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Steam Big Picture: The quietest next-gen launch in history Exclusive
September 10, 2012 | By Kris Graft




Valve, with its 50 million-strong Steam network, is bringing PC games out of the den. This might be the most aggressive play for the living room that the game industry has ever seen, says Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft.

Take a drive around tonight, and you'll see no lines snaking out of Best Buy or GameStop. Check your Twitter feed, and you'll see no sign of major video game announcements. College kids didn't charge hundreds of dollars to a credit card today to buy fancy, high-powered, proprietary game hardware.

Valve's launch of Steam's Big Picture Mode -- currently in Beta -- is probably the quietest kickoff to a new generation of video games in the history of video games. But make no mistake -- despite the quiet nature of this atypical next-gen kickoff, it might be the most aggressive play for the living room that the game industry has ever seen.

We've been waiting for "Big Picture Mode" ever since Valve announced plans for it in February 2011. It's a simple concept: Make Steam's UI friendlier for use on the living room TV, and with traditional gamepads. (Don't worry keyboard/mouse fans, you can switch back and forth at will.)

Everything about the release of Big Picture Mode screams "Valve": It's purely a digital initiative (forget about the rumored Steam Box -- this is happening right now), it appears fairly innocuous and unassuming, initially (yet has substantial disruption potential), and it is squarely centered on open platforms (PC and Mac).

What Big Picture Mode does is offer up the PC as a turn-key next generation platform for the living room, that is complete with a library of hundreds of games from every major publisher. It has mature community features, cutting edge business models and games, and a purported active user base of 50 million people, all through your Mac or PC.

Practicality of PC in the living room

But there is the question of practicality -- how many people want to lug their PC rigs from the den to the family room, and how many are willing to give a PC a permanent home beside the TV? (Well, me, I suppose.) While there are practical concerns about hooking a games PC up to a TV, such concerns are slowly but surely vanishing. If you bought a TV in the last couple years, you probably have an HDMI port, and if you have a decent PC graphics card, you have HDMI support. So, a single cable can give you 1080 resolution and surround sound, and there are some decent wired and wireless controller solutions out there for PC.

If you want to start talking about non-traditional control schemes, as we're all fawning over Microsoft's SmartGlass, you can today go and download apps that let you remotely control your computer from your smartphone or tablet. They are somewhat limited solutions, and not made for games, but already work decently for certain slower-paced strategy and point-and-click games. It's not hard to imagine a more game-centric company releasing a game optimized for Big Picture Mode that utilizes an iPad or smartphone as a controller.

Valve is still the new kid in the living room

Being able to control games and interface from your couch, with a video game controller, isn't anything revolutionary -- consoles have done a great job of that format for years. The living room is the domain of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo -- they are the experts here, and their expertise is why it's such a big deal when anyone tries to encroach on that territory. The Big Three also expanded beyond games years ago, thanks to standard internet connectivity, with streaming video offerings like Netflix and Hulu. Valve has dipped its toes into non-game offerings, and it recently announced intentions to venture further into that territory.

Consoles makers have made big steps in terms of networking, distribution, and the kinds of games they carry to the living room TV. They have shown flashes of innovation, and right now, they are kings of TV entertainment.

But consoles have gained prominence despite being such closed platforms. When a console maker allows a developer to do a free-to-play game, it's kind of a Big Deal. When Little Big Planet and Trials give players a way to create and share their own content, we're a bit surprised that a platform holder decided that was "ok." People who've been playing games on Steam or just PC in general have been exposed to these concepts for many, many years. Sure, Steam itself is a closed, curated platform, but Steam is still the product of an open platform -- the PC -- and Valve seems to try to accentuate the best parts of openness while stifling the worst parts of it. The openness of the PC platform has afforded a constant, gradual evolution of business models, connectivity and creativity, and you see these qualities roll onto Steam on a regular basis.

Big Picture Mode, like other Valve initiatives, is this innocuous thing. On the surface, it appears to be a UI update. Dig deeper and you'll see, like I've been talking about, that this is about Valve getting living room presence. Fair enough -- but that's an obvious angle.

