Steam’s Linux Future. A Smart Move ?

Don’t you like it when you get two completely off-topic articles during the same week ? This time my excuse is that all Pandora users are Linux users by default so you’d better be interested in Linux world news. Well, do not worry I’ll be back very soon with more Pandora-focused articles. Following the announcements last week from Valve, I thought it was a good time to digest them all in a single article and see what it means for the future of gaming.

So, last week Valve announced three things:

  • SteamOS: operating system based on Linux. Probably some kind of Ubuntu distro customized and stripped down to boot directly to Steam.

  • SteamMachines: basically some hardware will be developed and sold to run SteamOS, and one will be able to stream games from a PC or Mac running Steam and play these games via Streaming on the SteamOS box.

  • Steam Controller: a bizarre looking controller aiming at replacing the mouse/keyboard combo when playing games made for PC in the living room.

It’s not very clear however what the strategy of Valve is in the longer term. Do they really want to compete against home consoles, or simply extend their user base a little bit ? And who are these machines and this OS for, in the first place ?

The way SteamOS and SteamMachines are positioned makes it relatively clear that these are not boxes for the average Joe, who probably does not want to bother setting up streaming between a PC and a new box in the living room. Most probably that average Joe does not even have a gaming-capable PC in the first place, and only plays on consoles and has never ever heard of what the fuck is Steam.

So we are rather talking about PC gamers who want to experience their games in the living room. This will be the core target, presumably.

So, what’s in it for Valve ? Assuming PC gamers now spend more time playing in the living room, it could lead to them purchasing more games in the end (increased time playing -> more likelihood or purchasing). Or lead to a wider range of games for family members and not just the nerd spending time in front of his PC, leading to more games sold as well. This is however not obvious and seems to be rather a bet than anything else. Unless they have done their homework on the subject.

We now understand there will be several kinds of SteamMachines available:

  • The cheapShit™ SteamMachine only made for streaming, incapable of running complex games by itself. Probably around 100-150 dollars would be my guess.
  • The average SteamMachine, not too pricey (maybe 300 dollars?) capable or running most indie games well but not the latest Metro Last Light kind of games.
  • The more expensive SteamMachine made to run all games very well, even the most demanding ones. Probably a higher tier of pricing. 500 dollars or more?

This fragmentation of hardware under a single umbrella (SteamMachines) is going to be confusing for most non-technical people. Will Valve be able to make a case to ensure appropriate branding of each of them ? How ? Will there be different names for each of these types of Steam Machines? How will they deal with the fact that PC Gaming is always evolving and that the hardware may need to change 2 years down the road to keep playing new games?

On top of that, if streaming works well, what is the actual incentive of game developers to support the more expensive SteamMachines running native Linux versions of their games ? They would have to make games run FOR it, and that would only make sense if there is significant installed base in the first place. For Indie developers every sale in the bucket is another meal for the next day, but Big Mama Publishers are not going to send 30 engineers figure out how to make their AAA title work on it just to get 100 sales at the end of the day.

In the end it becomes a chicken and egg situation: how to convince users to buy such a system if there are no impressive games made for it in the first place ? Why buy this and not a PS4 where there’s apparently going to be many Indie games as well ? What’s missing here is the actual positioning of the SteamMachines versus everything else out there. What difference will it make for a gamer? Why should they care?

Besides, most of the people targeted here again are existing PC gamers, will it be easy to convince them they need to buy a premium tier SteamMachine just for the living room instead of simply upgrading their PC?

So many questions, and not many answers yet. That’s why I feel some kind of bitterness after these news from Valve, amidst some appetite for excitement.

I guess that’s why everyone was expecting Half Life 3 to be announced in order to support this kind of launch scenario… but now that we know that HL3 is not part of the equation, and that Valve certainly does not have the dollar power to compete with Microsoft or Sony on the advertising/communication front, nor on the manufacturing side. It is not really clear how to ensure the more expensive SteamMachines will actually take off.

