The Tech Deck

SteamOS: Worth the hype?

If you haven't heard by now, there's a new gaming system called SteamOS that is trying to bring the world of PC gaming into the console-dominated living room. A custom Linux operating system that has been optimized specifically for video games, SteamOS is causing all sorts of excitement in the gaming community.

SteamOS is really three things right now: The operating system itself, the specifications for the hardware (known as "Steam Machines"), and their new haptic feedback, dual trackpad controllers.

I asked two local gamers some questions about the new platform to see what the hype is all about.

Michael Berquam is a diehard Steam fan with a decade's worth of video game retail experience and Chris Hardin is a former gaming industry journalist by day, competitive gamer and tech enthusiast by night.

What does Valve's SteamOS have to offer hardcore gamers? Is it the real deal?

Michael Berquam:

"Valve has been quite successful in their usage of Big Picture Mode (a feature of vanilla Steam that offers a GUI that is conducive to being played on your living room TV and designed to be navigated with a controller, bringing games that utilize this control scheme to the front), and many of the features alluded to in SteamOS seem to be a logical extension of this.

"Valve states that they are focusing on increasing graphic and audio processing latency, looking to allow for lag-free streaming from your primary gaming machine to whatever Steam hardware you elect to couple with your television.

"My opinion would be that there is plenty here to be excited about."

Chris Hardin:

"SteamOS has a lot to offer hardcore gamers. It is, from what has been announced, a free lightweight operating system designed primarily for gaming. This is a big benefit for system builders -- it removes the cost of a Windows license from the PC build and potentially reduces RAM and hard drive requirements as well. It improves performance, potentially reduces software maintenance (Linux has a reputation for stability), and offers to build a lot of gaming-related features in to the operating system (such as game streaming) that give it many of the advantages of consoles.

"Another thing to note is competitive gaming (which some call e-Sports). While Starcraft II and League of Legends have huge PC game followings, many console games such as Street Fighter IV, Marvel vs Capcom 3, Guilty Gear and Super Smash Bros Melee have huge followings as well.

"Interestingly, many of the top fighting games (including Street Fighter IV) are available on PC, but large tournaments prefer to standardize on a single console platform. I can see Steam Boxes becoming a preferred platform for a number of such games if developers are convinced to port them."

What about regular Joe Schmoe casual gamer. Does he have reason to be excited?

MB:

"One of the best things about Steam is the great marketplace of unique games that exist only a few clicks away. The marketplace has become a hotbed of growth for indie, casual, and hardcore games alike. What this offers your casual player is a glimpse at some very high quality and creative games that they will likely never see on the shelves of a brick and mortar store.

"In line with this bonus, your casual gamer is also likely to appreciate the prices they see on many games in the Steam marketplace, which tend to say "Foo!" to more traditional pricing schemes. Fantastic games can be had for pennies on the dollar, and even AAA titles like Bioshock and CoD often see staggering price cuts, occasionally in excess of 75% savings. These items should be very appealing to your casual consumer."

CH:

"This is one of the most exciting aspects of SteamOS. It opens up the ability for third party manufacturers to offer prebuilt gaming PCs that are designed for hookup in the living room. There isn't really a great way to do this in our current environment. It's certainly possible to hook up a PC to your TV and use a wireless keyboard and mouse, but this is generally relegated to the realm of the nerds.

"Joe can now go and buy a pre-built Steam Box that fits his budget from his choice of manufacturer, and a wireless Steam Controller, and hook it up to his existing TV. No complicated setup, and now he has access to the huge library of PC games.

"This is exciting for the hardcore gamers too, because it brings incentives for more games to be built for PC."

Dat controller. Dual touch pads. Tell me what you think about that.

MB:

"The new controller is the odd duck in this equation. Valve has done some very interesting things with the traditional controller design, and for the types of games they want to support they really needed to be innovative. These high resolution pads will give much more focused control to the player, approaching the levels of fine control that we typically reserve for gaming mice.

"These pads also work as fully clickable buttons. I'm excited to try this feature, as I'm pretty sure it's not something you can fully understand or get behind until you put one in your hands and play it."

CH:

"Honestly, I love the controller; it's what I hoped the Wii controller would be, back in the days of "Nintendo Revolution" rumors. There's some definite downsides; it's not going to be particularly ideal for platforming games, for example. But, I believe that large touchpads will be significantly better than dual analog sticks for FPS and RTS genres and might even open up new genres of games. I am particularly interested in the haptic technology that they are presenting, and will have to withhold judgement until I can use it.

"There is an important downside that I think is being missed here, however. This controller offers a lot of unique items, but I suspect most SteamOS users will not be using this controller. Many games will be Windows ports and I suspect most Steam Box vendors will not bundle the controller due to cost, and many casual gamers will opt for cheaper controllers.

"With Steam controllers likely being only in the hands of the minority of users, I don't think we'll see a lot of games built specifically for them, which is unfortunate as it's a neat piece of hardware. Much as most Wii ports didn't bother to add much, if any, Wii-specific functionality, and most XBox 360 games don't do anything with Kinect, SteamOS games will probably target keyboard and mouse users and not make use of the touch screen and haptic feedback capabilities of the controller."

Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U, or Steam Machine?

MB:

"It really will depend on the background of the individual consumer. Your average gamer is likely going to get pretty much the experience they are looking for from the traditional consoles this round. That is the experience most users expect. Those looking for more might find some added benefits from the Steam Machines."

CH:

"I'm not really sure that this is a fair comparison. Each system will have their roles.

"The PS4 and XBox One look to be extremely similar, and will be primarily differentiated by their exclusives. Halo, Forza, and Kinect fans will gravitate towards the XBox One, while Gran Turismo, Uncharted, Ratchet & Clank, and JRPG fans will gravitate towards the PS4.

"The Wii U is going to be the technically weakest system in the bunch, with the worst network features, but also the cheapest. People who want Nintendo games will buy the Wii U (such as myself), people who don't, won't.

"SteamOS will serve to extend PC gaming and make it much more accessible.

"Interestingly, of these, only the Sony and Microsoft consoles will charge online fees for online multiplayer. Having to double up on fees may lead people to choose between one or the other between the PS4 and XBox One, whereas there's little cost of ownership to having a Wii U and a Steam Box side by side. I'm hoping the Steam Box pushes Microsoft and Sony to rethink this, but I doubt they will."

Worries about the system? What do you think it will take to succeed?

MB:

"My main worry is how it ends up being packaged for consumers in total. This includes price point, targeted marketing, and ease of access for those who may not be 'computer savvy.'"

"Valve has done a great job of courting and developing their current audience. Valve will now need to apply the same smart decision-making in pursuing the business of more traditional consumers."

CH:

"Because SteamOS runs on Linux, it might take some developers (particularly those that are heavy on utilizing DirectX) a lot of effort to port their games over. It's possible that a lot of developers might hold off on Steam ports until the userbase is large, and then we have a chicken-or-the-egg scenario; games attract users, and users attract games, and without one you don't have the other.

"I think Valve, of all companies, has the weight to push developers to do this, though, but it does add a lot more work to developers.

"As I mentioned before, I'm also afraid that the interesting aspects of the controller might get overlooked as developers optimize for the lowest common denominator, which is keyboard and mouse users. This would be unfortunate, but the platform would still be great."


The SteamOS isn't yet available, but don't expect it to be vaporware. Valve is a legitimate gaming platform with a significant user base, and it's not likely to make such a huge announcement without following through on its promises.

The Spokesman-Review dev-ops guys and myself are going to try to get one budgeted as a "work expense", but we'll see how that goes.




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