Something interesting has happened to games consoles. For the first time ever, both of the major contenders for a place in front of your TV are essentially the same piece of hardware defined and differentiated only by artificial software limitations. Underneath the big. bold looks and the clever marketing tie-ins, both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 area essentially PCs, and not especially good ones at that.
This, of course, raises interesting questions. PC gamers have long been mocking console games’ lack of technical advancement while console gamers have been ragging on the fact that PCs are bulky, expensive and inconvenient. Now, however, the lines are completely blurred. There’s so little to set them all apart that the question becomes “Which one to get?”.
The obvious answer is that it’s down to the games. Sony will keep on pushing for platform exclusives, and Microsoft will do the same. Then there’s the ancillary services around games – like PlayStation Network and Xbox Live. But even those are getting hard to tell apart, especially now that both Sony and Microsoft will be charging an annual fee to use them, and if mainstream gamers realised that the various platforms are separated by little apart from a few lines of code, how long will it be until they and the developers themselves declare a pox on both consoles’ houses?
Up until now, it seemed unlikely. But as a third way emerges, the chances are that this will be the last generation of what we’ll call ‘single company consoles’ for want of a better phrase. As the hardware has converged around a common architecture (and yes, we’re not including tablets and the Ouya here), so, eventually, will the games.
And it’s looking increasingly like Windows might not be the de facto platform manufacturers will be swarming around, either, if Valve gets its way.
A quick recap
Valve is the software developer behind the Half-Life series of games and the company behind the online distribution system Steam, through which many of us now buy the majority of our games.
For the last few years, Valve has been working to break its reliance on Windows as a platform for its wares by making Steam available on Mac and Linux. Now, the company is taking that idea even further by investing in the development of its own operating system called SteamOS that is being designed to run on any PC and boot straight into a console-like interface where games are front and centre.
Heralding in Valve’s SteamOS ambitions is the fact that the company has just joined the Linux Foundation, a move that allows the company to contribute tools to the Linux community that will make it easier for developers to work with SteamOS.
What we know so far
So what is SteamOS, exactly? What we know so far is that it’s based on the open source Linux kernel so it doesn’t cost Valve anything to use or develop over and above its own internal costs, it interfaces with Steam on other computers on your home network and it’s going to be completely free to download and use when it releases in 2014.
More importantly, Valve will offer SteamOS licenses to third-party hardware sellers so they can build their own “Steam Machines”. This will result in systems running Valve’s operating system that offer varying levels of performance, pricing and noise levels. Vitally, being able to configure a PC according to a gamer’s budget and performance needs sets Steam Machines firmly apart from the current crop of consoles.
Perhaps the best news out of Valve about SteamOS is that it will let you do everything you do on Steam now, with even more functionality planned for the future. That means you can browse for and buy new games, play them, interact with friends, write reviews for your favourites, manage your library and more on a PC running SteamOS. The flashiest feature of the new OS – and the best way to encourage people to hook it up in the lounge – is that it will also let you stream games across your home network from your PC running Steam. You can even pick up right where you left off thanks to Steam Cloud synchronisation that stores your game data on the internet.
All aboard the Steam train
Several companies have already announced their own Steam Machine prototypes; a London-based company called Piixl is developing one called the Jetpack, and it’s a super-slim x86 PC that can be mounted behind any recently-made TV with a VESA mount. The Jetpack, which will be available with various hardware configurations that include high-end graphics cards from NVIDIA and Intel’s Core i7 processors, will start at a cost of a thousand dollars (that’s over ten thousand rand!) when it goes on sale next year.
Another company, USA-based iBuyPower, is bringing out a $500 Steam Machine in the New Year. It boasts a multi-core AMD processor, a 500GB hard drive and AMD’s mid-to-high-end R9-270 graphics card. Rather than being something you can mount behind your TV, the iBuyPower machine’s looks are closer to those of Microsoft and Sony’s new games consoles, which is no real surprise as it’s those machines that the Steam Machine is taking aim at.
The only potential problem with these third-party Steam-powered PCs is their cost. With an entry-level price of $500, which is the same as the Xbox One but without any kind of motion-sensing camera, a Steam-powered PC looks to continue the PC gaming tradition of being more expensive than consoles. But that could potentially be offset by the convenience offered by SteamOS that makes a gaming PC in the lounge a very real possibility.
Convincing the masses
Convincing PC gamers to play in the living room meant that Valve had to develop an alternative to the keyboard-and-mouse setups favoured by PC gamers. Their solution was to develop a wireless controller specifically for PC games that gives gamers mouse-like control over their cursor with dual touchpads and buttons let it work like a traditional console controller. It might not replace the keyboard entirely, certainly not for specific games with a million shortcuts, but it’s a step towards un-cluttering the living room by relieving it of the need for an ever-present keyboard.
SteamOS wants to be more than just an interface between you and your games, however. According to the Steam website, it will also incorporate other forms of entertainment by including access to many popular TV, movie and music-streaming services through both the Steam client and SteamOS.
Steam itself has already been augmented with a controller-friendly interface called Big Picture mode that turns navigation into a very visual, console-like affair with big, clear menus that are easily browsed with the flick of a thumb. That came out last December, signalling the start of the many changes we’ve seen Valve introduce over the last year.
One of the more recent additions to Steam’s functionality is a new “family sharing” option that is currently being trialled in beta form by gamers who opted into the beta by joining the Family Sharing Community’s Steam page. The idea is that Family Sharing lets you share your games with family members and friends, but at the time of writing, there are several concerns as reported by those participating in the beta that are causing consternation.
First, you need to authorise the computers of those you wish to share your games with so they can access your library; this requires physically logging into Steam on their PCs using your credentials so that you can install and download the games you’ve shared to that PC, and secondly whenever an authorised PC is playing one of your shared games, your entire library is inaccessible. Fortunately as you own the game being shared, you can force Steam to return control to you, which kicks the other person out of whatever they are playing after giving them a brief window in which to save their progress and quit.
The first problem is addressable by remote access apps like Teamviewer, Skype and the like, but the second not so much – while it makes sense to be able to share individual games and simply not be able to play them at the same time as the friend/family member with whom you have shared them, it potentially opens the programme up to abuse that could cost Valve a lot of money – why should a friend who can play a shared game he didn’t pay for without inconveniencing you too much ever need to buy that game for themselves, for example? So it’s a great idea on paper, but the kinks still need to be worked out before it can be implemented to everyone’s satisfaction.
The PC Will Win the Console War
Valve is clearly working very hard behind the scenes to change PC gaming as we know it, and since now all major gaming platforms are just PCs that are separated only by a thin layer of software, we think Valve is ultimately going to win the console wars as their platform is by far the most flexible.
This is made all the more certain by the fact that both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have their share of issues, including games that don’t run at the full HD resolution of the TVs they’re being played on, frame rates that aren’t as high as they are in the same games running on PCs and other little niggles that make PC gaming just that much more attractive.
Physically, there is also no good reason why Xbox One games can’t run on a PS4 or a PC, making the consoles’ respective software thinly-veiled Digital Rights Management systems that protect the profits of the respective companies and nothing more. At the end of the day, the main reason to own a console or gaming PC – games – will ultimately be the deciding factor on which platform wins in the long term, and if Valve succeeds in its efforts to woo developers away from the Xbox One and PlayStation by making it as easy as possible to develop for their SteamOS-based platform, the PC might lose the short-term cost battle, but it should win the war.
Whatever happens, there are interesting times ahead for the world of gaming.