The significance here goes deeper than either of those points. What Big Picture Mode really has the potential to do is bring the PC's business and game development culture to the TV gamer. Will every person with a PC tower lug their rigs into the living room? Maybe not. Does this mark the death knell of consoles? Nah. Big Picture Mode, as nice as it is, won't prompt such an immediate effect, or cause a mass exodus of PC gamers from their dens into the living room. But if there is one company that can at least put such a sea change in motion in this industry, it's Valve.


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Comments


Adam Bishop
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I'm not sure that this is particularly disruptive so much as it is a recognition of something that people have already been doing for a while. I remember hooking PCs up to big screen TVs at LAN parties back in the days of the original Counterstrike. I currently use my computer to stream HD hockey broadcasts through my NHL Gamecenter subscription, it's my primary movie watching device, I've been playing The Walking Dead through Steam with an Xbox controller while sitting on my couch, etc. Valve isn't really pushing something new so much as they're making it easier and better to do something lots of people are doing already.

Kris Graft
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Yeah Adam, I don't really disagree with you (btw, I also just get through Walking Dead on PC on my TV!). Like I said, this won't cause immediate effects where people start throwing away their consoles.

What I do think though is that Valve will continue to push this initiative, and just like their other successful tools, games, and Steam itself, they'll just keep on iterating and iterating on it, adding value until people finally cave and see what it's all about. That could mean a standardized "Steam Box", or just really great new features relating to Big Screen Mode.

Svein-Gunnar Johansen
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I moved my "Game-PC" to the living room when I discovered USB adapters for the Playstation 2 controller. In the last few years, I have taken to building my game-rig in a horizontal case, so I can keep it under the sofa (tidier and muffles the fan-noise).

I still think Steam Big Picture is potentially disruptive though, because "the many" who already do this are comparatively few. Steam Big Picture has a potential to make this the norm for gamers over time.

Adam Bishop
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Christian, those things are true (and have pretty much always been true), but that doesn't seem to be hurting PC gaming too much. People who play PC games understand that compatibility issues may occur and they take that into account before buying. Steam has tens of millions of registered accounts and sells an awful lot of games so obviously it's working out just fine for them.

Chris Melby
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I see this as more of Valve trying to attract more crossovers from the console front, verus getting PC gamers back to the mindshare coveted "big" TV; which for some of us is a step down from what we have hooked up to our PCs.

And your practical concerns about hooking up a PC to the TV reads as if it's closer to 2005. ;)

Kris Graft
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I agree re: practical concerns! But some people think that way, still. I've got my TV hooked up to a Radeon 6950-equipped PC with an HDMI cable. It's simpler than hooking up a Wii. One issue is, I think, people don't want to commit their PC solely to the living room, and that can be problematic for a true living room-based game system.

Chris Melby
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I agree with that, no doubt.

Aaron San Filippo
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I think some kind of uber-cheap and effective solution for HDMI-over-wifi would make this a bit more of a real disruptor...

Another thought is that as a developer I'd love to see this cause a big uptick in the number of PC gamers using controllers.

Jeremy Reaban
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I dunno. Controller use can lead to a dumbing down of games (already seen with The Elder Scroll series).

But on the flip side, it's possible it might revive some genres. Flight Sims/Space Sims used to be popular because a whole lot of people had flightsticks

Chris Melby
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Yeah Aaaron.. Good luck with that. :)

Not all games should be shoehorned into a gamepad. It is a dumbing down as noted by Jeremy and it has been a detriment to many of the games I personally like; which evolved on the PC only to be bastardized by some PS2-kid that got a degree in gaming and has no clue of why a mouse is better for pointing than a thumb-stick.

I'd love to see the console derived developers not ignore the fact that the PCs greatest strengths have almost always been its variety of inputs. It's why I own 3 gamepads, a high-end flight-stick and throttle, a wheel, lots of keyboards( The K90 is my favorite. ), and of course a ton of mice; my current being the Naga. I LIKE INPUTS!!! STOP FORSAKING US!!! :)

Aaron San Filippo
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@Chris & @Jeremy: All I meant was, it'd be cool to see more PC gamers with access to gamepads. By all means, use your keyboard+mouse for your FPSs. Some games (such as the one I'm developing) work best with a gamepad though, and having more of my audience with that input option on PC would be a good thing.

