Steam in-home streaming will change gaming for the better
Valve is rolling forward in a way we haven't seen for a while. As gamers are predicting a Half-life 3, the firm has been working on other projects.
There are three significant areas here. The first is the Steam box, a PC that's intended for one task: gaming. These machines come with the second project, SteamOS - a Linux-based Debian variant that aims to bring a gaming platform to computers without the expense and restrictions of Microsoft Windows.
The third development has been in-home streaming and, along the same lines, something called family sharing. These two projects co-exist to some extent, and work together in SteamOS and the standard Windows and Mac Steam clients. It's the latter of these recent Valve developments that's worth exploring more.
What is in-home streaming?
What streaming offers is the ability to take games from one machine and use a second, much less powerful laptop or other device, to display what's going on. It's a bit like the OnLive service, but games are streamed from your existing library of purchased titles, and streamed locally.
The idea is that gamers don't keep their powerful PC in the same place as their TV, on which they might want to play games. Streaming allows you to take a laptop - be it Windows, Linux or Mac-based - and use it to put HD gaming on the TV.
It might take a back seat to the streaming, but the Family Sharing option on Steam is big news too. You can authorise 10 machines for access to your game library. Only one person or machine can play a game at any one time, but it does mean you can have several devices on and running Steam at the same time, which is new.
We wonder what Valve has planned for the future of Steam? It's clear that it sees this as a system that can rival the consoles. Certainly, it's matured nicely over the years and if we have to use UPlay or Origin now we feel bitterly disappointed.
The "Big Picture"
What's special about Steam though, is that with the "Big Picture" interface, you can use a normal laptop like a games console. It has that large UI that's needed for on-TV gaming, and everything can be controlled from an Xbox or other game controller, making the experience more console-like than a PC would normally enjoy. Of course, not all games will suit this, but for driving, first-person shooters and the like, putting them on your TV makes for a great experience.
Plus, PCs can still provide a higher quality graphics than the current generation of consoles - although big things are coming, PCs can be upgraded giving that crucial leg-up over the unchanging PS4 or Xbox One.
There are some requirements of course. At the moment, in-home streaming is at beta level, so not everything works and we've had some crashes. But some games work flawlessly. Bioshock Infinite, for example, just looks as normal on a TV at 1080p. We also tested Dirt 3, and were once again thrilled by how good it looked, and how well it operated on our low-spec Windows tablet.
How will in-home streaming be significant?
So what's significant about streaming games? Well, there's a couple of things. First, when you mess around with it a bit, you start to realise that some games work really well on your TV, with that run of the mill surround sound system you paid all that money for.
Aside from the novelty value, you also realise that Steam is a brilliant service. Loads of games, prices that can be bargain of the decade, and the opportunity to keep saved games synced on multiple platforms. What's more, Steam games remain largely compatible with PCs no matter how much hardware changes. That might sound obvious, but the Xbox One won't play Xbox 360 games, and when those games are ported to the console, you'll more than likely have to pay for them again. The same is likely true of the PS4 too - it certainly can't play PS3 games directly.
The other advantage of streaming is that it allows users to use a Linux machine at the TV end of the system, removing the need to pay for Windows while still being able to access the library built for the most prolific consumer OS in the world.
What's in the future for home streaming?
Some beta participants have reported that you can also use home streaming when you're out of the home. Use a VPN to access your home network, and you can play games when you're travelling or at a friend's house. Of course, the bandwidth of the internet connection might be a problem here, but the idea of playing wherever you are, on a low-spec machine, is certainly appealing.
And there are things like phones and tablets, all of which could play games from your Steam library without needing massive processing power themselves. And while you might dismiss this, the PS Vita offers that for the PS4 and the Shield does the same for PC gaming on Nvidia-equipped machines.
And those who use Linux or OS X might enjoy having access to the full library of Windows games, and while this doesn't solve the problem of needing a Windows-based computer, it does mean you can put it away somewhere and forget about it, just connecting it perhaps via Powerline ethernet or Wi-Fi. You could even put the computer in your loft, or a cupboard and leave it without a monitor, keyboard or mouse: "headless" as it's known.
Plenty of hurdles left to jump
One thing that we'd love, is if games that run through Steam - those added as "third party titles" - could be streamed. We tried to play Far Cry 3 via UPlay and we got some bits on the TV, like the splash screen, but we couldn't see the game, although the audio was sent successfully. It's a bit too much to ask Steam to deal with other DRM platforms, but it's still a nice dream.
Some games don't perform well. For example, Batman Arkham City loaded fine, and played reasonably, but reported only 24 frames per second. It was playable, but you would have a better experience sitting at the streaming computer.
Games like Bioshock Infinite and Dirt 3 looked okay, though, and played well too. Latency from the controller was slightly noticeable, but not disastrous - we're awful at Dirt even without latency!
How do I get it?
If you want to try Steam in-home streaming, you need to join the discussion group at the forums. Users in here, who have their client set to "participate in beta testing" should get invited to the test. It doesn't happen straight away, but get signed up and you'll soon be messing about. It's free, but you need two computers to use it. The system works on SteamOS, Linux, Mac OS and Windows. We tried it with SteamOS too, but problems with sound and controller drivers pushed us to use an old Windows 7 laptop instead.
So, what does it mean for gaming
We have felt, and you might feel that same, that games consoles are entering a more "entertainment" phase. The Xbox One, certainly, is an all-round package. But with that comes 10 years of the same hardware. PC gamers will upgrade their graphics cards two or three times in that period, they might add memory or replace their processor too. So it's not hard to see how PC graphics will keep up with, or beat, console graphics.
What Steam in-home streaming promises is the living room experience, with a 360, One or PS4 controller and your big TV and surround sound system. It means that you can play a huge selection of games from the past and present as well as knowing you will have access to lots more in the future. The indie developer scene on PCs is doing well, and there's a lot of potential for Windows, OS X and Linux gaming to expand more.
What Steam gives you is the biggest titles, in a library that you build over the years. We have our first game, Half-life, in our library waiting to be played, along with our most recent purchases.
The potential for remote playing is exciting, although current broadband makes it a challenge, and the option to play games on a tablet or phone is there too, as long as apps can be built to interpret touch or motion controls into the games we own.
If Valve wanted, it could turn the Big Picture interface into a media centre, with Netflix, home streaming from DLNA or the internet. There is no limit to what a low-powered PC in your lounge, and a desktop powerhouse tucked away somewhere can do. We're excited by it, and it's just getting started.