The value proposition is kind of messed up if you think 2 seconds about it.

The controller part was certainly interesting but it does not change the overall proposition very much, and other gamepads will anyway continue to be supported as part of the SteamOS, so the whiners complaining about the lack of buttons or the fact that their mouse and keyboard is missing should just shut up and read the news again, since it’s clearly mentioned they will support other devices as well. That’s what you’d expect from an “open system” anyway.

If you ask me (and even if you don’t), I’d say that within the next 6 to 12 months the following really needs to occur if Valve wants to be onto something:

  • Significant support from key hardware players (ASUS, nVidia, AMD, etc…)
  • Significant support from AAA titles publishers and developers (GTA5 would be great. I’m probably dreaming, though.)
  • Coordinated communication between all the partners to drive the excitement/buzz for the platform

If none of the above occurs, the idea will probably disappear or remain an extremely small niche market. Unless Valve intends to keep it small and make it mature slowly, over time. I’m not sure what they really expect or how much they are committed to support this.

If key hardware players announce “gaming-level” PC hardware, we can hope that they will compete on price and features, and drive costs down for potential buyers.

If large game publishers jump in the dance, this could change the outlook of the platform significantly and attract more users in that space by filling the gap in terms of AAA titles.

If these companies can get together to finance and support the “SteamOS brand” and sort out the branding strategy for each tier of hardware, we could see an increased awareness of the system that would benefit to all players on the hardware and software side.

Did I lose you yet? No ?

Net, what Valve disclosed last week is an interesting start from their end. It’s original, but a little disturbing at the same time since their strategy is not very clear. I certainly hope they are actively working with serious partners to follow up on their first announcements, otherwise it will be tough to make any difference and pick up steam (oh oh… I’m sorry, I’m tired and I could not resist).

The next 6 to 12 months will tell which direction all of this is headed, and we will see if Valve has another ace up their sleeves to take everyone by surprise as they gear up towards launch.

PS: Did they really have to call everything “SteamSomething” though ? Come on Valve. You could have done a better job at picking up names at least.

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8 Comments on "Steam’s Linux Future. A Smart Move ?"

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[…] Steam’s Linux Future. A Smart Move ?Leave a replyDon’t you like it when you get two completely off-topic articles during the same week ? This time my excuse is that all Pandora users are Linux users by default so you’d better be interested in Linux world news. Well, do not worry I’ll be back very so… by José Lourenço via Facebook at September 30, 2013 at 06:09PM […]


Why so negative? 😀
First of all, the “need to buy hardware”. As they stated on their SteamOS page, you don’t have to buy hardware, SteamOS will be freely available.
Hardware partnerships are already there, if you ask me. Graphics drivers on Linux have improves quite a bit since Valve started working with nvidia and amd on their drivers.
The question of the “target audience” didn’t occur to me befor reading your article (I own a pandora, so hey, I don’t have to be able to think about this stuff), but yeah… it’s probably mostly PC gamers, or their friends and relatives.

The article does seem a tad negative. it’s not like every other platform exists in a vacuum. Even if all you play is consoles you’d have to be fairly dense to have never heard of Steam while looking for information on new games since half the stuff on PSN and XBLA are from Steam anyway. The primary focus will be one easy to launch PC games for sure but if you think that’s all they want that’d be ridiculous, they’re basically offering people PC titles with console style ease of access so it stands to reason that they;re going to… Read more »
Thanks for the article, I’ve been following this news, it is very exciting. I think it’s an awesome move by Valve, and will of course boost gaming on Linux. There are already a decent number of Linux games on Steam. Since the Humble Indie Bundle began, and Valve ported Steam to Linux, gaming on Linux has absolutely skyrocketed. There are not a huge number of AAA titles (although we do have some), but there are many indie games. Many of my favorite games run on Linux, and many other AAA games run very well on Linux in wine. I think… Read more »

“We want to make it as easy as possible for the 2,500 games on Steam to run on Linux as well. It is a hedging strategy. I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space.” Gabe Newell