GeekPlanetOnline’s Editor-in-chief, Matt Dillon, is a man of many passions - although most of them involve a joystick. In this semi-regular column, he shares his thoughts on life, love and the pursuit of video games (and occasionally other things).
If you’re even slightly interested in the PC gaming market you’ve almost certainly heard the news by now: Valve, the video game developer-turned-publisher behind the ubiquitous Steam platform, are releasing a free, gaming-based operating system. And a hardware box optimised for that operating system. And a revolutionary (or at least they hope so) gaming controller compatible with both the new OS and the box. So, er, basically a games console, then. Or is it? Because while some denizens of the internet are criticising Valve for not simply bundling all three together and calling it a console announcement I’m looking at the big picture (a phrase that Steamusers should already be familiar with since it was used for the platform’s “living room mode” last year). The key here is that glorious phrase: open source.
The console market is stagnant. It’s constipated and vegetative, far less innovative and experimental than it was 25 or 30 years ago. Yes, realistically you could only choose between Nintendo and Sega but there was innovation and a constant game of one-upmanship. There were disk drives, CD add-ons, extra chips or hardware soldered into cartridges, anything to make your hardware perform better than your rival’s despite its limitations. That inventiveness spilled over into software; we were spoiled for choice and everybody felt like they were trying something new (even if a lot of the time they really weren’t). But then Sony ousted Sega, forcing them out of the hardware business altogether, and by the time the Xbox arrived in 2001 the market had changed.
Gone were the days of true innovation; instead, Microsoft and Sony would wait for Nintendo to do something interesting (like controller haptics, camera games, motion-sensing hardware or remote play through a handheld console) and then copy it wholesale. Nintendo devolved into a repetitive circus show, recycling the same few licences and variations on the same parlour tricks over and over again and the two companies who were meant to bring fresh blood to the industry (and for a tantalisingly short while did) began spending their time generating high-quality knock-offs in between signing licencing deals for whatever multi-platform war-based first-person shooter EA were churning out that week. And to add insult to injury console games aren’t even released finished these days; the prevalence of online services like Xbox Live and PSN mean that publishers will now rush their games to market in time for release date safe in the knowledge that once they have their consumers’ money they can simply promise a patch to fix any issues a week, a month, six weeks down the line. And sometimes, as is the case with Aliens: Colonial Marines, those games get abandoned altogether because fixing the problems costs more than the potential returns on buggy software.
Modern consoles are a closed system. There is no user input. There is very little opportunity for independent developers to release their software on the Wii, Xbox 360 or PS3, and what opportunities there are mean giving away vast percentages of their profits to Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. Until recently Microsoft even charged indie developers around $40,000 a time to patch their software (although magnanimously the first was always free)! Games are restricted to what big publishers think they can sell and even download-only titles are rapidly falling into this cookie-cutter mentality. There are no mods. There are no fan-patches to fix abandoned games, or to polish old titles and give them a new lease of life. There are very few quirky little games from quirkily little developers, and even those that there are don’t get much of a push beyond a little dashboard icon that displays if a user happens to wander into the online store. And unless, like me, you maintain an ever-expanding collecting of retro hardware your games collection generally only lives as long as your console does.
So along come Valve. They build a gaming OS which will be completely free to download and open-source (also hackable and rewritable, if you’re so inclined) to allow users to rebuild it the way they want it and release it to the public, again for free. They offer an affordable hardware box – a console-ised PC - which already has hundreds of games ready to go at launch, which includes anything you’ve already bought via Steam and on which you can install pretty much anything you like (including Windows), change the hardware, tweak the settings… you name it. Alongside the games they offer all of the free mods and add-ons made by the public in the Steam Workshop – mods which aren’t allowed or, given the traditional business model and infrastructure, even possible on your Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo devices And just in case you don’t fancy porting a keyboard and mouse into the living room they come up with a revolutionary, touch-sensitive controller which not only makes a decent analogue for a trusty Xbox 360 pad (still the best controller you can buy for the PC!) but can also accept keyboard and mouse mappings to make older games playable too.
In addition, Valve offer game sharing for digital content – yes, the very game sharing that everyone praised the Xbox One for before Microsoft yanked it in a fit of pique – and improved family options. They offer local networking support. They offer games which look far better than the current generation of consoles and will always be compatible with the new generation of Steam Box. Yes, all of this comes with the usual caveats of digital-only content (in particular the age-old question “what happens to my purchases when/if the servers shut down?”) and, on the sharing front in particular, some might say this should have happened years ago, but that’s peanuts. It’s a great system. It’s a great business model. It’s great for publishers and great for gamers. Hell, it’s great for consumers. Valve have patiently watched their competition and waited, and now they’re ready to take the next step. A bold new era in gaming is about to begin and frankly I couldn’t be more excited.