John Flush
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I agree with this. Anything on XBLA or XBIG pretty much translates seemlessly to the PC if gamers had a controller. Luckily I bought a controller with a USB cord one day on the cheap and plugged it in one day. Playing Braid, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, Solar, Ys, and even Privateer and the other old school sims with the controller is great. I don't even bother with the console equivalent of most of these games anymore as Steam usually has better prices anyhow and bridges console livecycles (seeming there aren't any!)

Not every game needs a controller - but not every game should have a keyboard and mouse either.

Nuttachai Tipprasert
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@John Flush Totally agreed. @Chris & @Jeremy adding gamepad support doesn't mean you need to dump down your gameplay. It's developer's choices to choose the best controller that suit their games. If the game need to be dumped down for supporting non-native input devices, that's developer fault not the controller. Mouse and keyboard are ultimate combos for FPS and RTS but they doesn't work well with action-platformer and fighting games. Adding another control option means broadening platform's target audience. I don't think that is the bad thing to do.

Chris Melby
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I stated orange, purple, and green, and you guys are replying as if I only said blue... :)

I love how I said I own a variety of inputs for my PC -- **including 3 gamepads** -- and that somehow got distilled into me only wanting to game on a mouse and keyboard... Hey, thanks! :)

( I actually own WAY more than 3 gamepads, but for my PC, I specifically bought these 3 controllers. )

There's no disagreement on my part about using the input that's best for the type of game. I've been gaming since the seventies, so I've owned dozens of different sticks and pads. I even have a tiny foldable gamepad that I can use on my Android devices and MacBook Pro when I'm traveling.

My issue that I was trying to convey, is that most of these newer developers only see a gamepad as being right and they completely ignore all other input. Even when a gamepad is the best fit for a game, would it kill some people to put a bit more effort into the GUI, so that it doesn't completely ignore the mouse? And key-binding is not rocket science!

Another issue I have, which relates to the dumbing down of many games, is that these same developers, take PC derived games -- games that were tailored for a PC first and its **variety of inputs**, games that evolved on the PC and play best with its input option -- and of course only see the gamepad as being the right fit. Then these games get ported back to the PC... And then the fun ensues... No keybinding, no mouse support, nothing. And to make things happy, the game's AI has been dumbed down to the point of being insulting, because of the compromises that had to be made to accommodate a slower input.

Anyways, I can tell we are all on the same page about using what's best, but as rambled, what's best for you and I, might not be for others, so adding in keybinding will go a long way for that guy that only wants to use their keyboard; or even another input that's not a Microsoft Virtual HID device.... Grrrr

@Nuttachai Tipprasert,
I prefer an arcade stick for fighting games and a gamepad for action-platformers, but do a search on keyboards + fighting games. You'll find many that prefer using a keyboard over other inputs.

Michael Rooney
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"has no clue of why a mouse is better for pointing than a thumb-stick."

The mouse is arguably better than a thumbstick, but the thumbstick is provably better than WASD.

Neither is really the ideal solution. Somethin similar to a PS-Move with 2 analogue sticks would be best imo. Two analogue sticks gets the freedom of movement of dual analogue, and some sort of pointin device gets the accuracy of a pointing device.

That said, I've seen some people do just as amazing things with a controller as I've ever seen people do on a mouse. It might have been luckier than if they were using a mouse, but it was none-the-less, amazing.

Joe McGinn
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Wow. Microsoft and Sony are going to have to actually join the information age now I suppose (no more faking it).

Justin Lynch
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Looks like Valve is going to be joining Nintendo, Microsoft, and Apple for the next gen battle. I think the next 5-6 years are going to be really interesting for video games in living room.

