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Newell: Steambox, Linux and the future of games

Valve's president teases hardware reveal, describes the importance of Linux to the future of games

Gabe Newell has placed his bet on a Linux-based future for gaming, and Valve is now preparing to unveil hardware that will pave the way to that ambition.

Speaking at Linuxcon, Valve's founder and president gave a detailed account of the pioneering company's long-held belief in the potential of Linux. Valve has been consistently vocal in its support for open technology platforms in the past, and it has been working on Linux-based hardware - widely known as the "Steambox" - that will embrace many of its ideas about the future of gaming.

And according to statements made by Newell during his talk, we could be seeing the fruits of that labour as early as next week.

"None of the closed platforms will be able to provide that grand unification between mobile, the living room and the desktop"

Gabe Newell, Valve

"Our next on the hardware side," he said. "There are sets of issues to making sure that whatever computing platform you have works well in a living room environment - there are thermal issues, and sound issues, and also a bunch of input issues. So the next step in our contribution to this will be to release some work we've done on the hardware side.

"We really don't think the fragmentation around the physical location and input devices of computation is either necessary or desirable for software developers or consumers... Obviously, if that's the direction you're going in, Linux is the obvious basis for that. None of the proprietary, closed platforms are going to be able to provide that grand unification between mobile, the living room and the desktop."

Newell positioned Valve's hardware in the wider context of Linux being a fundamental part of the best possible future for the games industry. Valve was founded on the belief that performance improvements in technology would result in rapid change in every aspect of its business - distribution, marketing, production, and so on. Failure to adapt to these changes has been a root cause of the decline of many corporations, particularly those that put their faith in closed, proprietary systems.

Indeed, the development of Steam was influenced by many of the key players in the PC industry moving towards platforms that allowed them greater control over access, content, pricing and other factors. Today, PC unit sales are in a period of decline, while Steam's unit sales are growing around 76 per cent year-on-year.

"The people in the field are sort of like deer in headlights," Newell said, predicting market exits for "top 5" PC companies in the future. "'We didn't have a model where this was occurring. We thought people would just keep buying more and more PCs regardless of what we did and what sort of restrictions we imposed on them'."

"Games are essentially going to be nodes in a connected economy, where the vast majority of goods and services are going to be user-created"

Gabe Newell, Valve

"And the rate of change is increasing," Newell later added. "We're not going to be slowing down. Systems that are innovation friendly - which is equivalent to openness - are going to have a greater and greater competitive advantage to closed or tightly regulated systems."

In the long-term, the supremacy of "openness" will even extend past platforms and into content. Newell's experiences with the creativity of Valve's users has outstripped the company's own creative power "by and order of magnitude," despite only being a few years into exploring that potential.

"Games are essentially going to be nodes in a connected economy, where the vast majority of goods and services are going to be user-created, rather than created by companies," he said.

"Connected groups of users are going to be way more successful, if they're properly enabled and supported, than any of the individual game developers are going to be."

According to Newell, Linux could be the catalyst for making this "grand unification" happen: a unification of PC, living room and mobile, of creator and customer. With Linux use still in a clear minority, there is a lot of work yet to be done, but Valve is involved in a number of initiatives devoted to improving the reach and stability of the platform - not to mention the Linux version of Steam, which now has a catalogue of 198 games.

"Right now, we're in this bizarre situation where, as soon as you sit on your couch, you're supposed to have lost connection with all of your other computing platforms," Newell said. "You have to buy all of your games over again, the input methods are incompatible.

"We thought that was an incorrect way. Really, through design and thinking hard about how to create appropriate abstractions for both users and developers, you could build something that spanned the desktop and the ten-foot living room experience."

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Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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