” Wilson agreed. “I think when I look at the journey that service has taken, I think the transaction component of that service has taken a disproportionate amount of the communication and mindshare of what we really try and provide, and the barrier that that puts in between you and the game that you want to play.”
“We think of Origin, in this new world, as the gracious host of the party. It’s not the center of attention; it’s not the DJ, it’s not the dance director, it’s just a gracious host. It’s someone who greets you at the door and ushers you in to where you want to go and points you in the direction of your friends so that you can go and party with them together. That’s really how we see it.”
Wilson is trying to change the narrative around Origin, pushing it away from the widely held perception that it’s just a money grab (which it is, there’s no doubt about this) and trying to guide it more towards it being something of a value added service. Indeed this is apparently where the future of Origin lies, in adding more features to it that mimic those that have been a major part of Steam for years. He’d like to think of Origin as the place gamers go to play their games because that’s where all their friends are, they’re just the facilitator that allows them to join up. The rest of the interview reads like the ramblings of someone trapped in a fever dream as the world that Origin exists in is so vastly different from the one Wilson paints for it.
I’ll be frank when I say that any game that’s on Origin puts up an instant barrier for me, both as a player and as a reviewer. As a player I know that a game being on Origin means that the vast majority of my friends won’t be playing it because they just can’t be bothered with Origin as a service. Indeed for many recent games that I played on there like Simcity and Crysis 3 I was either alone or one of 2 people on there at any given time despite the long list of friends I have on there. Worse still trying to simple maintenance tasks on it, like backing up game files so I can move them (and the fact that that link is on the Steam forums should tell you something), is a royal pain in the ass which eats away at the time I could be doing what I wanted to be doing: playing the damn game. This is on top of the lack of screenshot functionality which means I have to run FRAPS in order to get the screenshots for review which doesn’t help to endear Origin to me.
It’s not just the simple fact that Origin is yet another piece of software we have to install and maintain, that’s just the beginning, more it’s because Origin is an inferior service, one that we’re locked into using should we want to play an EA published game. It may make the experience for EA games better due to the common installation and patching platform but that’s all it does and it’s not something that couldn’t be accomplished through other, more established channels. It’s akin to all those social services that every game seems to have these days (and as we’ve seen are massive security risks) which are required to play the game.
Gamers don’t want this; it took us years to warm up to Steam and the idea that we’ll somehow cosy up to yet another service that provides next to no benefit for us is a ludicrous proposition. If EA really did understand gamers like they’re purporting to they wouldn’t have bothered with Origin as a digital distribution service in the first place, they would’ve just made it a back end platform that all their games can use should they not want to use Steam’s. EA might think that it’s just a matter of layering on some more services and features but it’s going to need so much more than that before gamers will consider it on the same level as Steam. With Origin’s primary focus being EA games I don’t believe that will ever be achievable, especially when Valve keep going from strength to strength with Steam.
I’m not a big user of the second hand market but there have been times when I’ve delved into it in order to get what I want. Usually its when I find out about a particular collector’s edition too late to buy a retail copy and will just wait it out until someone wants to hock their copy on eBay where I’ll snap it up for a song. The last game I did this with was Uncharted 3 (although I failed to mention the saga in the review) and whilst I didn’t get all the collector’s edition downloadable goodies the seller went out of their way to make sure I got a similar amount of value as they did when they purchased it new. I certainly didn’t expect this but it was deeply appreciated all the same.
However his generosity is a symptom of the larger problem at play here. Almost 2 years ago a silent war began between developers (well mostly likely the publishers) and the second hand market where first sale doctrine was being usurped by crippling used games. The first title that I purchased which was affected by this Mass Effect 2 and whilst I have no intention of ever selling that game the fact that it was crippled after initial sale didn’t sit particularly well with me. The trend has been on the increase as of late with many games including some form of one time use DLC in order to make second hand titles less attractive.
It gets even worse when rumours start surfacing that the next generation consoles will start supporting features that cripple second hand games natively removing the requirement from game developers to implement their own system. The justification would probably be something along the lines of “this is what we’ve done for ages on the PC” which is kind of true if you count CD keys but they were usually transferable. There’s also the sticky issue of digital downloads which currently have no method on any platform for enabling resale which is why many publishers are beginning to favour those platforms instead of physical retail releases.
The golden days of unsellable digital titles (and by extension crippled second hand titles) may not be long for this world however as the German consumer protection group VZBV has started legal proceedings against Valve in regards to the Steam platform. This isn’t the first time they’ve gone up against them but recent rulings in the EU have set up some precedents which could lead to digital distribution platforms having to implement some kind of second hand market. Considering Steam has been dealing in digital trade for many years now it’s not like they’re incapable of delivering such functionality, they just simply haven’t had the incentive to do so. Heavy fines from the EU could be the push they need in order to get them moving in the right direction but we’ll have to wait until the court case resolves before we’ll see any real movement on this issue.
