The primary driver for any company, whether they’re bound to the public via the whims or the stock market or not, is to create value and wealth for its various stakeholders. There’s not many companies that do that as well as Valve who’s profit per employee is among the highest in any industry and an order of magnitude above all its competitors. This is almost wholly due to their domination of the digital distribution market but their innovative use of Free to Play for their flagship games has certainly contributed to that as well. Of course the question on everyone’s minds is where Valve will go from here and their latest announcement, which I speculated about last year, seems to be their answer.
Today Valve announced SteamOS, essentially a Linux environment that’s geared towards playing games. There’s also a number of additional features that will be made available with its release including the also recently announced Family Sharing program which allows you to share your steam library with others. Whilst this isn’t the SteamBox that many were anticipating it’s essentially Valve’s console launch as they’ve stated numerous times in the past that anyone would be able to build their own SteamBox and SteamOS would be the basis for that. What the SteamOS actually entails, in terms of functionality and look/feel, remains to be seen but the launch site promises it will be available soon.
SteamOS comes off the back of Valve’s substantial amount of work on the Linux platform with a decent chunk of the Steam library now available on the platform. If we take Gabe’s word for it much of this was driven by the fact that Windows 8 was a “catastrophe” for gaming, something which I don’t agree with, and Valve sees their future being the Linux platform. Whilst it’s admirable that they’re investing a lot in a platform that’s traditionally been a tiny sliver of the PC gaming market the decision to use Linux is, in my opinion, more likely profit driven than anything else as it gets them a foothold in an area where they don’t current have any: the home living room.
Big Picture mode was their first attempt at this which was pretty squarely aimed at replicating the console experience using the Steam platform. However since most people run their games on a PC dedicated to such activities this would mean that Steam’s penetration in the living room was minimal. The SteamOS, and by extension the SteamBox, is a more targeted attempt to break into this area with it’s additional media features and family friendly control options. I don’t begrudge them for this, the sole reason companies exist is to generate profit, however some seem to think Valve’s moves towards Linux are purely altruistic when I can assure you they’re anything but.
Of course the biggest factor that will determine the success or failure of this platform will be whether or not the big developers and publishers see the SteamOS as a viable platform to develop for. As many are speculating Valve could do this by drastically reducing their cut of sales on the platform, something which would go a long way to making developing for Linux viable. I don’t think Valve needs to do a whole lot to attract indie developers to it as many of the frameworks they use already natively support Linux (even XNA does through some 3rd party tools) and as the Humble Indie Bundle has shown there’s definitely enough demand to make it attractive for them.
If any other company attempted to do this I’d say they were doomed to fail but Valve has the capital and captive market to make this idea viable. I’m sure it will see a decent adoption rate just out of pure curiosity (indeed I’ll probably install it just to check it out) and that could be enough to give it the critical mass needed to see adoption rates sky rocket. Whether or not those numbers will be big enough to convince the developers and publishers to get on board though will be something that will play out over the next couple years and will ultimately be the deciding factor in the platform’s success or failure.