Since Valve announced its open source Linux SteamOS distribution and Steam Machines prototype in late September, numerous questions remain. Valve has yet to unveil a photo of the prototype or name the multiple hardware licensees that will build various console-like embedded variations of Steam Machines starting next year. Valve's unusual, haptic and touchscreen-enabled Steam Controller has been more fully divulged, but is still a bit of a mystery, as well.
Last week, however, Valve released more details on the Steam Machines prototype. The PC-like device will run SteamOS Linux on different 4th Generation Intel Core "Haswell" processors, including Core Intel i7-4770, i5-4570, and an i3 model, as well as various Nvidia GPUs, including the Titan, GTX780, GTX760, and GTX660. The computers will ship with 16GB of DDR3-1600 RAM and 3GB GDDR5 RAM for the GPU, plus a 1TB hard disk and 8GB SSD. Powered by a 450-Watt 80Plus Gold power supply, the prototype will measure 12 x 12.4 x 2.9 inches.
The specs suggest the prototype is not simply a rehash of Xi3's AMD-based Piston Console, which targets Steam gamers and developers. Assuming Valve plans to release a commercial version of its Steam Prototype, one would hope the price will run well shy of the Piston Console's $999. In its spec unveiling, Valve suggested that next year's more embedded third-party Steam Machine models will be cheaper than the prototype.
The prototype will run over 3,000 Steam platform games, and support keyboard and mouse set-ups as well as gamepads. The beta version of the Steam Controller will also be supported, although it will lack key features that will appear in the final version, including WiFi and the touchscreen.
Valve spins Steam Dev Days
Gaming developers have until Oct. 25 to convince Valve they are among the crème de la crème of of the Steam community, and therefore worthy of receiving one of the first 300 Steam Machines prototypes. Those who don't make the cut on the beta program now have another pathway toward SteamOS enlightenment. Valve has announced a Steam Dev Days event to be held Jan. 15-16 in Valve's home turf of Seattle. Attendees will be able to test-drive and provide feedback on Steam OS, the Steam Machines prototype, and the Steam Controller.
Steam Dev Days will let developers explore topics including game economies, VR, Linux/OpenGL, and user-generated content. Attendees need to pre-pay a $95 fee to ensure entry, and pesky reporters need to apply to this "off the record" event.
Valve's Open Source Play
With SteamOS, the gaming world appears to finally be taking Linux gaming seriously. Pundits who have laughed off earlier open source Linux consoles such as OpenPandora's Pandora device, now give Valve half a chance to grab some of Microsoft's downloadable game market. Among other positive responses, PC Gamer's Phil Savage wrote: "SteamOS may not be a Windows killer on release. In the years to come? I wouldn’t bet against it."
Competitors have taken notice as well. Microsoft VP Phil Harrison and Sony UK chief Fergal Gara have separately told reporters they are taking the SteamOS threat seriously. Longtime open source foe Nvidia has not only announced open GPU drivers for the platform, it has been one of Valve's closest collaborators. AMD has also vowed Radeon driver support.
The respect for Valve stems less from game hits like Portal and Half Life than from its Steam online distribution service and gamer community. The Steam service is now widely imitated by PC gaming giants, and still represents at least half of the online distribution market. The downloadable game concept also appears to be moving into the console game market, potentially threatening retailers of console games like GameStop.
Valve's technical innovations have contributed to the widespread interest in Steam Machines, as well. In particular, its Big Picture Mode, already available on Steam PC clients, enables a computer to act as a server to mirror games from the Steam service to multiple screens in the house simultaneously, including TVs. Earlier this week, the Steam clientwas updated with Big Picture bug fixes, among other enhancements such as an improved connection ping for connecting servers. Valve also has a number of R&D projects exploring motion and gesture control, biometrics feedback, virtual reality goggles and other wearable devices, as well as the potential for a Steam server streaming multiple games simultaneously.
The Changing Gaming Market
SteamOS is an intriguing wildcard in a gaming world that has been growing more fluid and unpredictable. The questions are a lot more complex than simply Xbox vs. PlayStation vs. Wii.
Although PC gaming is advancing the downloadable paradigm, people are buying fewer PCs, suggesting a continuing strong market for consoles. Yet at the same time, the console giants are competing with more casual gamers who get by with a smartphone and tablet. Android-based mobile game consoles like the Nvidia Shield, as well as the recently updated Ouya, and Madcatz' new MOJOare attempting to enable a wider range of Android games.
Gaming is also increasingly merging into the world of IP set-tops and media players, most based on Linux or Android, which aim to provide a universal interface toward games, multimedia content, and web browsing on a TV. PC Gamer's Savage suggests that Valve may be working on a lightweight version of SteamOS that could be loaded onto smart TVs.
Meanwhile, the long suffering Linux gaming community can enjoy a little celebration over SteamOS. Not only does it appear that Linux-based gaming titles can be easily ported to the new platform, but Valve has claimed that unlike the Steam distribution service, SteamOS and the Steam Machines platform will be completely open source. On the other hand, if SteamOS fails, it may be a while before another game company attempts a similarly FOSSy gamble.