From Games, to Digital Distribution, to… Operating Systems?

As a huge fan of Valve, it was only a matter of time before I wrote an article concerning this. I have followed Valve since the early days of Half Life back in 1999 when I was a child, right up through Half Life 2 and its episodic extensions, continuing to the present day where I have looked upon DotA with disdain and much hatred and still wait for Episode 3 to come out as fervently as I believe Games Workshop will release a new Sisters of Battle codex with plastic model kits. But I digress. The main reason for the article today is that yesterday Valve made a big announcement. I will not hide my disappointment when I saw that it was not Episode 3 or even Left 4 Dead 3, the latter of which I believe has been confirmed to some degree, but an operating system instead.

For those of you who may not know, Valve was founded by former Microsoft employees, Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, so operating systems should not be all that unfamiliar to them in theory. The company that started with games then expanded into what became the largest and most expansive digital distribution platform on the internet which expanded itself to accommodate not just games, but software and modding tools as well. To this day, Steam remains the largest digital distributor of games, far exceeding that of Origin, EA’s attempt at dislodging Steam from its throne, by boasting an impressive total of over two thousand games, millions of users worldwide and compatibility with Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems as well as various devices including phones and even televisions! As I sit here writing this article, there are a total of 4,394,074 users online of which 856,701 are currently in-game. There can be no arguments to say that Steam has not been a massive success for Valve with figures like that.

So, what can we expect from SteamOS? Valve has always been known for releasing high quality products, however irregularly, so will we see the same Valve quality with SteamOS? Only time can tell for sure, as it is currently not yet available for consumption, so we shall look at what we know. Firstly, it will be built on the Linux architecture. To me, that is definitely a positive as Ubuntu is perhaps my favourite operating system currently out, just ahead of Windows XP, for anything not related to gaming, though if it were not for compatibility issues with games and Linux, I would use it for gaming as well. It promises performance increases in graphical functions, which one would assume translates to handling the graphics processing unit’s memory more efficiently, as well as optimisations on sound, two quite central aspects of gaming. According to Valve, the operating system is being designed around their Steam platform and is being pushed towards usage in the living room. With functionality such as being able to watch TV and movies, as well as listening to music, and game sharing between family members, SteamOS seems to be trying to compete less with the PC market and more with the console market. With the Sony Playstation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One right around the corner, will SteamOS have the power to potentially sway the market and grab more customers? It is still early days as none of the three are out yet, though I think it may pull through. Why? Because SteamOS will be free like most Linux based operating systems and allows a lot more freedom than a console. Both software and hardware can be changed at the user’s will which will require more knowledge than the other two consoles, but for people like me who at least have a base understanding of computers it is a wonderful revelation. Instead of buying a next gen console, I am tempted to just use the money on PC bits and make a SteamOS machine for my living room. Oh, wait… I forgot about Metal Gear Solid 5. Nevermind! However, it will also contain all of the features of Steam as we know it at the moment. This means that we will finally get a living room system that both allows and encourages custom content and mods through the Steam workshop. Result!

This is a natural progression I feel for Valve. Having developed the ‘Big Picture’ functionality for Steam, and with the ideas of a Steam Box console around the corner, or at least around the block, then an operating system makes a lot of sense. I will reserve most of my judgement for when the operating system is released. I am really looking forward to getting my hands on it and testing it out. SteamOS has not had a release date announced as of yet.

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