For years, PC manufacturers have been desperate to get their machines into our living rooms. They’ve tried producing smaller, sexier devices, aping the design sensibilities of dedicated games consoles, and they’ve tried making them look functional and discreet like DVD players or set-top boxes. But primarily, they have failed: most of us still keep our PCs on a desk, in a bedroom, study, or office space. So the big question is, what is the future of PC games? (PC stands for computer)
Then in 2013, after years of rumors and speculation, Valve, the company behind the dominant online PC gaming store Steam, announced that it was making a new bid for the living room with its PC-based console, the Steam Machine. However, it wouldn’t manufacture the console itself, and there wouldn’t just be one version. Keeping to the open philosophy of the PC market, there would be multiple manufacturers making their versions with different specifications. The uniting factor would be that every Steam Machine would run a Linux-based operating system named SteamOS and that they’d all come with the dedicated Steam controller – an innovative combination of traditional console joypad and computer mouse developed in-house by Valve. And the latest is Windows 10 desktop PC.
In November, the first dozen or so Steam Machine derivatives will hit stores, with units from Alienware, Origin, and Falcon Northwest, among others. As expected, the specifications vary widely, from the entry-level Alienware with an Intel i3 processor and Nvidia Geforce GTX graphics ($449, or around £290) to the super high-end Falcon Northwest with Intel i7-4790K and Titan-class Nvidia GPU (GameSpot has all the specs). But the question on everyone’s lips is: what are these things for? Why do we need them? Why not just buy a cheaper, uglier, but more powerful gaming PC and hide it behind the TV if you don’t like the look of it? Desktop PC is today’s trend.
Both the PS4 and the Xbox One are mostly PCs – they feature the same multi-core central processors, dedicated graphics chips, and large hard drives for desktop computers. “In fact, they’re getting more PC-like every year,” says Valve programmer Robin Walker, who once helped design seminal shooter Team Fortress but is now one of the leads on the design of the Steam Controller. “They’re trying to solve problems that we solved years ago.”
Valve launched Big Picture, a special version of its Steam storefront, designed to run on television four years ago. The new model is essentially a “10-foot interface” – an onscreen menu system designed to be viewed on a living room screen 10 feet away from the user; it’s the concept you find on your Sky or Virgin Media box, or indeed your games console. It meant Steam users could plug their laptop into the TV via HDMI, then browse and play games on their massive LCD screen rather than a desktop monitor. And it’s a tweaked and updated version of Big Picture that provides the UI for every Steam Machine.
And it works pretty well. Power up Alienware’s Steam Machine, for example, and you don’t get a standard PC desktop with tiny icons and a mouse cursor. Instead, you get what looks like a games console front-end. A Steam Machine logo appears, then you go through a simple console set-up procedure, providing your region, letting it know the size of your TV, and signing into your Steam account.
Then you’re into the main user interface, which looks like the PS4 user interface. A row of icons along with the top offer all your settings, download, and mail functions, while a larger row of options provides access to the Steam store, your library of games, and the community features. Select Store and all the browsing options you know from the PC version (searching by popularity, release, genre, etc., basically) are all there. Of course, you can go into settings and switch to a traditional Linux desktop if this thing looks, runs, and handles like a games console. Cheap computers were not available in those days.
The most interesting element, though, is the controller. Valve has spent over three years designing something that can work with joypad-centered games such as shooters and action adventures and mouse-driven titles, including strategy simulations. The result has two large trackpads, as well as a single analog thumbstick and multiple buttons on the fascia, shoulders, and even on the inner side of the two “handles.” It’s also highly customizable – players can configure switch settings for older Steam titles that don’t directly support the pad and then share them online so that others don’t have to bother.
In practice, it takes a bit to get used to, but it does work. We tried Civilisation V, using the right trackpad as a mouse cursor. It feels intuitive, helped a great deal by the comprehensive haptic sensor array beneath the trackpad, which provides little blips of tactic feedback aping the friction you feel as you whizz a mouse over a surface.
As for shooters, during our demo, we got to try Just Cause 3, streaming from another PC but set up for Steam Controller compatibility. Here, the analog stick handles movement, while the right touchpad is used for aiming, which is incredibly accurate and very sensitive. We spent a lot of time firing wildly around the screen, which – when your character has a rocket launcher, and they’re standing on top of a flying aircraft – can be dangerous. Again, though, everything can be tweaked and customized, and it’s likely dedicated gamers will find their way to tune the system.
And like the PS4 controller, Valve has also added motion detection in the form of a gyroscope for extra versatility. “We’ve found a lot of our hardcore FPS players are starting to map that to mouse input,” says Walker. “The gyro feeds mouse input in, and the right pad generates mouse input as well, and the controller synthesizes those two data before it sends them to the game. So with something like Counter-Strike, where you care about aim a lot, you use your right pad for large-scale movement, turns, etc., fine, and your gyroscope for the first purpose on top of that. This was not something we expected, it’s not what the design was for, but they’re finding that mix of large scale and stunning movement is working for them”.
There remain some fundamental issues with the systems, however. Currently, only a minority of games on Steam support SteamOS (around 1,000 apparently), so a lot of titles won’t run on Steam Machine – though Valve is adding dozens every week – and plenty aren’t configured for the controller, which means you’ll need to do some configuration or hope you can download a template from the community. You also don’t get the array of entertainment apps you do on the consoles, including Netflix, iPlayer, and YouTube. They’re all, no doubt, available via the built-in browser, but that’s a bit of a faff and nowhere near as accessible as the native application.
The demo unit that’s gone out to most news sites is the top-end Alienware Steam Machine, with Intel Core i7 CPU. Most people find that more demanding titles, such as Bioshock: Infinite, are limited to 1920×1080 resolution and medium graphics settings, but it can handle 45-60 frames-per-second fairly well. This obviously compares favorably with the current generation of consoles. However, while Xbox One and PlayStation 4 owners can be fairly sure that publishers will support their machines for up to seven years, Steam Machine buyers may find PC titles moving out of their range in less than half that time. Although many components are upgradeable on the consoles, it looks like the GPUs are fixed and irreplaceable.
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For now, the machines look beautiful, and they work well. The UI is functional and intuitive, and the controller is fascinating. But is this the living room PC to end all living room PCs? If the target market is current Steam users (and there are 125 million of them) who want a way to play their games on the living room sofa, those may or may not buy a Steam Machine rather than a cheaper small-form computer that they can update easily steam Link would let them stream their PC games to their TV over a LAN, with smooth 1080p 60fps visuals. If those possibilities cover a majority of PC gamers, then who else is Steam Machine for? If the system is not a console killer, it’s not clear who will adopt it.
“We built Steam for the same reasons we did all this: it didn’t exist, a bunch of people wanted it to live, no one was building it, so we built it. There was this post-rationalization of Steam after it was launched; like ‘of course you’d make that, it’s obvious – but, at the time, when we were building it, no one else was,” says Valve’s business development specialist Erik Johnson.
“Who knows if it’ll be the same this time, but if you ask customers, ‘do you want to be able to play all your Steam games in your living room with a controller?’, they’re like: ‘Yeah, that sounds cool.’ That’s good enough for us to move forward. We’re not obsessed with what market we’re creating or what users we’re cannibalizing from other platforms. No one ever makes good decisions based on that kind of data.”