Valve Releases Steam in Bid for the Living Room

Steam OS, Console and Controller Will Face Stiff Competition from PlayStation and Xbox


There’s been a lot of interest in the Steam games system recently thanks to major announcements by Valve — the owner of Steam — two weeks ago. As a Steam user since 2006, I was disappointed that Valve had no presence at last month’s Eurogamer Expo, with the company opting to announce its new SteamOS, Steam Machines and Steam Controller on its Web site instead.

SteamOS is a Linux-based operating system that will power the company’s Steam Machine consoles. Valve is placing heavy emphasis on SteamOS as the operating system for the living room, aiming to support streaming of music, TV, films and games. At the moment, only a small percentage of Steam’s catalogue supports Linux, meaning that most games would have to be streamed from a PC. This, and the ability to install other operating systems like Windows onto Steam Machines, make me question the value of SteamOS as an integral part of the Steam experience.

Steam Machines aim to be living-room-friendly, compact PC-like boxes using off-the-shelf hardware components. Valve will work with multiple as yet unnamed partners to bring a “variety of Steam Machines” to consumers sometime in 2014. The company is encouraging manufacturers to tweak the specs of various prototype devices to find the right balance of cost and performance.

The Steam Controller sparked a lot of discussions owing to its unconventional shape and layout. The biggest difference from standard controllers is that, instead of thumbsticks, it has two clickable circular touchpads. Steam reasons that gamers will gain a better experience with its controller as all buttons can be changed to suit individual preferences (as demonstrated in a recent video by Valve). This is arguably the most intriguing part of Steam’s new set-up, but it’s difficult to comment until I’ve tried it myself.

Steam is already extremely popular with many gamers all around the world, but has so far been restricted to gaming PCs and laptops. With these announcements, it’s hoping to enter gamers’ living rooms and create an accessible platform for the whole family. Valve is confident that it has a ready audience for SteamOS and hardware, especially as Steam has over 50 million users and a significant devoted following.

Before these announcements, I’d thought (or rather, hoped) that Valve would reveal a single console housing powerful hardware able to run games bought on Steam. This would truly bring the PC-gaming experience to the living room environment. My hopes have been tempered by the news that Steam Machines will come in variety of hardware specifications, will only run Linux-optimised games and that many users will need a PC to stream their games from.

Not only will Valve have a tough time convincing gamers of the advantages of the new set-up, it will face a big struggle when persuading manufacturers and third-party publishers to commit to the platform. I also doubt that it will pose a threat to PlayStation and Xbox consoles in the living room arena —these are already established as maintenance-free devices that can run the latest games without their owners worrying about hardware specs or having to stream games from a PC.