SteamOS – A Vision of the Future

There is no saying how much wit, how much depth of thought, how much fancy, presence of mind, courage, and fixed resolution there may have gone into the placing of a single stone of it. This is what we have to admire, – this grand power and heart of man in the thing.

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

Valve has a vision.

And it is not some kind of short-sighted crash and cash deal; It will involve more than innovative hardware. This vision looks to the future of PC gaming, one that will be successful only if everybody participates. Yes. The task of building a gaming infrastructure of this type from the ground up will require the efforts of developers and gamers alike. Valve’s vision will blur the line between creator and player even more, thus creating a kind of synergy that will be beautiful and true. This will not happen overnight. Technical hurdles will abound. Forum naysayers will try to impede, to claw down the progress, to sow seeds of doubt. And while the heavy-hitters of the industry stroke themselves over their own regurgitated next-gen consoles, trying to stand tall in their artificial edifices, Valve’s vision will be that wide unnerving rumble they feel beneath their crumbling foundations. In time, these giants will topple and flail about, the naysayers will scurry off, and PC gaming will see a new and triumphant dawn – An enlightening era where the power to create, share, distribute, collaborate, modify and hack is open to all who wish to put forth the effort, and it will proceed with fervor.

It is a beautiful vision, though its implementation is still in the embryonic stages. In three separate announcements during the week of 23 September 2013 Valve revealed the tools for making their vision a reality: SteamOS, Steam Machines, the Steam Controller. The hook at this point is to use these products to get gaming into the living room, onto HDTVs, in front of players who prefer the couch, having never considered – for whatever reason(s) – the advantages of PC gaming.

The finer details about the Steam Machine and Controller are still fuzzy. The Steam Machine is being hyped as a hybrid between console and PC. Valve is presently shipping out prototypes that are stuffed with ‘off-the-shelf’ PC parts to 300 eager beta testers. The approximate dimensions are 12 x 12 x 2.9 inches. Other specs are available via a quick Google search, though let us recognize that the Steam Machines will run SteamOS. The Steam Controller is meant to enable playing of all genres including – that’s right – real-time strategies. Instead of dual analog sticks, it has two pads employing a ‘haptic feedback’ system. You can read about initial user experiences of the beta pad over at Gamasutra, but suffice it to say that the pads are indented to recreate the responsiveness and assignability of traditional keyboard + mouse approach.

If these two components sound an awful lot like just another console – you’re right. How then is this not folly? With the next-gen consoles set to unload during this holiday season, what the devil chance does Valve have to stand against these? Valve even assumes that a large percentage of their customer base already own high-powered rigs and are in no hurry to trip over themselves to acquire a Steam Machine. Many digital journalists and forum participants are already pooh-poohing these devices, citing that, for example, the Steam Box won’t solve any problems it sets out to correct, it will not achieve it’s glorified PC revolution with this hardware – the vision has faded before it has even begun to make itself clear. And were these the only two components, innovative and attractive as they may be, I would agree.

The linchpin holding this grand vision in place is SteamOS, which will run on Linux. The idea is to combat the closed ecosystems of consoles with the power and flavors of running an operating system that is open source. Myopic naysayers are already bellyaching about the immediate compatibility problems with their existing game libraries. And what’s more, mountains of more gritty technical issues also stand in the way (This isn’t meant to be an overhaul of Microsoft… yet). But herein is the glory of the vision. Herein is the power to overcome obstacles with open paths and collective efforts – To fight the good fight, and to do it together.

Valve’s vision has the potential to get more people coding. One of the approaches to get gaming into the living room is to reach a new source of untapped minds. This move is not about creating a friendly co-existence between the disparities and biases of console and PC users. Valve is out to convert. The first phase of their vision will jar loose and attract the attention of those select individuals who may otherwise be ignorant to their own creative and technical potential. Concerning the realization of creative and critical powers Ruskin asserts, “… and from that moment he will find himself a power of judgment which can neither be escaped nor deceived, and discover subjects of interest where everything before had appeared barren.” Living room gamers will no longer have to be passive consumers.

Valve and Linux are the appropriate flagships for this endeavor. When you account Valve’s business approach their success comes as no surprise. The ongoing mentality there has always been one of community and shared contribution. And now that digital distribution is so widely utilized by thousands upon thousands of users – a trend that Valve has perpetuated through their Steam platform – why not continue this mode to attract and support new coders. Each small developer, each contribution, will be a node in a growing infrastructure. Perhaps Valve could come up with special incentives to encourage active participation in some capacity or other. More than anything, it would behoove this entire effort to have a vision statement for everyone to march under – to have a mark of the legion. And let us not forget Linux, the workhorse of this vision. Recent years have witnessed widespread adoption of the Linux kernel, and not just by some weird influx of basement neckbeards and butthurts. We’re talking Google. We’re talking Android…

And now we’re talking SteamOS: a trimmed-down new operating system that is bound attract fresh minds that tore through the walled gardens of gaming consoles (a wild success in itself), fresh perspectives as a result of collaboration, and empowering leading ideas for games, media utilities, source code, pedagogy – all distributed with ease through the digital aether, built from the ground up. Power in the dedication and will of the users. Ruskin seconds these virtues, citing that the success of a construction is found in “pure, precious, majestic massy intellect”. This is the vision. It is glorious. It is right. May we keep it in perspective.

(TL;DR? Better just stick to playing on consoles.)




  1. So does that mean we’ll be seeing something come out of Nick Jones’ Game, LLC soon? 😀

    Good point about bringing new people into the development of games on Steam. I think it will also bring new people (read: kids who love gaming) to a new level of familiarity with their operating system, hopefully breeding new hackers (the good kind).

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