I have real trouble seeing how the second hand game market is such a detriment to publishers. Indeed many people use trade-ins in order to fund new game purchases and removing that will put a downward pressure on new sales, to the tune of 10% or so. Now I don’t know how much revenue that publishers are making off those second hand uncrippling schemes but I’m sure a 10% increase is above that, especially if you count the amount of good will generated from not being a dick about the used market. Valve would be heralded as the second coming if they enabled used game trading on Steam, even if they charged a nominal fee to facilitate the transaction.
Really I can’t see any downsides to supporting the second hard market and actively working against it doesn’t do the publishers any favours. I’m not saying they have to go out and actively help facilitate it but they could simply not try to work against it like they’re doing right now. Digital distributors do have to pick up their game in this regard however and I hope it doesn’t come down to strong arming them with the law. Should the EU ruling hold up however that’s could very well be what happens but it would at least be a positive result for us consumers.
The defacto platform of choice for any gamer used to be the Microsoft Windows based PC however the last decade has seen that change to be some form of console. Today, whilst we’re seeing something of a resurgence in the PC market thanks in part to some good releases this year and ageing console hardware, PCs are somewhere on the order take about 5% of the video game market. If we then extrapolate from there using the fact that only about 1~2% of the PC market is Linux (although this number could be higher if restricted to gamers) then you can see why many companies have ignored it for so long, it just doesn’t make financial sense to get into it. However there’s been a few recent announcements that shows there’s an increasing amount of attention being paid to this ultra-niche and that makes for some interesting speculation.
Gaming on Linux has always been an exercise in frustration, usually due to the Windows-centric nature of the gaming industry. Back in the day Linux suffered from a lack of good driver support for modern graphics cards and this made it nearly impossible to get games running on there at an acceptable level. Once that was sorted out (whether you count binary blobs as “sorted” is up to you) there was still the issue that most games were simply not coded for Linux leaving their users with very few options. Many chose to run their games through WINE or Cedega which actually works quite well, especially for popular titles, but many where still left wanting for titles that would run natively. The Humble Indie Bundle has gone a long way to getting developers working on Linux but it’s still something of a poor cousin to the Windows Platform.
Late last year saw Valve open up beta access to Steam on Linux bringing with it some 50 odd titles to the platform. It came as little surprise that they did this considering that they did the same thing with OSX just over 2 years ago which was undoubtedly a success for them. I haven’t really heard much on it since then, mostly because none of my gamer friends run Linux, but there’s evidence to suggest that it’s going pretty well as Valve is making further bets on Linux. As it turns out their upcoming Steam Box will be running some form of Linux under the hood:
Valve’s engineer talked about their labs and that they want to change the “frustrating lack of innovation in the area of computer hardware”. He also mentioned a console launch in 2013 and that it will specifically use Linux and not Windows. Furthermore he said that Valve’s labs will reveal yet another new hardware in 2013, most likely rumored controllers and VR equipment but we can expect some new exciting stuff.
I’ll be honest and say that I really didn’t expect this even with all the bellyaching people have been doing about Windows 8. You see whilst being able to brag about 55 titles being on the platform already that’s only 2% of their current catalogue. You could argue that emulation is good enough now that all the titles could be made available through the use of WINE which is a possibility but Valve doesn’t offer that option with OSX currently so it’s unlikely to happen. Realistically unless the current developers have intentions to do a Linux release now the release of the Steam Box/Steam on Linux isn’t going to be enough to tempt them to do it, especially if they’ve already recovered their costs from PC sales.
That being said all it might take is one industry heavyweight to put their weight behind Linux to start a cascade of others doing the same. As it turns out Blizzard is doing just that with one of their titles slated for a Linux release some time this year. Blizzard has a long history with cross platform releases as they were one of the few companies to do releases for Mac OS decades ago and they’ve stated many times that they have a Linux World of Warcraft client that they’ve shied away from releasing due to support concerns. Releasing an official client for one of their games on Linux will be their way of verifying whether its worth it for them to continue doing so and should it prove successful it could be the shot in the arm that Linux needs to become a viable platform for games developers to target.
Does this mean that I’ll be switching over? Probably not as I’m a Microsoft guy at heart and I know my current platform too well to just drop it for something else (even though I do have a lot of experience with Linux). I’m very interested to see how the Steam Box is going to be positioned as it being Linux changes the idea I had in my head for it and makes Valve’s previous comments about them all the more intriguing. Whilst 2013 might not be a blockbuster year for Linux gaming it is shaping up to be the turning point where it starts to become viable.