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Who is SteamOS For?

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Today, Valve announced the first stage of their living room takeover: SteamOS. A Linux distro built with PC gaming in mind to be launched in 2014. Their announcement promises much, but some key details are missing and I begin to wonder who SteamOS is for and in what scenarios Valve envisage it.

SteamOS is the result of two ongoing projects at Valve over the last two years. Big Picture Mode brought a controller-friendly 10’ GUI to the Steam client. It launched a year ago and currently 196 games on Steam feature full controller support, with a further 453 listed as partial support. With this controller support and an interface well suited to the HDTV in our living room, the future of Steam’s plans was set in motion. The second project is more recent, the porting of the Steam client, and several of Valves games, to the Linux operating system. Currently 183 games have been released on Linux, no doubt helped with a large amount of indie developers porting games as part of the Humble Bundle in the years leading, and it seems to be snowballing.

And today we arrive at the combination of these efforts; SteamOS. At first blush, SteamOS seems like a great idea, an operating system from a company quite dedicated towards PC gaming and losing the baggage of Windows, of which Gabe Newell has made no secret of his dislike regarding their recent efforts. And Microsoft’s dedication to PC gaming has become questionable with their impending closure of GFWL. Steam OS will intend to marry the vast scope of PC games, the open nature, the ability to have development and play in one device, with the ease of use and living room nature of console gaming.

However, if you’re a PC gamer looking to make a move into the living room you’re going to immediately hit the brick wall of SteamOS running on Linux. Which means at the moment there’s only 183 games it will natively support. No doubt with a launch of next year more games will be supported but it’ll still be a far cry from the current 2,100+ Steam games that run on Windows. So immediately gamers are asked to make a compromise, to join the land of SteamOS accept that potentially 90% of your games won’t be running on your SteamOS machine. That’s a big thing to lose out on.

The current solution Valve propose is to stream your games over the home network from your existing Windows or Mac PC. You now have two PCs to do what one PC can already do. In a world of convergent devices it seems a bit of a step back in simplicity. It’s hardly a secret that one HDMI cable later and your PC is now plugged into a TV, hit the “Big Picture Mode” button on Steam and poof you’re now using your existing PC to run your existing Windows games on your TV.

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Now if you’re a console gamer looking to enter the PC gaming space, SteamOS looks to present a comfortable environment you’re used to. Your games on a big TV screen, no faff, no bother, and you get to play in a world of mods, Steam sales and so on. But then this is running Linux and while it has made great strides, it’s still not great in the ease-of-use department. Even Valve had to have a good session of head scratching on how to install games onto Linux through Steam. No doubt SteamOS will likely force a Steam-inspired front-end on the Linux distro should anything go awry; if a console gamer isn’t wanting to get their hands mucky with tweaking Windows, doing it with Linux isn’t going to fare much better.
Then comes back to the limited library again, assuming a console gamer has been ogling the modded out screenshots of Skyrim they’ll likely be disappointed to find their SteamOS machine isn’t going to run it. And this is the same for many high-profile games, and the current announcement has done little to suggest this trend is going to change. It may be something that will, given enough time, but in the past year Valve have been unsuccessful in luring many/any high-profile developers over to Linux, so I’m not banking on this happening. Certainly not by SteamOS’ launch.

Where it comes to actually using it on a TV in Big Picture Mode even Windows loses out, let alone Linux. Only 24 Linux games have full controller support, a further 44 with only partial support. Windows sports 196 games with full controller support, as many games as there are on Linux, a further 452 with partial support. 24 games is quite pitiful considering Linux and Big Picture are a year old at this stage so it’s not really a “launch” line-up either. Obviously, the quick solution is to just use a keyboard and mouse, but that immediately breaks a lot of the “console simplicity” one would assume SteamOS is expected to have. This is likely an issue that will remain, not every game is going to work with a controller.

For the folks super interested in Linux there’s not much at all given either on what it’ll be able to run beyond Steam and Steam games. The assumption, given how Steam for Linux was developed, is that it’s running on top a modified version of Ubuntu. Which if it is, will at least provide a wide variety of additional software to get extra use of your SteamOS machine. Given how much is pushed by Valve on the “openness” of SteamOS, if all it could run were the games and software sold through Steam it would seem a bit hypocritical.

There are still two more announcements to be made, currently speculated to be the Steambox and a certain third entry, but hopefully many of the current issues and shortcomings of SteamOS will be addressed by Valve too. SteamOS holds promise, but for now it seems sub-par on way too many sides and while Valve are a big player in the PC gaming market, they may not hold much sway in bringing the many game developers entrenched in Windows and DirectX to come and play with the penguins.

SteamOS @ Steampowered.com

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