In our first Split Screen article, Sean Knight and Richard Hayden debate Valve’s decision to use Linux as the OS for the Steam Box
Richard Hayden: So, Sean, I’ve been reading the drips of information coming out of Valve about the Steam Box, including the news about Xi3’s Piston, and I’m very excited. But, I’m also a bit worried. Using Linux for an OS is a bold move because not many game developers are working with it.
Sean Knight: You are right that this is a bold move on Valve’s part. Not only is it releasing a console, which both EA and Microsoft go on about being a costly venture, but it will be using an OS that is extremely niche. Yet, if you look at consoles, two of them use their own OS. In addition Valve co-founder Gabe Newell has stated that consumers will be able to install Windows onto the Steam Box if they don’t want to use Linux.
RH: But that means, to run most games, people will have to buy a new Windows license, which adds extra cost and hassle. By being based on Linux, the Steam Box will not be useable straight out of the box for many users (or, more specifically, their games). One of the tenets of console manufacture is simplifying and standardizing the technology for the user. For non-technically literate buyers, Steam Box could be more complicated than a Windows PC, not less.
SK: Granted that those wishing to use Windows on the new hardware will have to pay for it themselves yet by Valve choosing Linux it means that they don’t have to pay licensing fees. This cuts down on production costs for the Steam Box and could, potentially, translate into a cheaper price for the product.
In regards to the games it is true that a small selection support Linux whereas thousands of games have been available at the PC gamer’s fingertips at all times (although sometimes it takes some tweaking to get them to work). But I have to ask how is it any different when a new console is released? While the PS3, at the start, had backwards compatibility they got rid of that feature as for the Xbox 360…they barely supported it. When a new console comes out there is generally no library to fall back on. Just launch titles.
RH: I don’t doubt your conclusions about the launches of those various consoles. However, this is a slightly different case. The hints dropped so far suggest that the Steam Box is not a hard reset launch but rather new hardware for an existing digital platform – ie, the Steam store. Indeed, with more than 50 million users, Steam is the ideal market to which the Steam Box should be aimed. Allowing those users easy means to run games they already own helps them justify the purchase of the new console. Otherwise why buy the new console if you’re still going to need your gaming PC to run other games, especially as none of the major developers or publishers seem very interested in Linux?
SK: We are starting to see a push for Linux-supported games showing up. Indie titles such as FTL: Faster Than Light and Amnesia: The Dark Descent are just some of them. Then there is Nvidia which is supporting Linux more with its recent updates and the Humble Indie Bundle 7 supported Linux with Linux users spending the most per person. For Valve to succeed it will need the support of the indie community. If that happens, we could see a lot of titles available for the Steam Box when it launches. Especially if Valve is able to add all of its games to the list as well.
RH: True, many indies are already working with Linux and are producing some of the most exciting and innovative stuff in the industry. But, is that sector large enough to drive hardware sales on its own? I’m not sure. In fact, I can’t think of many indie titles that would encourage me to buy a powerful new console exclusively to play them. I also worry that, even with indie support established, it won’t generate enough profit or consumer interest should EA or the other big publishers decide Linux is not worth the trouble. I know they’re always looking for new markets but any expansion must look profitable (from a business perspective) and I’m not sure Linux has shown that it has that potential.
SK: The support of large publishers would be a big help in the success of the Steam Box. And I wouldn’t be surprised if EA stays away from the hardware, since Origin is in direct competition with Steam, while other publishers may wait to see what kind of market will evolve around the Steam Box.
Yet why can’t a strong indie push be enough to entice players to buy a console? Correct me if I’m wrong but quite a few console gamers wait until there is a single title, a system seller as it were, before buying a new piece of hardware.
So right now it is up to the indie community and Valve to make it more enticing. Although, if I were Valve, I’d try hard to get some core PC games like Civilization V and the Total War franchise, to be available at launch. You know, offer up titles from genres that have been exclusive to PC gaming that console gamers might be curious about.
RH: Interesting choice of games… strategy titles have usually been the exclusive province of the PC (XCOM: Enemy Unknown being a recent exception) for a good reason – UI. I agree they are great fun games but am skeptical that they would lead the charge for any console because of the problems arising from gamepad-led UI. But that raises another issue, what do current Steam users think about the probability that Steam Box and its games will be gamepad-optimized? Accepting it as an option in Steam (via Big Picture Mode) is one thing, but buying a new system that focuses on it is another.
SK: I’d have to say that it is a non-issue. I’m sure the mouse and keyboard control scheme will still be prevalent on the Steam Box. Gamers will have the choice of what form to play their game in. Something that the consoles have failed to do properly for a long time.
RH: Okay, I accept that adaptability is a Valve byword so concerns about Linux and gamepads have probably been discussed at great length in the offices and conference rooms of Seattle with a variety of solutions already on hand (just not made public yet). But what is going to make the Steam Box stand out? Why should I be interested? I like indie gaming but I’ve already pre-ordered an Ouya; I don’t need another indie-focused console, do I?
SK: Half-Life 3.
That would be the system seller for the Steam Box. We know Valve is working on a Source 2 engine and it is a safe bet that the long-awaited game will be what showcases that new engine and take everyone by storm. Back in 2003, at E3, Valve pretty much stole the show when it unveiled Half-Life 2 and the Source engine. Now here it is 2013 and Valve is going to be releasing its own version of the console at some point.
What better way to provide incentive for buying its hardware than to offer the next instalment of a franchise that any gamer worth their salt has heard of.
RH: Yes, that is a very compelling argument!
Follow Richard on Twitter: @HaydenOnP2R
Follow Sean on Twitter: @SeanDKnight