Recently, the software company Valve, known for the popular “Half-Life,” “Portal,” and “Counter-Strike” game series as well as the gaming platform Steam, made a series of announcements regarding new products. Over three days, Valve announced a new series of home consoles dubbed “Steam Machines,” an operating system for the consoles called “SteamOS” and a new, innovative controller. These announcements have been a long time coming, and the large fan base that Valve has accrued over the years could basically ensure their financial success. However, the new products have not been met with universal praise due to some interesting design choices, especially when it comes to the controller. Chances are, if you’re a fan of Valve, you’ve already formed your own opinion of the new tech. However, for the casual game enthusiast who may not be aware of the announcements, let’s take a quick look at the most important information for each:
This announcement contained the least amount of information, so we can move through it rather quickly. Important things to know are that the “Steam Machines” will come in several different varieties, they will all run SteamOS, and they will be able to be hacked/jailbroken. Not much else has been revealed about the hardware, but there is plenty to know about the software. So without further ado, let us turn to:
The first of Valve’s three announcements, SteamOS will be the primary operating system for all of Steam’s future machines, and it will also available for other living room machines such as Raspberry Pi and other open-source computers. Features include the expected music and movie streaming services, family sharing for all of the Steam accounts and games in the household, and the ability to stream games from the computer to the television.
Also worthy of note—and the source of some controversy—is the decision to base SteamOS on the Linux operating system. Valve CEO Gabe Newell has frequently discussed his preference for Linux over Windows or Mac OS X, and the new operating system is the product of the extensive work he’s done with it. The issue is that very few consumers use Linux regularly, save for their Android mobile OS. In fact, Net Applications reports that Linux only has a 1.66 percent share of computer operating systems. This means that many programs that would work with Windows won’t be able to with SteamOS. This caveat is much more important for gamers who also like to take control of their hardware, as the casual consumer wouldn’t probably think twice about it. However, they are an important part of Valve’s user base and likely have more than a few follow-up questions. As it stands, though, SteamOS seems to hit all the expected notes while introducing some welcome features to Steam, such as game sharing and streaming capabilities.
Of the three announcements, the Steam Controller certainly made the biggest splash. From the ground up, this new device is full of innovative technology, not all of which is being well received. The most controversial decision is also the most noticeable: the analog sticks are no more. Instead of the joysticks that console gamers have come to know and love, Valve has replaced them with dual trackpads that can more easily simulate mouse and keyboard configurations that PC gamers are accustomed to. In order to ease the transition, Valve has installed experimental haptic technology, which basically translates to force feedback. Traditional controllers are comfortable for many because the force feedback from joysticks and rumbling is strong and immediate. The Steam controller will have multiple touch-sensitive sensors placed under the trackpads that will ostensibly both solve the issue and present a better alternative.
The structure of the controller seems to be roughly in line with the other gamepads that have been revealed for the new generation, but there are some interesting tweaks. There are 16 buttons, including the clickable trackpads and a central touchscreen, but the bindings for each can be changed, mimicking a keyboard and mouse setup. Also, the controller was designed to be hackable, so there’s no telling what interesting uses consumers will come up with.
All in all, the Steam announcements paint an interesting picture of the future that Valve has envisioned for home gaming. It’s an immensely ambitious project, and only time will tell if the company will be able to make good on its promise of one catchall media experience. Console and PC gaming have long been separate enterprises, but if Valve can deliver, it’s going to be an interesting future for the gaming industry.