So after a tumultuous week of announcements to revolutionize the industry, Valve Software saved their best for last and announced a… controller? Okay, sure, it looks a bit like an old fashioned boom box with its two trackpads and odd button arrangements, but what exactly are they trying to do? While it’s certainly no Half-Life 3 or Source 2 engine announcement, their approach to the not-quite-a-console in the living room has some high minded implications for the gaming and multimedia community as a whole.
There’s been a lot of discussion and speculation about Valve’s future plans, especially since news broke about how Valve had patented the design of some new gamepad that would feature replaceable control options ranging from the traditional stick to a roller ball that would attempt to emulate mouse movement. However, to focus on an analysis of just the controller itself, and how the ergonomics and button layout deliver a seemingly streamlined FPS experience where it counts, while also opening up the interface to even RTSs in the Big Picture living room environment would have too narrow a view to really get at what it appears Valve is aiming to accomplish.
So what are they aiming for? Empire, in a single word. From the amount of secrecy in their development, along with the amount of industry pressure they can exert with their position, Valve seems to be thinking much bigger than their own Big Picture. To begin, let’s just follow the line on what they’ve announced this week.
SteamOS. Something that is guaranteed to be the most user friendly way of introducing Linux to the masses. While those of us with some computer experience are probably familiar with Ubuntu, CentOS, Redhat, or any of the other myriad of Linux distributions out there, really the only one that the general public has ever even heard a whisper of would be Ubuntu. However, that alone wasn’t good enough. Despite the billionaire at its head and a foundation to do the work, Ubuntu never really had the pull it needed to achieve the fabled ‘year of the Linux Desktop’. They’re expanding to phones soon, and tablets, but where is the first party support for high end graphics and awesome drivers? Valve solves that quite simply: by being the leading digital distribution service for games, it’s fairly obvious to see why NVIDIA was so willing to work with Valve on this project. So what are the implications? Significantly better Linux drivers and Bazaar driven development in the way Valve (amongst other companies) has created and released easy to use SDKs and programs for their zealous communities to release new content and fixes through venues such as Steam Workshop. If Valve keeps this up and makes Steam OS as hackable and free as most other Linux distros (and they’ve suggested it will be), then it will have the potential of being the largest mass market distribution service available short of the Google Play marketplace.
The Steam Machine: here’s a tough one to not wildly speculate on. Taken to its furthest extreme, it has multiple implications for console gaming, ubiquitous computing, and the future of multimedia in general. PC Gaming has been sitting on top of the pile for quite some time now as the ‘best’ method of gaming (for various reasons I won’t get into here), but of course there are a number of things required to get a good setup that can do all the things you want it to do. At the 2013 CES, Valve announced the Piston ‘Steam Box’ in a partnership with Xi3. After doing so, they disappeared from CES and left a cardboard cutout of a cat with a sign taped to it saying “The Valve booth is meow closed”. By the time March rolled around, Valve had already distanced themselves from the entire project. What this new Steam Machine prototype suggests is a different market entry method for people who wouldn’t normally go in for a typical PC gaming experience. Coupled with the fact that the box itself will run a Linux derivative and is meant to exist in the living room space, the Steam Machine stands to be an interesting not-quite-console that could serve well as a spare PC for PC gamers who already have a powerful machine, an entry level PC for people coming from the console world, or if this expands far enough – a home multimedia box for the whole family.
The Steam Controller. With the move from focusing on desktops and laptops to home theatre setups and HDTVs, obviously the fine grain mouse and keyboard interface wasn’t going to survive the transition very well. So what does the Steam Controller mean for those of us who are hesitantly buying in to all this Valve hype? I, for one, am intrigued by the idea of leaving the hardware open and replaceable for the community. What strange creations this could result in by being coupled with devices such as Oculus Rift or other traditional interfaces has yet to be seen, but some hacker out there will likely be inspired. The controller adds a small touchscreen and extended accessibility to the interface. The implementation of the two large haptic, clickable trackpads is a step in the right direction for those of us converting from the old mouse and keyboard method, at least in trying to preserve the fine granularity of aiming precision while also giving us the full 360 degree motion of an analog stick. This won’t replace the keyboard as far as data entry and interaction goes, but the controller does seem to be an interesting idea to bring mouse- and keyboard-only games to the living room screen. Plus, Valve’s more eccentric ideas tend to become a pretty big deal, even if no one sees the use for two track pads that can be speakers as of the moment.
To try and figure out what game Valve happens to be playing – which seems to be closer to Stratego than Chess here – quite a fair bit of baseless speculation can take us into the future of consumer computer interaction. Gabe Newell has been quite vocal since the release of Windows 8 that the entire OS is dead to him now, and with Steam OS, he has thrown in his lot with Linux and its derivatives. What this will mean for us in the long run is better drivers and more games that will be Linux compatible, which is guaranteed to give Microsoft a run for its money. On top of that, backwards compatibility with games that are Windows-only has the potential of being solved through Wine, or at least a Wine-like interface. Taking a step back from the nuts and bolts, the addition of Steam as an alternative living room platform in tandem with Smart TVs and smart homes pushes out Valve’s sphere of influence from simply being digital distributors for games.
From what we’ve seen of Valve’s announcements, and the lack of Half-Life 3 or Source 2, or any of the other projects Valve has in the works, it seems that they’ve really switched gears from being a software development group to more of a technology think-tank that can sell their projects. The full extent of what they have planned is yet to be seen, but it’s guaranteed to shake up the gaming and entertainment world.