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Features

FULL STEAM AHEAD
WILL VALVE'S MOVE INTO THE LIVING ROOM WITH THE STEAM BOX PROVE A LITERAL GAME CHANGER?

Steam Machine

PLAYSTATION 4 AND XBOX ONE ARE JUST AROUND THE CORNER - but if PC gaming giant Valve has anything to say about it, the console under your TV in a few years may not be a 'console' at all.

Already the creator of Steam (the ubiquitous digital gaming marketplace than has all but become the default point of access for PC gamers) Valve has recently announced plans to bring computer gaming into the living room.

Valve's approach is more akin to the traditional PC gaming model. Multiple manufacturers will be producing their own Steam Machines, based on Valve's prototype.
First comes SteamOS. The existing Steam application for PC already has 'Big Picture' mode, a recent addition that allows output to televisions with a simplified layout. SteamOS seems an expansion of that. Built around the open-source Linux, it aims to create an all-in-one media environment for games, movies, music and more. Core features are set to include network streaming - play a video file on your desktop PC and SteamOS can display it on your main TV, for instance - and user-specific game libraries accessible through one box.

The box itself is step two for Valve, with its announcement of Steam Machines. Unlike Sony or Microsoft's defined hardware models, Valve's approach is more akin to the traditional PC gaming model. Multiple manufacturers will be producing their own Steam Machines, based on Valve's prototype, which the company promises will be "high-performance .... completely upgradable and open". Final details - including price, specification, and release date - have yet to be even hinted at. It seems logical to presume there will be a base level that manufacturers must adhere to though, in order to guarantee compatibility with the games available through Steam, and to be allowed to slap on whatever Steam Machine branding comes along.

The streaming function of Steam OS may well factor here, too. Gamers with top-end, dedicated gaming PCs could let that do the grunt work, and then stream the output to the Steam Machine under the TV. It's a feasible work around for anyone who doesn't want to splash out on whatever the highest spec Steam Machine ends up being. The flipside is that any such power users would already be capable of hooking their rig up to their televisions, whether they're using Big Picture mode or not.

As for the games you'll be playing on your as-yet undefined system, the big advantage Steam will have is launching with thousands of titles, and a catalogue that expands daily. Yet the thought of playing traditionally PC oriented titles - real-time strategies, for instance - away from a mouse and keyboard set-up seems daunting. Valve's answer to such concerns is the Steam Controller.

Steam Living Room A Steam-powered living room of the future

MOST MODERN GAME PADS ARE VARIATIONS ON A THEME - two thumbsticks, direction pad, four face buttons, four shoulder triggers. Even Nintendo offers 'Classic' controllers for the Wii and Wii U in this basic configuration. Valve's alternative discards this layout, instead offering an almost alien-looking device. In place of the thumbsticks and d-pad are two large, owl-eyed trackpads, each promising ultra-targeted haptic feedback and pressure sensitivity, as well as being clickable. In the centre sits a miniature touch screen, which can be programmed by developers for numerous functions. Both the screen and the trackpads will be high-resolution surfaces, intending to offer precise gradients of input and movement - including the fine control needed for RTS games.

Steam controller
The Steam Controller is a huge departure from the norm, and if it proves as revolutionary as Valve no doubt hopes, could prove a far greater shake-up than the Steam Machine hardware or OS themselves.
The familiar face buttons - such as the A, B, X, Y on Xbox pads - are repositioned around the trackpads, two on either side making them equally spaced for right- and left-handed people. The shoulder triggers remain in their usual location, while two additional buttons are added on the underside of the handgrips. The resulting combination actually boasts more points of input than a typical controller, and will be customisable to user preferences. The Steam Controller is a huge departure from the norm, and if it proves as revolutionary as Valve no doubt hopes, could prove a far greater shake-up than the Steam Machine hardware or OS themselves.

Of course, one of the main reasons Valve is creating its own system architecture and operating system is to compete with Windows. While Microsoft's near-omnipresent user environment is at the heart most PC gamers' computers, the Redmond giant has been edging towards its own software distribution infrastructure since at least the launch of Windows 8. The built-in Windows Store is a step towards Apple-style content management, bottlenecking the usually open nature of the PC market, as well as presenting a potential competitor for Valve's own Steam service. Valve founder Gabe Newell's feelings on the latest Windows are no secret, having said "Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space" just prior to its official launch.

There's some irony in the fact that, by using its market dominance to launch a suite of Steam products, Valve risks creating the same closed system that Newell complains of. The current state of the company is legendarily open and welcoming to developers of all levels and budgets, but will the same be said five-ten years from now? There are also the questions of whether PC gamers - a notoriously hardcore lot - want to take their gaming into the living room in the first place, and if not, whether more casual gamers put enough cache in the Steam brand to pick up another device.

However, thanks to a history of innovation and consumer-friendly initiatives, Valve enjoys enough positive currency with its audience that its gamble may well pay off. If nothing else, the Steam Machine is only an exclusive release of Half Life 3 away from flying off the shelves - utterly irrespective of fancy controller and shiny new OS.

Words: Matt Kamen

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