Yesterday Valve revealed SteamOS. And with it, for the first time, it feels like a developer is on the verge of pulling off what no other company has ever done before: making living room PC gaming popular.
For years, PC hardware and software companies have been trying to coax PC gamers into the living room. Look at our new case, controller or interface, they say: this is the thing that will convince you to shift your computer from that desk in the spare bedroom to the spot on the floor next to your HDTV, your Sky box and your DVD player.
A living room PC with a console approach
But none of them has succeeded. Despite the repeated, desperate claims of a vocal minority of PC gamers, consoles have always worked better in the living room environment: out of the box they’re simpler; they don’t require a keyboard; their UI looks better from the sofa; and they’re cheaper. Yes, you can build or buy a PC that ticks all the necessary boxes, but it requires effort, research and money – more money than you’d pay for a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.
You can wander into any high street shop and pick up one of those for under £200 ($402), take it home, plug it into your telly and have a game up and running in 10 minutes. Could you do that with a PC? Could your dad? Your 10-year-old cousin?
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s an opportunity to seize here, and Valve seems like the only company committed to grasping the nettle. SteamOS is free, open source and can be installed on pretty much any PC. It’ll likely offer a user interface similar to Steam’s Big Picture mode (designed for TVs and gamepads, with simplified controls and large icons that can be seen clearly from the sofa).
The Linux factor
And crucially it’s based on Linux and, unlike Windows or Mac OS, it’s designed for a small and specific set of purposes: playing games, allowing users to buy and download games, and a bit of media streaming. Valve claims that graphics processing is better on SteamOS (we assume the company means in comparison to Windows and Mac OS) and that audio performance and reductions in input lag will be too.
This should help maximise the performance of hardware components, allowing developers to wring better graphics and sound out of cheaper machines – much like they already do with consoles. Nobody doubts that today’s PCs can blow today’s consoles away when it comes to graphics and sound, but you have to pay a significant premium for that – with SteamOS, that should change.
We don’t know what the hardware requirements for running SteamOS are yet, but Valve will almost certainly reveal its own “Steam Box” PC this week. The picture should be clearer then, and we’ll get an idea of the price too.