Valve has long shown dominance in the PC gaming arena, thanks to its Steam software that has been the go-to place to download PC-based games since 2002.
But one area that it hasn't yet grabbed a foothold in is the living room, but with SteamOS and Steam Machines, Valve is hoping it can quickly change that to become a serious player in this space.
Late September was full of Valve's announcements for the Steam living-room plans, coming in three phases. The Washington-based company unveiled SteamOS, the Steam Machines platform and Steam Controller. And now, Steam OS comes to users for testing on Friday, 13 December.
Here we're scouring all the news to bring you the facts, the rumours and everything you need to know about Valve's plans in the living room.
SteamOS: The start to an ecosystem
The first announcement from Valve was SteamOS. The company says it is an operating system built around Steam itself, using Linux as its architecture. The development team at Valve has built on top with what it believes is best for the ultimate gaming OS.
The beauty of SteamOS is that it's free, and you won't need Valve hardware to install it. SteamOS will be available to download for a bevy of machines. Valve has not yet detailed what the hardware specifics will be for machines to run SteamOS, but the company will make it a freely licensable operating system for manufacturers (think Android in this regard).
So, what's a free OS if it can't do anything? Well, if Valve's promises are to be believed, SteamOS will pack some sweet features. The first is In-home Streaming, which will enable gamers to play all of their Windows and Mac games (over 3,000) straight to their machine running SteamOS. An existing computer will run Steam like gamers always have, and then a SteamOS machine will stream games over a home network to the TV.
Jumping on the media services bandwagon as most modern devices have, SteamOS will include access to music, TV and movies. Valve hasn't come out and said which media services will be available through its software, but it did say: "Soon we will begin bringing them online, allowing you to access your favourite music and video with Steam and SteamOS."
The living room is family territory. Children use the television too, and Valve says it understands this. Valve left out a bit of detail, but it says parents will be able to control who sees what in the game library with SteamOS. If we had to guess, this would consist of a user account and password setup. For families who want to game together, there will be Family Sharing so you can take turns playing each other's games while earning your own Steam achievements. Individual game progress can be saved to the Steam Cloud.
Valve is aiming for a fluid television experience with Steam OS: "In SteamOS, we have achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we’re now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level. Game developers are already taking advantage of these gains as they target SteamOS for their new releases," Valve says.
SteamOS will include what users have come to love in the desktop version of Steam, as well. There will be native games for SteamOS, but as previously mentioned, games can be streamed from a PC. You'll have access to game groups, forums, Game Hubs, in-game chat and cross-platform Steam Cloud storage.
SteamOS is currently in an early first-look and public release, so it is not a finished product and therefore called a beta. If you’re still interested in trying it out, you can read more about it at Valve's website. You can then grab the official SteamOS APT repository or download an unofficial torrent for the installer at SteamDB.
Unfortunately, Valve wants people unexperienced with Linux to wait before downloading and installing the new operating system: "Unless you’re an intrepid Linux hacker already, we’re going to recommend that you wait until later in 2014."
SteamOS hardware: taking aim at everyone
SteamOS will be available for all to download on their machines, but Valve wants to take an approach of making pre-set hardware available to users (think game consoles). It has introduced a Steam Machines platform, which is essentially the "Steambox" we've been hearing about for a few years now.
Valve won't be doing all of the hardware design in-house, and instead, it has linked up with several manufacturers for SteamOS machines in 2014. Valve says it wants users to choose the hardware that makes sense for them, and that's why it has hooked up with several manufacturers to provide a multi-approach from entry-level to hardcore gamers.
Specific hardware manufacturers haven't been detailed yet, and we don't even know where to begin speculating. If we had to guess, SteamOS hardware will come in many different shapes and sizes: perhaps some looking like the Xi3 Piston, while others looking more like a traditional Xbox or PlayStation.
Until SteamOS hardware launches to the masses in 2014, Valve has introduced a Steam Machines beta to begin testing hardware running SteamOS with actual users. The company gave fans until 25 October to sign up for the beta through the Steam Machines website. It will be shipping only 300 boxes to Steam users, free of charge, on 13 December.
The beta box will target more of the hardcore crowd who "want the most control possible over their hardware". No specifications have been shared yet, though boxes that will ship in 2014 "will optimise for size, price, quietness, or other factors". Essentially, Valve is trying to hit a slew of users with a ton of different offerings.
Steam Controller: the feel of a mouse
SteamOS will support a slew of input hardware, including game pads and keyboards. However, Valve unveiled its own Steam Controller, a sleek, black gamepad it more than likely wants to use as a model in front of its partner manufacturers. Valve says it spent a year developing the Steam Controller - a gamepad that looks like an average controller but uniquely sports dual trackpads versus thumbsticks.
Valve is going for wide-ranging support for the Steam Controller, including older titles that were not originally built with controller support. Valve says it has fooled older games into thinking they're being played with a keyboard and mouse. How tricky of them.
The dual trackpads are the highlight of the Steam Controller, ditching the analog thumbsticks we've come to know from controllers in the past. A gamer's thumbs drive the trackpads, which Valve says allows for "far higher fidelity input than has previously been possible with traditional handheld controllers". It adds the trackpads will feel comparable to a traditional PC mouse - adding a level of comfort to the old-school Steam crowd.
Haptic feedback is found on the controller - called "super precise" by the company. The trackpads are clickable and able to accept and provide a "wide range of force and vibration."
Also found is a touchscreen on the Steam Controller, taking a page out of the PlayStation 4's controller. It is touch-enabled surface, backed by a high-resolution screen. The whole screen itself is also clickable: "This allows a player to touch the screen, browse available actions, and only then commit to the one they want," Valve says. Developers can access an API made available by Valve to tap into the touchscreen.
"In order to avoid forcing players to divide their attention between screens, a critical feature of the Steam Controller comes from its deep integration with Steam," according to Valve. "When a player touches the controller screen, its display is overlayed on top of the game they’re playing, allowing the player to leave their attention squarely on the action, where it belongs."
There are also the traditional buttons. Valve says half of them can be accessed without a gamer's thumbs even having to be lifted from the trackpads. It has been studied the best location for each button to be placed, based off frequency of use. All controls and buttons have also been placed symmetrically, making left or right-handedness switchable via a software config checkbox.
Valve stresses the Steam Controller is hackable. The company will therefore make tools available that will allow users and developers to participate in the gamepad's industrial design and electrical engineering. The developer API will become available free of charge when the Steam Machines beta goes live sometime later this year.
An Entire Experience
The theme of the SteamOS ecosystem appears to be hackable, openness, and wide-ranging; Valve wants to hit every gamer. The question is whether the company be able to do it. There have been many failed gaming startups in recent times. But, with Valve's already large following, huge game library, and partnerships, something tells us the company has what it takes to be a major player.
There are still a lot of details left out from the mix. We don't know anything about pricing or what the OS or devices even look like. Valve promises we'll hear more in the coming months.
The Consumer Electronics Show 2014 in January or a subsequent gaming conference seems like a likely place for SteamOS to shine. You bet we'll be tracking the latest via our Valve hub.