Valve Time: Here Comes a New Challenger

Not too long agon, Valve gave the Superior PC Gaming Race much cause to celebrate as the company but simply reminded the gaming community that they were still relevant, particularly to those not enslaved by DotA 2. Lemmie tell you how I really feel:

DotA 2 is serious business. So serious that EGM of The [A]lliance decided not to smile in this photo even though his team won $2.8 *MILLION* USD. For playing a video game.
DotA 2 is serious business. So serious that EGM of The [A]lliance decided not to smile in this photo even though his team won $2.8 *MILLION* USD. For playing a video game.
Valve essentially re-launched the Big Picture feature of its online/digital distribution platform, Steam. If you click the hyperlink you will discover a page that might remind you of articles or the “____ for Dummies” book. What is most interesting about the Big Picture feature, or should I say, why I never used it, is that it runs from Steam, which means it requires an OS, which means it requires a computer. In other words, as interesting it may be to read the how it works  section,I find the whole interface to be superfluous. Any PC gamer worth his or her salt will always prefer the keyboard and mouse combo over a controller, and PC gamers are particular about their display setups. Seriously, do not underestimate the kinds of setups PC gamers roll with. Personally, I prefer a single large display, and Valve knows that most gamers do as well, so they propose a hook-your-PC-to-your-TV setup as if that’s new news to us in 2013. Negative.

PC and TV setup
Valve, in 2013, suggests we try what PC gamers have been doing since before people with HDTVs even knew the purpose of HDMI. This is my first PC-to-TV setup…in 2007.

Suffice to say, I’ve never been impressed with Big Picture, particularly because it takes too many queues from Games for Windows Live, a shameless duplicate of the Xbox Live interface. Look, if I wanted a console interface, I would just hop on my PS3, k? Besides, Steam itself represents the best UI in the gaming universe.

As it would turn out, the purpose of (re)introducing Big Picture was to provide a stable, aesthetically satisfying UI for Valve’s big plans for transitioning into console gaming. This was made most clear in its big announcements: the SteamOS, the Steam Machine, and the Steam Controller.

wireless keyboard and mouse
You may have noticed them on the desk in the other photo, but here, I am using the Logitech Wave keyboard & mouse combo (wireless). They have served me well over the years, indeed. In this shot, I am playing the original Company of Heroes.

 The best part about the SteamOS is that it is free. That is the extent of the positives, really. The problems are multiple. First, hardly anyone develops video games for Linux.  Seriously, those who favor Apple (OS X) practically have to beg for ports of games that are not instant million-sellers like StarCraft 2. Gaming on Linux, however, was seen as a joke up until the past two years. One of the reasons that Windows is the platform of choice for gaming is Direct X (also known as Direct3D) as user Abasher explains well on this message board. Microsoft naturally uses DirectX as an API (application programming interface) for the Xbox360, which means it is easier for a company such as Ubisoft to develop FarCry 3 for the PS3 PC, and especially the formerly mentioned console, simultaneously, without many compatibility issues. DirectX, combined with the omnipresent install base of windows, is the primary reason why Windows is the OS of choice when it comes to developing games. The numbers do not lie.

Aspiring or big developers alike do not have to conduct much research in order to decide which OS would be the most profitable platform for their products.

I cannot believe I spoke of the merits of DirectX. Excuse me while I wash my hands from typing that. For the record, I have always been a fan of OpenGL because I am a huge Id Software fan (Doom, Quake, Rage), even though John Carmack confessed that DirectX had surpassed OpenGL. But on the real, just two years ago, “video games for Linux,” like “French war victories,” was the kind of joke phrase one would type in the Google search bar and click “I’m feeling lucky.” Now, with computer programming (or CS or comp-sci) becoming a trendy career choice over the past decade, and programmers discovering OS like Linux that are not cluttered with bloated code which allows someone who does not know C++ or PHP or Java to navigate their hard drives and run programs (in Windows, .exe files, which means practically any and everything), and the “popularity” of Ubuntu, one of several flavors of Linux (see the chart above), the OS is no longer virtually invisible. Linux is building some sense of momentum in the gaming world, with Valve launching Steam for Linux this past February. Speaking of shares, Valve pretty much owns PC gaming. GreenManGaming, Direct2Drive and other digital distributors have tried, but Steam is a beast. With Valve Support, it is possible that Linux could succeed in ways similar to how the variations of the Android OS has gone toe-to-toe with iOS. But I doubt it. We are talking specifically about video games, not tablets and smart phones whose purposes extend beyond playing video games.

