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.
It shouldn’t be a secret that I’m something of a Windows guy as I’ve essentially made my career in IT out of their products as well as it being my preferred gaming platform. It’s not that I have anything against the alternatives per se, more that there really isn’t another platform capable of doing all the things that Windows can do currently. If I was to stay on the PC platform my only alternatives are OSX and Linux and the former requires an exorbitant investment in hardware which I, as someone who builds his own PCs, am quite adverse to. Whilst the merits of Linux are vast it’s still got a long way to go before I can consider it on par with Windows, even if there’s been significant progress of late.
Indeed it’s gotten to the point where some industry veterans, like DICE creative director Lars Gustavsson, have gone on record saying that Linux is only one killer app away from seeing explosive growth. There’s definitely been an escalating amount of investment in the platform over the past couple years, mostly in the indie space thanks to things like the Humble Bundles, however Linux gamers are still only make up a tiny minority, on the order of 2% (even on the current champion of the platform, Steam). With that in mind whilst I agree with Gustavsson’s point that Linux is only one killer application away from seeing a lot of growth that statement hides the significant amount of work required to make that happen.
For starters hidden within that 2% of users is an incredible amount of diversity in terms of which distribution they’re using. This is less of a problem than it used to be since a couple base distributions now power the majority of the Linux world (Debian, Red Hat, etc.) however it still presents a challenge that needs to be overcome. I think (and feel free to correct me on this) that the majority of this stems from a driver level where there’s a huge amount of fragmentation thanks to either a philosophical standpoint, I.E. no non-free software so binary blobs are out, or simply because manufacturers aren’t willing to provide that level of support to Linux users.
There also needs to be a critical mass of users in order for it to become attractive for bigger developers to want to support Linux as a platform. Now there’s some potential for this to happen with SteamOS and SteamMachines although it will still take some time for that to permeate. It will be interesting to see if SteamOS users will translate into Linux users over time or if they’ll remain as users of the platform, just like current console gamers are. There will need to be significant traction for this critical mass to be reached however as even OSX, which commands around 6% of the PC gaming market, still hasn’t managed to reach that level where big developers and publishers see it as a priority platform to support. What that critical mass is however I am not sure of but it’s definitely far above the current level which Linux reaches to currently.
I’m not saying that any of this isn’t possible, it most certainly is thanks to the mountains of work done by dozens of companies, just that “One Killer App” is so much harder to achieve than what the soundbite makes it sound like. Personally if it happened I’d be pretty excited about it as more competition means better products for the end consumer, even if I don’t completely agree with some of the motivations that are driving it. It’s for that reason that I signed up for the Steam hardware beta as I’d love to see the PC platform make a resurgence as the king of gaming regardless of the software platform it runs.
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.
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.
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.