Gern Blanston
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I don't see the mass appeal here. Unless you've got a gaming laptop that's easily portable from room-to-room, there are too many issues in the way. What about an immovable PC that's in a room across the house from the TV? A 50' or 100' HDMI cable across the house isn't exactly ideal. And what about a universal game pad? Sure the majority of games might be compatible with the X360 controller, but what about the rest of them? I honestly think that people would rather pay for a tiny Steam-enabled box (not unlike Apple TV) to plug into their HDTV. Expecting people to park their PCs in the main room (or haul them back and forth from the computer room) seems like a very user-unfriendly idea. The software may be great, but it's not going to take off unless there is another, more efficient device, to place next to the TV to simplify things. I feel like anyone that was going to try this [PC to HDTV] already has, and the idea of using a game pad could already be done. I want to like this idea, but I'm just not taken by it in the slightest.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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I think you're missing the point of having a Steam interface set up for a controller, or the cost of a Steam Box (and for the love of god, don't cite the Ouya-put those specs up against something like The Witcher 2).

William Johnson
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One step at a time, Gern.

Valve can't take over the world in one night.

Jeremie Sinic
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I partially agree: I have my tower near the couch in the living room and i did try that. But the fully controller-enabled interface might help make the experience smoother for those who prefer a pad.
Yet, for those who don't want to move their PC to their living room, I guess a wireless device plugged to the TV to stream the content from the PC (and why not plug a controller or two) would help.

Ryan Christensen
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No need to hype it for Valve, it has already won. They may have even started a possible third party console market where companies make SteamBox enabled systems to sit by your TV if Valve doesn't eventually make a few of their own. Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo all better be going back to the drawing board or just join forces now. First Apple hit that slow moving console industry, then Valve, attacking from both ends but one common theme... accessibility to publishing. This is a developers market now. Consoles used to bring what current platforms couldn't, now they actively hold the others back. It is time for a change.

Scott Sheppard
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Considering Michael Abrash's comments relating to the R&D surrounding AR hardware, and Valve not necessarily wanting to get into the hardware manufacturing business, it seems very likely that there will be third party Steam Box developers. In fact, I hope for it. Let Valve make the OS (for lack of a better term) and allow other companies to make the hardware.

Sounds glorious to me!

Miguel Castarde
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The main problem still the size of PC cabinet and no HDMI output in most of graphic cards. Connecting video and audio in different cables is not user friend like a simple HDMI. Valve needs to release a compact box, like the Mac Mini (wich is perfect to hook up on TV), but with good power to run games.

Adam Bishop
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Finding an HDMI-to-DVI cable is pretty easy. I've got one in my living room.

Nooh Ha
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I would need a 2nd PC to take advantage of this and if I am going to splash out that much on new hardware I may as well just get a PS4 or 720 which will probably be cheaper and wont need to be replaced for at least 5 years (unlike my game PCs which are refreshed every 2 years). Also, how many lean-back, big-screen suitable major PC exclusives are there each year vs on console? As long as consoles exist I cannot ever see myself wanting or being able to use Big Picture.

Tom Baird
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"Also, how many lean-back, big-screen suitable major PC exclusives are there each year vs on console?"

Seeing as how a lot of lean-back, big screen major games on consoles go for cross platform, a lot of them are already PC. Basically anything not First-Party published nowadays that's AAA gets released on Steam(or Origin) side-by-side with the console releases.

Go and take a look at the Steam store, and then try to find me a Console blockbuster that was not first-party published, and also not on Steam.

Nooh Ha
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@Tom. So why buy a PC for TV-based games instead of a cheaper console which offers an almost identical experience and has a load of console exclusives (not sure why you rule out first party games)?

Tom Baird
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I ruled out exclusives, since we were talking about big-name games on PC. Obviously you won't find Halo or Resistance.

There are a few PC for TV-based gaming benefits.
For one, there is much more variety on Steam, for better prices. When I look at a 2 year old game on XBLA, it's the same as it was on Day 1. When I look at what's coming up on Consoles and Steam, the Consoles get maybe 1 a week outside of X-mas, and Steam sometimes even has multiple per day. Steam on the other hand is notorious for 50-80% off sales multiple times of the year, as well as massive publisher packs of 6-10 games for dirt cheap. In my opinion Steam is a better store than what Console Digital + Best Buy can provide, offering greater variety, greater discoverability, and better prices.

