Thoughts about SteamOS and Steam Machine

Valve just recently anounced its plans about a SteamOS based gaming machine and its own controller. As I’ve been through this experience of a gaming computer in the living room this year, I thought I might add my two cents on that.

The idea itself is compelling, sitting on the couch and gaming on the big screen is very appealing. Especially, considering that this is where the powerful sound system is connected to. This had been one of the driving forces behind my decision to try it out.

But Valve takes one very different approach: they are using Linux as a basis for their operating system. I am extremely curious how that will impact hardware and software developers.

Installing graphics drivers on different distributions can be a big undertaking depending on the distribution you are using. Now, the Steam betas for Linux have been based on Ubuntu, which makes it pretty easy to install proprietary drivers. But, drivers have to communicate with the kernel and there’s been some rough words between Linus Torvalds and nVidia regarding drivers and how they interact with the kernel. I wonder how that issue will be solved. AMD in recent years put some good effort into supporting the community programming open source drivers, but those are far off the desired performance capabilities that I want as a gamer. As of now, for gaming you need proprietary drivers.

And, as of recent interest, games are not just about graphics but also sound. If you connect a gaming machine to your TV and sound system you want great sound. Just recently I’ve experienced difficulties getting a Soundblaster Z to work properly in surround mode. It randomly switched channels. That what should be coming from the front speakers suddenly hit me from behind and any other weird combination of mix-ups. I am curious how that’ll work out on a Linux based OS if I couldn’t make it work on Windows (I hope that was a hardware issue, but given Creative’s history, their drivers have never been a poster child for quality). On-board sound is no problem but on-board sound is not the highest quality sound you can get. I want quality surround on my quality surround system, not only in movies – that’s why many buy those things – but also in games.

What other implications does this generate? For one, Valve will compete with Sony’s Playstation and Microsoft’s Xbox. In addition to that, Valve will compete with Microsoft’s Windows as the premier gaming platform on a PC. It’ll be interesting to see if only Valve and independent developers will add support for Linux (in addition to OS X, where Steam is already available for some time now) or if the big studios like EA, Ubisoft, Activision and all the others are willing to add this platform to their portfolio. As a developer myself I know that adding another platform (of whatever kind) will bring on unexpected problems and once your product is out there, you’ll have to support and maintain it.

As Microsoft has already experienced with their Windows Store and mobile operating system, success will also very much depend on the content that is available. If there are no AAA games I wonder if that idea lives long.

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