Valve’s End Game For Steam (or The Birth of SteamOS).

My first interaction with Steam wasn’t a pleasant one. I remember the day clearly, I was still living out in Wamboin when Valve released Half Life 2 and had made sure to grab myself a copy before heading home. After going through the lengthy install process requiring multiple CD swaps I was greeted by a login box asking me to create an account. Frustratingly all my usual gamer tags: PYROMANT|C, SuperDave, Nalafang, etc. were already taken leaving me to choose   a random name. That wasn’t the real annoyance though, no what got me was the required update that needed to be applied before I could play it which, on the end of a 56k connection, was going to take me the better part of an hour to apply.

This soured me on the idea of Steam for quite a few years, at least until I got myself a stable form of broadband that let me update without having to wait hours at a time. Still it wasn’t until probably 3 years or so ago that I started buying most of my games through Steam as buying the physical media and then integrating with Steam later was still a much better experience. Today though it’s my platform of choice when purchasing games and it seems that I’m not alone in this regard with up to 70% of all digital sales passing through the platform. We’ve also seen Steam add many more features like SteamCloud and SteamWorks which have provided a platform for developers to add features that would have otherwise been too costly to develop themselves.

With all the success that Steam has enjoyed (in the process making Valve one of the most profitable companies per employee) it makes you wonder what the end game for Steam will end up being. Whilst they’d undoubtedly be able to coast along quite easily on the recurring sales and the giant community they’ve built around the platform history has shown that Valve isn’t that kind of company. Indeed the recent press release from Valve saying that traditional applications will soon be available through the Steam platform seems to indicate that they have ambitions that extend past their roots of gaming and digital distribution.

And its at this point that I start speculating wildly.

Valve has shown that it is dedicated to gamers regardless of the platform with Steam already on OSX and will soon be finding its way onto Linux alongside a native port of Left 4 Dead 2. With such a deep knowledge of games and an engine that runs on nearly any platform it would make sense that Valve might take a stab at cutting out the middle man entirely, choosing to create their own custom operating system that’s solely dedicated to the purpose of gaming. If such an idea was to come to fruition it would most likely be some kind of Linux derivative with a whole bunch of optimizations in it to make Source titles run better. I’ll be honest with you when this idea was suggested to me I thought it was pretty far out but there are some threads within this idea that have some merit.

Whilst the idea of SteamOS as a standalone operating system might be a bit far fetched I could see something akin to media centre software that transforms a traditional Windows/Linux/OSX PC into a dedicated gaming machine. Steam’s strength arguably comes from the giant catalogue of third party titles that they have on there and keeping the underlying OS (with its APIs in tact) means that all these games would still be available. This also seems to line up with the rumoured SteamBox idea that was floating around at the start of the year and would mean that the console was in fact just a re-badged Windows PC with some custom hardware underneath. The console itself might not catch on (although the success of the OUYA seems to indicate otherwise) but I could very well see people installing SteamOS beside their XBMC installation turning their Media PC into a dual use machine.

With all this in mind you have to then ask yourself what Valve would get out of something like this. They are already making headway into getting Steam in one form or another onto already existing consoles (see Steam for the PS3) and they’ve arguably already captured the lion’s share of PC gamers, the ones who’d be most likely to use something like SteamOS. The SteamBox would arguably be targeted at people who are not traditionally PC gamers and SteamOS then would simply be an also ran, something that would provide extra value to its already dedicated PC community. Essentially it would be further cementing Steam as the preferred digital distribution network for games whilst also attempting to capture a market that they’ve had little to do with up until this point.

All of this though is based on the current direction Valve seems to be going but realistically I could just be reading way too far into it. Their recent moves with the Steam platform are arguably just Valve trying to grow their platform organically and could very easily not be part of some grander scheme for greater platform dominance. The idea though is intriguing and whilst I have nothing more than speculation to go on I don’t think it would be a bad move by Valve at all.

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