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.
There’s no doubt that the kings of the video game industry are still the consoles. Us long time gamers might lament the last decade which saw our crown taken from those console upstarts there’s no denying that they’re the current driving force behind the explosive growth the industry has enjoyed of late. Many of us have been stalwart in our support of our chosen platform however, so much so in fact that the release of Diablo III this year marked the first time since 2010 that a PC only game was the top selling title during its release. Indeed the PC platform has been making something of a come back for a while now and the past year is just a confirmation of that.
A good chunk of that resurgence can be attributed to the wild success of the Steam platform. At any one point there are up to 5 million users using Steam and the total people signed up for it, some 50 million or so, eclipses that of Xbox Live (the most popular online console network) by a wide margin. Of course Valve’s presence in the home entertainment space, a place where the consoles have found a secondary niche, is practically 0. Valve has been aware of this and the recent release of their Big Picture mode was obviously aimed at turning any home media PC into a beach front for Valve’s wide catalogue of games. With many of them being cross platform titles that were built for controllers in the first place it was an extremely smart move by Valve and whilst it won’t have developers jumping ship from consoles any time soon it does signal the beginning of a shift back towards PC gaming, even if it’s with a console like façade.
The missing piece of the puzzle was a curated hardware platform that could function as the next step in Valve’s grab for the home entertainment space. It had long been rumoured that Valve was working on something called a Steam Box which would essentially be a console like device, complete with its own custom controller, that would run some part of Valve’s catalogue of games. When I wrote about it at the time details were scant and I had partly assumed that it’d be some kind of walled garden type device (I.E. constrained to Source engine titles or some other limitation) which had me on the fence as to whether I’d want one or not. Additionally if all the titles on the Steam Box were on the PC I’d have little incentive to play them anywhere else as I’m quite accustomed to the mouse/keyboard as my primary input device.
As it turns out those rumours appear to be true as Gabe Newell said in a recent interview that they’re working on their own hardware platform. Gabe says it will be tightly controlled which I take to mean that the specifications will be fixed like a console, ruling out the idea that it’d simply be a small form factor PC with the Valve logo on the front. Interestingly though he has also stated that others are free to make their own version as well which would indicate that, whilst they’ll be controlling the hardware specs of their devices, you will get the same experience if you simply build your own PC and run big picture mode on the top of it. This also opens up the opportunity for OEMs to make their own Steam Box-esque PCs that are purposed designed to live next to your TV and play high end games. You could draw parallels to the ultrabook segment of the laptop market as they were born out of pressures to make smaller form factors more powerful (and I’ll hazard a guess they’ll be strikingly similar under the hood as well).
I’m still not entirely sure if a Steam Box would be appropriate for me as whilst Big Picture mode is great on my media PC there aren’t that many games that I’d prefer to play on there if they’re available on the PC. That being said I know there’s many people out there who prefer the console experience and making these kinds of bridge devices could well be the catalyst that pushes PC gaming back to the top of the pile. I’m very interested to see what Valve will be bringing to the table with their own curated hardware platform as their Big Picture mode is pretty fantastic and anything built by them around that concept will, hopefully, be just as awesome.
Today the platform of choice for the vast majority of gamers is the console, there’s really no question about it. Whilst video games may have found their feet with PCs consoles took them to the next level offering a consistent user experience that expanded the potential market greatly. PC gaming however is far from dead and has even been growing despite the heavy competition that it faces in consoles. However the idea of providing a consistent user experience whilst maintaining the flexibility is an enticing one and there are several companies that are attempting to fuse the best elements of both platforms in the hopes of capturing both markets.
OnLive is one of these such companies. Their product is, in essence, PC gaming as a service (PCGAAS?) and seeks to alleviate the troubles some gamers used to face with the constant upgrade cycle. I was sceptical of the idea initially as their target demographic seemed quite small but here we are 2 years later and they’re still around, even expanding their operations beyond the USA. Still the limitations on the service (high bandwidth requirement being chief amongst them) mean that whilst OnLive might provide a consistent experience on par of that of consoles the service will likely never see the mainstream success that the 3 major consoles do.
Rumours have been circulating recently that Valve may take a stab at this problem; taking the best parts of the PC experience and distilling them down into a console creating new platform called the Steam Box:
According to sources, the company has been working on a hardware spec and associated software which would make up the backbone of a “Steam Box.” The actual devices may be made by a variety of partners, and the software would be readily available to any company that wants to get in the game.
Adding fuel to that fire is a rumor that the Alienware X51 may have been designed with an early spec of the system in mind, and will be retroactively upgradable to the software.
Indeed there’s enough circumstantial evidence to give some credence to these rumours. Valve applied for a patent on a controller back in 2009, one that had a pretty interesting twist to it. The controller would be modular allowing the user to modify it and those modifications would be detected by the controller. Such an idea fits pretty well with a PC/console type hybrid that the Steam Box is likely to be. It would also enable a wider selection of titles to be available on the Steam Box as not all games lend themselves well to the traditional 2 joystick console controller standard.
At the same time one of Valve’s employees, Greg Coomer, has been tweeting about a project that he’s working on that looks suspiciously like some kind of set top box. Now Valve doesn’t sell hardware, they’re a games company at heart, so why someone at Valve would be working on such a project does raise some questions. Further the screenshot of the potential Steam Box shows what looks to be a Xbox360 controller in the background. It’s entirely possible that such a rig was being used as a lightweight demo box for Valve to use at trade shows, but it does seem awfully coincidental.
For what its worth the idea of a Steam box could have some legs to it. Gone are the days when a constant upgrade cycle was required to play the latest games, mostly thanks to the consolization of the games market. What this means though is that a modern day gaming PC has the longevity rivalling that of most consoles. Hell even my last full upgrade lasted almost 3 years before I replaced it and even then I didn’t actually need to replace it; I just wanted to. A small, well designed PC then could function much like a console in that regard and you could even make optimized compliers for it to further increase it’s longevity.
The Steam Box could also leverage off the fact that many PC titles, apart from things like RTS, lend themselves quite well to the controller format. In fact much of Steam’s current catalog would be only a short modification away from being controller ready and some are even set up for their use already. The Steam Box then would come out of the box with thousands of titles ready for it, something that few platforms can lay claim to. It may not draw the current Steam crowd away from their PCs but it would be an awfully attractive option to someone who was looking to upgrade but didn’t want to go through the hassle of building/researching their own box.
Of course this is all hearsay at the moment but I think there could be something to this idea. It might not reach the same market penetration as any of the major consoles but there’s a definite niche in there that would be well served by something like this. What remains to be seen now is a) whether or not this thing is actually real and b) how the market reacts should Valve actually announce said device. If the rumours are anything to go by we may not have to wait too long to find both of those things out.