SteamOS and what’s next for Valve in the living room

So Valve is soon to launch SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system that runs Steam specifically for living room TVs. It makes total sense, in that way that everything Valve does pops into focus once it’s revealed. SteamOS means Valve will have a contained environment through which to serve Steam games on TVs, along with a brand new opportunity to begin selling music, film and TV.

It’s tempting, then, to see SteamOS as Valve’s take on Apple TV, Vita TV or Ouya – a subsidiary box that plugs into a wider existing software and cloud media network. After all, Valve doesn’t need to launch a full operating system of the magnitude of Windows, OS X or even iOS – right? It’s already constructed a sturdy TV interface in the form of Big Picture and a back-end infrastructure in Steam itself; streaming will take care of stragglers; and isn’t PS3’s OS built on Unix? It’s just a matter of closing Big Picture off, encouraging developers to port to Linux, doing deals with Netflix and Spotify, finalising hardware, and away Steam Box goes.

And yet there’s an intriguing line in Valve’s introductory page under the title Cooperating System: “Users can alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want.” It’s a pointer to SteamOS being just a little bit bigger than just a dumbed down version of the Steam experience.

Once again, it makes sense when you think about it. Steam in the living room could never be about closing the box and joining Sony, Microsoft, Apple and everyone else fighting over that bitterly contested space. It’d be a mistake for Valve to attempt to compete directly with such big players, especially with PS4 and Xbox One having regained the traditional console lustre that was looking so dulled when the Steam Box was first mooted.

And besides, doing so would also risk alienating its passionate existing community by turning its back on what’s arguably Steam’s greatest asset: support of an open interplay between players, their games, and the people who make them. The essential nature of PC gaming lies in the idea of games as moddable and mutable, whether through switching hardware, or fiddling with files. Could a Steam Box actually be a PC platform without it?

One of the big challenges for all this must be the design of a TV interface that allows for such tinkering – could it really involve a file system? – while maintaining the streamlined nature of the existing Big Picture. And how will it support the potentially wide series of hardware configurations will surely result from allowing hardware alterations? Every added sliver of freedom granted to users could lead to greater overheads for Valve.

Either way, of course, the Linux community won’t be very happy, having already been disappointed by the non-open source nature of Steam and the games it’s distributing on its platform. Though the desktop version of Linux will certainly remain, they’ll likely see SteamOS as something of a bait and switch, even if it will actually add more incentive for developers to port games to Linux.

All of which also reveals another big challenge for Valve – building up a persuasive library of Linux games that will work on a TV. Porting games means yet another decision – and therefore cost – for developers already swamped with options for a platform which will presumably not rely on the mouse and keyboard as a primary input method. And if Valve’s been successful with what it told us it was working on last year – a completely new controller interface – developers could be facing getting to grips with this, alongside large-scale screen UI that favours playing at a distance, too.

So, what’s for the next two announcements this week? We’d wager that the next one, on Wednesday, is the reveal of this living room game controller, one that will allow Dota 2 to be played from the sofa. And after that? HALF-LIFE THR… – no. We think something that’s potentially even more significant for Valve, PCs and videogaming as a whole: the final reveal of the Steam Box hardware itself. Low-cost, small, quiet, powerful and that crucial word: alterable.