The main problem with SteamOS is that it requires a “living room machine” to use, which generally means a PC. However, this is where Valve’s Steam Machines comes in, which is essentially what many in the gaming world have been projecting for the past few years, though it was often called the “SteamBox.” (Go ahead and Google the term.) We do have some specifications for the 300 prototypes that Valve is using:

GPU: some units with NVidia Titan, some GTX780, some GTX760, and some GTX660
CPU: some boxes with Intel i7-4770, some i5-4570, and some i3
RAM: 16GB DDR3-1600 (CPU), 3GB GDDR5 (GPU)
Storage: 1TB/8GB Hybrid SSHD
Power Supply: Internal 450w 80Plus Gold
Dimensions: approx. 12 x 12.4 x 2.9 in high

Now, from a PC gamer perspective, RAM is nice, but it isn’t everything. Processor is pretty important (I am partial to AMD because of the cheaper price and overclock capability), too. Generally an i5 is what most would need for gaming while the i7 is expensive/overkill, and the i3 is only worth mentioning if one is vested in claiming Intel loyalty. GPU is where it’s at these days, and at the time of this writing, the Titan is $1000, and the GTX660 is $250. With the i7-4770 running at around $300 right now by itself, Valve is going to have to grow a few money trees in order to develop a console machine that will be able to compete with the PS4, XboxOne, and Wii U. Valve claims that its Steam Machine will be a “universal solution” for gamers, but is that not what the console wars at the turn of the century have striven to accomplish? Yo, we do not even know if the Steam Machine will be able to play our videos or music collections like Sony’s and Microsoft’s devices! Who would these things appeal to?

The Steam Controller is the most fascinating among the recent of Valve’s announcements, particularly because I have been using a Radio Shack PS2 controller adapter for the past decade, and it is high time for me to upgrade. So yes, I was interested as to how Valve would provide a method for gamers to play games like Street Fighter IV, which are impossible to play on a keyboard. Well, they have thought about that.

Dat boom box design!

The design has already faced harsh criticism despite the fact only a few have actually played with the thing. Likewise, I can only speak on what it looks like while expressing concern that a lack of analog sticks and D-pad terrifies me. One reviewer claims to have suggested to Valve engineers to include n, s, e, w indentations on the trackpads, a suggestion which I would agree. My thumbs demand markers reminding me of their positions on the controller, especially during intense gameplay. In the very least, the controller’s unconventional design demands that everyone try it at least once, just to see how it feels. Is the gamepad not working for Nintendo?

On second thought…um, yeah…so that’s how I really feel about most of this. Gimmie the controller, keep the rest.

Then again, let me assume that Valve is not making the Steam Machine for me, that is, the enthusiast PC gamer (on a budget). Assuming that I’m Jane or Joe Nobody who is tentatively interested in PC gaming, but has no idea to start. I might hear and read about “specs,” but terms like “GHz,” “RAM” and “GPU” are alien. The Steam Machine, if reasonably priced (and by reasonably I mean, $300 for entry level), would provide a viable PC solution for the curious and PC enthusiasts alike, which includes myself. Yes, there is still the appeal building my own rig to consider, but the current setup I am running cost $1000 coming up on three years ago in January, and I like to stay up-to-date if possible. I bought an Antec HAF 900 to future-proof any future tower purchases, but if I could save $700 on an upgrade that will allow me to play the inevitable port of Grand Theft Auto 5 on PC at max settings with minimal tweaking, I might be interested. In the very least, I will certainly try SteamOS on a partition HDD to see how games might run without all the previously-mentioned Windows clutter, because I’m PC gamer and I’m not going to say “no” to a free OS if it works as advertised. Of course, all of my criticisms of Linux potentially supplanting Windows still stand.

While Valve’s invasion of the console world living room was relatively predictable (rumors have been circulating for years concerning the launch of “the SteamBox),  I still love Valve, love Steam. After all, I own 142 games and counting on the thing! While there are many others who have expressed languid reactions to Steam OS, Steam Machines, and the Steam Controlller, universally, everyone is elated concerning the recent leaks that Valve has development teams allocated to L4D3 and HALF LIFE 3! They will probably be Steam Machine launch title(s).

screnshot seen round the world
The screenshot seen ’round the internets. Look hard enough, and you will see the prize that some DotA 2 enthusiasts on a tour of Valve saw that encouraged them to take the photo. See? There’s a reason I began this piece on DotA 2. Why are you not playing it yet?

 The screenshot above only covers L4D3, which, if you actually did go to my steam page, you will see that I have hardly touched L4D2 compared to L4D1, so I can garner next to no excitement for a sequel of a game I’ve barely touched (if any of you gamer readers out there still looking to play/finish L4D2 and want to play with someone competent with a headset, hit me up: Now news of Half Life 3 has been pieced together by various gamer sources that you can read about here. What better way than for HL3 to come packaged in with the Steam Machine? It will probably be L4D3, but one can still dream, right?

It will be a glorious day, indeed.