Sep 30, 2013
The next-generation has a new challenger, in the form of the Steam Machine.
However, this is not simply one contender, as multiple parties are going to develop an array of Machines that run Steam OS, purely intended to bring PC games to the living room. Also, Valve unveiled a new controller, that is drastically different from any other.
Microsoft and Valve have largely been coupled together for the past decade of PC gaming, also releasing a number of games on the Xbox 360. Yet Gabe Newell has recently stated how Microsoft is following the wrong path, as it used to be an open platform, now creating barriers on Windows 8 and other devices.
Whilst Sony and Microsoft are merely creating more powerful consoles, with little in the way of innovation, it seems Valve are striving to create something truly new. Steam Machines use Linux, an open platform, meaning Valve can implement new technologies whenever they wish, without the restraint of Microsoft bearing over them. Valve are looking for innovation, and are now in complete control of their future. However, this does mean game developers have to port their games to Linux to make best use of the OS, something that won’t happen unless the users support it.
The new Steam Controller has haptic (touch to me or you) functionality, with dual trackpads and a touch screen built in. The concept behind the controller is to provide those who are big fans of the mouse and keyboard input a way to play in the living room, as the controller is as close to the same input experience as possible. The haptic feedback allows “precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement”, something that sets it apart from other console controllers. For developers, this means that games traditionally tied to the desk, can now be created for the living room. Examples include Strategy or RTS games, with Steam displaying Civilization V being played on the TV, on their website.
It is a bold step for a company not known for creating input hardware, but it’s hard to deny they have put a lot of thought into it. The controller supports the entire Steam library from the beginning, which is something controller support lacks at the moment, perhaps preventing people from moving their PC from the desk. Valve are going after the casual market, which means that PC developers have a new audience if the Steam Machines are a success, and are able to create casual games for Steam that can be accessed from the couch. There is a significant difference in the experiencing between chilling in the living room, to being hunched over your desktop. And this difference could be erased completely.
Regarding the Controller itself, the pads track the users fingers, alongside doubling up as clickable buttons. This ensures tactical games that traditionally needed a mouse, can find a home in the living room, as the controller allows incredibly sensitive control. Also, instead of a traditional vibrating controller, Valve implement “weighted electro-magnets” in the touch pads, looking for another new way to provide feedback to the gamer. Developers can make use of these new input sensors, as well as the feedback it gives to the user.
The touch screen has been included in order to reduce the number of physical buttons, used for discrete actions or swiping menus. However, if a developer chooses, it could be used for a mini-map, or a dial of sorts. Valve claim that “when programmed by game developers using our API, the touch screen can work as a scrolling menu, a radial dial, provide secondary info like a map or use other custom input modes we haven’t thought of yet”. This proves they are very open to new ideas, and are looking forwards.The possibilities are truly endless, and so the developers behind the games are given an extra way to portray information off-screen, as well as interacting.
The target audience is really the question here. Casual gamers may not go for a PC-console hybrid; console gamers will go for a console; and PC gamers have more powerful PCs. Casual gamers may also be put off by having to adapt to a new controller and form of input, preferring the traditional controller. It could be good news for indie developers, as the cheaper Steam Machines will likely run most games that aren’t too RAM-hungry, and bringing the PC to the living room opens up the number of people who will purchase games. However, to play AAA titles at full graphics could be restrained by lower-end Steam Machines; something traditional PC’s will be reserved for.
The real clincher is the pricing of the Steam Machines, and the Controller. With current, simpler controllers going for 30-40 pounds, it seems likely that this innovative kit will be upwards of 50; something many may not be willing to fork out. And for the average consumer to purchase a Steam Machine when they probably own a PC anyway seems unlikely. It seems developers will have to wait and see what this new Steam Universe brings along, and then they can judge what moves to make.
It’s safe to say we need more information before the fate of the Steam Machines can be predicted. Yet it has exciting prospects for developers; with new input methods, new audiences, and a new experience of PC gaming from the sofa. What developers do with this, is up to them.