Two, you can get better, cheaper DLC because you don't have the abhorrent Cert process for content updates. One example that instantly comes to mind is the L4D series. They charge $10 per Update on Console to cover Cert; Free updates on PC. Fez recently got stuck because of a somewhat critical bug that would require a re-cert (Which would be especially aggravating since if Cert didn't find the bug it was their failure anyway).

Three, you probably already have a PC, because a PC is for more than just games. Consoles are a speciality entertainment device, a PC is used for business, social interaction, entertainment, etc.. and is almost expected in most places.

Four, I'm not stuck with MS/Sony/Nintendo's controller, and can purchase any USB controller on the market. I can play my XBox games with a PS3 controller if I feel so inclined. I can drop into a Wireless Keyboard/Mouse for FPS' if I want some extra precision (this is usually disabled on console).

Five, when the Xbox360/PS3 is deprecated, how are you going to play your XBLA/PSN games? Do you need to keep the console around just to play a few classics? With Steam you can upgrade your PC and BAM! your library is all still there. You can get a new computer and still access your games. You can play your games on someone else's computer. You can go to a friend's house and simply sign in to play the games you own. These features are either non-existant, or much more hassle on consoles from my experience. Games on Steam have more of a future than your console.

Six, I personally like that I can play the same game on PC and TV, depending on what's going on. This doesn't affect everyone, but I share my TV with non-gamers, and so this is a nice personal benefit.

All that said, I don't think it's a Console destroyer, but I think it is the first step in what is going to be some serious competition to the current console industry practices. Right now I think it's pretty cool I can play my Steam games on a TV as if Steam were a console, and I see this as a way to force some competition into the monolithic consoles, and start to get them to think about User Experience (the new Xbox UI seems like it's only benefits are towards advertisers), and start thinking about price competition.

To flip it, if I can take an existing piece of hardware, and buy the same games for less, as well as more games not available on those platforms, that work both on my PC and on my TV, that lets me choose my controller, why would I get a console?

Steven Christian
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Why are people talking about having to buy extra PCs?

My main PC at my desk has a HDMI cable that outputs to a powered splitter, and this then outputs to all of my Plasma TVs in the house.

A Logitech K400 wireless keyboard/trackpad and F710 wireless Joypad allow me to game anywhere in the house, and from just one PC.

All of my Blurays are ripped to my PC for ease of use. My PS3 used to be my media center until they added cinivia, and I was no longer able to play my movies, and that was really the death of the PS3 for me.

Steam is such a good system that they support not only games purchased through themselves, but also games purchased elsewhere. If they did the same for movies they would be set.

Whereas Sony continues to lock down the PS3 and only pushes people away.

Ruud van Gaal
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Never heard about Cinavia until now; actually I do still use the PS3 with PS3 Media Server as a streaming tool. No problems yet; everything plays on my Sony Bravia TV. Hm.

Baback Moussavi
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I'm honestly quite annoyed with the fact that Kris Graft claims this to be "The quietest next-gen launch in history" when it really isn't. You aren't getting a new console here, it's just a new controller-friendly UI. I guess it's nice (?) for people who love using controllers with their PCs in the living room, but you couldn't convince me to lug my big desktop PC out to my living room (or buy more hardware to get my PC working on my TV from across my house).

This might be a cool little feature for enthusiasts to mess with, but honestly, could you really see yourself playing Team Fortress 2 or any other competitive multiplayer game on your PC with a controller? Unless you're the most amazing controller master in the world, you'll probably get dominated by others who use a keyboard and mouse.

If you still want to use a controller for your PC games in your living room, that's fine. But where I think Valve dropped the ball on this is by not at least launching some base-level hardware console peripheral for your living room. Or, they could have set up a contract with a TV, Bluray, or streaming media device company (like Roku or Boxee) to bundle in steam with their devices.

Better yet, team up with Ouya (assuming Ouya is powerful enough to play most of the latest games) so that you not only get to play homebrew and indie games on the Ouya, but you also get to play any game in your steam library on the console. Plus, given Ouya's openness, I'm sure they'd allow you to use a controller or keyboard and mouse.

