Dec 092012

Opening Shots

In the last few days we’ve witnessed the first shots of the next big battle in games being fired. As usual this took the form of a major product launch, a product with the potential to revolutionise how the mainstream play and interact with games. A product which could open the floodgates for developers of all sizes with new ideas and innovations.

…I am of course, talking about Steam’s “Big Picture”.

The Silent Revolution

Although initially only intended as a means of distributing patches and updates, Valve realised the potential and importance of Steam as a distribution platform some four years before Apple managed to launch the App Store. Since then Steam has gone on to become synonymous with PC gaming. By removing all the different proprietary layers, Valve consolidated your games collection within one application with a consistent UX, functionality and social features, thus creating PC gaming’s “killer app”.

I can’t remember the last time I bought a PC title in a shop, took it home and installed it. I’ve got better things to do with my time than troubleshoot installation problems, crappy porting, out-of-date drivers and other miscellaneous incompatibilities. Give me a choice between a PC game which is also available on consoles and I’ll go out and buy the console version every time. I can hardly be atypical for being someone who now almost only entertains buying PC games on Steam or via Humble Bundle sales.

We don’t even go out and buy retro games anymore as many of the great ones are available online in one way or another. Although these don’t allow you to own the original 98 inch box and hand-stitched-and-embroidered-by-a-child instruction manuals which were so common in the early to mid-90s, you do get that warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that some of your money is (probably) going to the original creators, rather than some hideous collector who hoards shrink-wrapped copies of the original Leisure Suit Larry in the hope of cornering the market.

In essence, what I’m saying is that when people talk about PC gaming in this day and age, what they’re usually talking about is Steam.

Domination through Innovation

Valve’s strategy in cornering distribution on PC is all the more interesting because innovation and risk has always been at the heart of it. Two of the first non-Valve games released were niche indie games (Darwinia and Rag Doll Kung-Fu). Long before Android, Steam was the first major platform to not require submission fees for games going live on the service (a massive boon for cash strapped indies) and has since forged a reputation as a hotbed for innovation and the unusual. It’s recent forays into social networking, F2P games (and how it almost single-handedly changed the hardcore perception of F2P with Team Fortress 2) and now non-game software is only cementing that. Where Steam leads, others inevitably follow (though usually years later), and now it’s coming to your living room.

“Reason and justice tell me there’s more love for humanity in electricity and steam than in chastity and vegetarianism.” – Anton Chekhov


Revolution Begins At Home

“Big Picture” effectively allows you to have all the benefits of the PC gaming experience whilst playing in your living room. It’s been specifically designed for console controllers (you can use mouse and keyboard if you insist), and it has and even its own browser designed specifically for controllers, which is the first “console” browser I’ve seen which doesn’t suck. In essence what they’re trying to achieve is that you take the PC out of the bedroom and into the living room. Neither Sony nor Microsoft have given any reason why you should invest in their machines next year other than increased power. In the face of this, there’s no reason you shouldn’t just chuck your PC in your living room and have the same experience (but better and with more quirky indie games) for less.

For years PC gaming nerds have frothed about how the PC is world’s biggest gaming platform, its openness, the unashamed complexity some of its biggest franchises and how it’s always 5-10 years ahead of the curve of the console market. What Steam are trying to do with “Big Picture” is to take it away from the nerd in the bedroom, and make it a genuinely social experience with all the needless layers of complexity and stress that stifle the PC gaming experience peeled away… so that at the end, only the games are exposed.

Even if “Big Picture” doesn’t eventually take off, you can bet your bottom dollar that the big boys are worried and they’ll be upping their offering as a result.

A Short History Lesson

Some 240 years ago in a quiet corner of Glasgow, Thomas Watt was hard at work on refining an existing invention. Up until then steam engines had existed as a theoretical possibility with some limited practical successes, but remained ineffective due to their inefficient design and poor manufacturing. Watt’s success in developing the first commercially viable steam engine, would go on to galvanise and power the Industrial revolution, thus changing the course of humanity forever.

It seems fitting then that to this day, the words  ”steam” and “innovation” should remain inexorably intertwined.