Valve's Steam has been one of the biggest disruptive platforms of the last decade in the games business, grabbing developers' and gamers' attention and advancing the state of digital distribution. With Big Picture mode announced in 2011, it became clear that Steam would soon move beyond the confines of the PC and into the same living room dominated by the likes of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo up until now.
With last week's trifecta of big news around SteamOS, Steam Machines and the unique new controller design, Valve is one step closer to taking over the living room. But what's the real impact on developers and should Microsoft and Sony be worried? GamesIndustry International chatted with a number of devs to find out.
Just as with any console, assuming victory from the start would be foolish. It's all about installed base, of course, and Valve needs consumers to buy Steam Machines in droves.
"It all depends on how open the system will be and how big the install base becomes. If the boxes sell well, it will definitely be an attractive option for indie developers since we already know that Valve has been supportive of independent development and been willing to take chances on non-AAA content," Paradox Interactive CEO Fredrik Wester said.
"I think this could be a serious competitor and hope it will lead to more openness from the console makers, making them more open to new indie content."
Gearbox Software head Randy Pitchford agrees that the key will be the installed base, and importantly, Valve will need a killer app to prove the potential of Steam Machines and that new controller, he said.
"Ultimately, without that must-buy product driving us all towards this stuff, I expect that the industry at large will watch curiously, but remain largely unaffected"
"I imagine that some developers may choose to think about unique applications with new interface approaches if an installed base becomes sufficiently appealing. There is always a chicken-and-egg problem here and the last time Valve was able to motivate us to wade into a new paradigm, they attracted us there with a product - I was forced to install and use Steam in order to play Half-Life 2. Given that, I would be thrilled if Valve announced a product that I already knew I wanted that was designed to use their three newly announced components (os, machine, controller) and that could not exist but for those three new components," Pitchford commented.
"That kind of announcement would really help us all understand the necessity of their invention here. But we all know that product would probably have to start with an H and have a 3 at the end and it would sound like 'Half-Life 3.' But alas I would be very surprised indeed if we see any worthy movement on that front, as I do not expect another true successor Half-Life game from Valve for quite some time - possibly never."
He continued, "Ultimately, without that must-buy product driving us all towards this stuff, I expect that the industry at large will watch curiously, but remain largely unaffected by anything Steam does along this vector of OS, machines and controllers over the next two or three years. If the must-buy product appears driving us there or sufficient time goes on where an installed base starts to emerge, more and more folks will move from being curious to being investigative with the possibilities."
Alan Wilson, Vice President at Tripwire Interactive, believes that Valve should be applauded for pushing the envelope, but also for doing so by giving gamers choice.
"We run games on PC, Linux and Android now; some with controllers. So none of that is hard. But this is about a battle over the living room - OUYA, more Android boxes, new Xbox and Playstation, now Steam. We're developing for the living-room couch now with the OUYA (Killing Floor: Calamity). Soon we'll be able to take all of our games straight there via Steam. There are going to be winners and losers on the hardware end - but for gamers it should be a great time. Real choice. Not just 'A' vs. 'B'. The doors are cracking ever wider for smaller, indie developers to get great new content in front of players. And redesigning the controller too? I'm an old PC gamer, but I'll try it out. Crucially, if I don't like it - I don't have to use it. Choice. Thank you, Valve," he said.
Microsoft and Sony may be harder to leapfrog in the living room than some might think, but if anyone has a chance, it's Valve. "Steam are outstanding partners who understand PC gaming and PC gamers better than just about anyone on the planet. Their push to bring PC quality entertainment out of the darkness of the bedroom and into the light of the living room is to be applauded, and with their Steam installed base of loyal customers they are better placed right now to achieve this than anyone else out there," noted Jon Rissik, VP Brand & Customer Acquisition, RailSimulator.com.
Living room battles aside, the most critical part of the Steam news for the devs in the trenches is just how easy and low-risk it is to try it out, said Ichiro Lambe of Dejobaan Games, which took part in the Steam Early Access program.
"With SteamOS and the Steam Machines, Valve's reaching out into a new market (your living room, where your consoles live). And they're doing it in a way that shatters the big barriers between me and that market. SteamOS is Linux-based, so thanks to tools such as Unity and Haxe, deploying to that platform is (nearly!) as easy as pushing a button. Valve's also well-regarded for being easy to work with -- paperwork and product launches are pretty painless. MS, Nintendo, and Sony have become more dev-friendly in recent years, but there are still relatively more legalese and logistical requirements to get your foot in the door. On the other hand, if you want a SteamOS dev kit? It's a PC -- you could order one off of Amazon right now," Lambe enthused. "I can't overstate how important all this is: I'm able develop for SteamOS with minimal risk. The upside is that I might reach millions of new gamers. This makes the platform really attractive."
"If Valve's able to get enough people to pick Steam over Xbox or PS4, MS and Sony will absolutely try to top that. And the result will be fantastic for gamers"
Lambe also believes that Valve's push will ultimately benefit the industry by forcing Microsoft and Sony to step up their respective games. "They always change and innovate (take how SCE Europe's Shahid Ahmad has turned indie game developers' view of Sony from button-down to friendly and approachable; or how the Kinect and PS Move brought motion to their respective consoles). If Valve's able to get enough people to pick Steam over Xbox or PS4, MS and Sony will absolutely try to top that. And the result will be fantastic for gamers," he said.
Pitchford remains a bit more cynical than the rest. He doesn't see Microsoft or Sony executives losing any sleep over the Steam announcements. "There has been some understanding for some time that Valve was looking at some angles in this direction, so I imagine there was some curiosity and, with just a few folks, perhaps some concern about what they might show up with. I imagine that if I was in a key seat at one of the first parties, after hearing this news, I would probably exhale a bit and imagine that I don't really have anything I have to worry myself about too much coming from this direction for a while," he remarked.
"If I had a seat at either Sony or Microsoft, depending on which seat I was sitting in, of course, I would probably also be feeling a tiny bit better about my own decisions when I think about how I'm feeling about what I perceive Valve's reasons and decisions to be here."
In the end, perhaps the most exciting part of last week's news from Valve was the new controller. As a gamer and designer, Pitchford is itching to see what games are built around it.
"I want to fiddle around with their controller. I'm curious what spectrum of propositions will be made with the specific machine offerings, but am skeptical that something will appear that leads me to think it's a good decision to replace my PC. Maybe that's not their aim - we'll all learn more soon. But the burden to add an additional thing beyond the PC I am likely to keep is pretty high, so we'll see if any of their machines can get me there if their intent is that these are dedicated Steam OS machines," he said.
The biggest downside to all the Steam news? Valve's continued focus on the platform and service could be diverting resources from actual AAA software development, lamented Pitchford.
"I want to see Half-Life 3 or other exciting and big and original offerings from these guys who are amongst the best in the world at crafting interactive entertainment and are resourced better than anyone. As long as Steam and Valve are one entity, I am always going to feel uneasy that attention and resources towards the platform is distracting attention and resources away from the entertainment they could (should?) be creating. I guess I am just a greedy gamer who wants to be blown away playing more of the best, new video games in the world, so I selfishly want to know that the incredible talent at Valve is spending 100 percent of their mindshare building new video games!"