Technology
Sean Willett/the Gauntlet

Northern Sprites: A hearty bowl of SteamOS

Why a game developer now wants to be so much more

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Valve — a company mostly known for developing popular video games such as Portal and Team Fortress 2 — has recently announced the upcoming release of a Linux-based operating system meant to be compatible with the company’s popular PC game distribution network, Steam. Along with this operating system, titled SteamOS, Valve also intends to develop a console-like gaming computer called the Steam Machine that will allow users to easily play PC games on their television. Valve will also be working with several different manufacturers to develop third-party Steam Machines, and will be releasing a special controller meant to make playing PC games without a keyboard and mouse easier. All of these products will be easily modifiable, and SteamOS will be available for free.

All of this information has left people with an important question in their minds: why does any of this matter? At a glance, Valve’s grandiose plan just seems to be another instance of a company trying to stick its fingers in too many pies. A company known for developing games trying to release an operating system, much less a new piece of hardware, in a market that is already saturated with high-profile competitors such as Microsoft and Apple seems quite strange.

However, Valve’s recent diversification is hardly surprising. Steam — the company’s online game distribution service — has steadily been growing in size and influence since its debut in 2003, as more and more people use it as a way to buy and play games on their PC. While other companies have attempted to create similar services to sell their games in order to avoid having to pay to distribute through Steam, these competitors have never come close to the level of success enjoyed by Valve’s community-focused approach.

Yet these competitors have been slowly increasing in number, and now include companies like Microsoft and, to a lesser extent, Apple. Both of these companies have launched app stores for their operating systems, with the intent to more closely control the distribution of software on their platforms. While this has yet to seriously impact the number of people who use Steam, Valve took this encroachment on their territory as a sign of things to come. To avoid a scenario where they might lose a significant portion of their userbase, Valve has decided to move Steam away from being merely an application used in other operating systems, to an operating system unto itself.

Valve was then faced with the pressing problem of divorcing Steam from Windows and Mac operating systems, which are used by over 95 per cent of people who play games through Steam. The answer to this problem came in the form of Linux, a relatively obscure open-source operating system. Linux comes in a variety of different ‘flavours,’ all of which are based on the same basic kernel that is available for anyone to use and change. SteamOS will be one of these flavours, designed specifically for playing games through Steam.

When buying a new PC, a significant amount of money can be saved by not installing Windows, which makes a free operating system like SteamOS an attractive prospect for anyone planning to use their computer mainly to play games. With this in mind, the Steam Machines will be specifically designed to run SteamOS, and are intended to be used more like a video game console that plugs into a TV rather than an actual PC. If enough people use SteamOS and buy Steam Machines than this will allow Valve to tighten their grip on game distribution, while also letting them expand into the hardware market.

This feat won’t be easy, however. Very few publishers currently release their games for Linux, and Valve will have to convince many more to throw their support behind the operating system before people will consider exclusively using SteamOS. They will also need to keep the price of their Steam Machines relatively low in order to compete with consoles — no one will buy an $1,000 dedicated gaming computer when they could buy a console, or even another computer, for less than half that price. Valve has proven that they are able to solve big problems like these rather effectively, but even these challenges may be too much for them to surmount.

With SteamOS still in development and the Steam Machines not scheduled for release until next year, only time will tell if Valve will successfully become a household name in gaming. For all we know, Valve’s attempt at creating an operating system may end disastrously.

Northern Sprites is a bi-monthly column looking at video games and technology.

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