To be able to play newer games on my PC, I need a decent video card. Anyone who knows anything about PCs knows that today's video cards are getting bigger and bigger. That translates into a larger cas and a bigger eye sore in the living room. I just don't see why someone who really wants to use a controller in their living room would find Big Picture worth it. Just get a much cheaper, more manageable, and much smaller console and set it up in your living room.

Lincoln Thurber
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The only disruptive technology would be what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows 8...and the angry howls you hear from PC gamers on THAT idea are deafening.

Valve-Steam will/has change the way people buy games, store games, and own games...but they won't do squat for how people PLAY games. All steam has done is made webpage and a list of games that play nice on a TV screen that you PC can pipe into. All the headaches of PC gaming still exist...it just fits the screen and accepted joy-pad input on the interface.

I've own a computer since 1984. I've played games on them from Apple IIc to PC Clone to modern PC. Gaming on a PC has come a long way in a few decades, but they will never come close to consoles for ease of use until they give up some freedom...the very freedom that makes PCs worth gaming on.

Steven Christian
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Ahh the IBM-Compatible PC ;)
But I disagree about giving up Liberty for Freedom (they esentially mean the same thing).
You would just have an App like Steam with a controller-version (which you have), and the ability to access all of your media and games with the controller (getting there).

You could still have the freedom outside of this App on the Computer, but be restricted a bit more on the TV.

The main thing missing is a reliable way to switch the output to your TV as WIN-P in Win7 seems to be broken (it always lists your PC monitor as a Projector, and the TV as the Monitor, and is not able to simply duplicate what is on your screen without severe tearing - even at the same resolution and refresh rate).

Kenan Alpay
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This is a welcome addition to Steam. I currently have my big PC hooked up to my bedroom TV, and use a combination of an Xbox controller and Mouse/Keyboard to play a bunch of different types of games. For games like Assassin's Creed or other controller centric titles, this is perfect.

Pallav Nawani
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People are switching from Laptops to tablets, just like they switched from desktops to Laptops. End of discussion, really.

Jeremie Sinic
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"End of discussion"

Yet I don't think PCs are totally disappearing anytime soon.

I know I am not in the majority, but personally I dumped the laptop and bought a tablet... and a gaming desktop.

Surely tablets are getting impressive compared to 8-year-old consoles, and they are great for consuming entertainment or reading news, but for serious gaming, tablets are not relevant yet. As gorgeous as a NOVA 3 can look on a Retina iPad, it still can't compare in terms of controls, framerate, etc. with most recent FPS played either on console or PC.

We might all stick to tablets when broadband universally allows for better experience through streaming than on top-of-the-line PCs.
We are getting there, but not yet before a few years imho.

Chris Melby
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End of discussion, my arse; and "Some" people. :)

And some of those people are smartening up:
http://www.pcpro.co.uk/blogs/2012/09/11/the-school-that-swapped-i
ts-laptops-for-ipads-and-wants-to-switch-back/

Tablets are filling in a void, not replacing, not now. I do believe that eventually there will be a convergence though, but that's another ramble.

Robert Swift
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Desktop (power) + Tablet (comfort), that's my favorite combo now :)

PS: My quadcore 4Ghz PC is much quieter than the XBox360 and also hooked up to the TV

Pallav Nawani
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Oh, hardcore gamers will continue to own their desktops. But they are a dwindling tribe. At least in India where I live, majority of Kids are first introduced to gaming by smartphones/tablets. You don't have to be a genius to see the writing on the wall.

I myself own a PC, and will continue to own it. But general populace have exactly zero reason to own a pc when they can have a tablet, or, better still, a touch ultrabook.

Justin Sawchuk
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Well that would be good if cpus went back to hardcore gamers they wouldnt have to dumb the games quite so much.

Matt Ployhar
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HDMI cables are a lot cheaper than Consoles.

Gaming Laptops also offer about 1000x more flexibility in how, & where, you want to game. I agree with Robert too; much quieter than a 360. There's no reason you can't use a wireless gamepad with a Gaming Laptop either. I do. They work great. When they don't... then write your Game ISV a letter.

Dave Troyer
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It does seem like "The Big Three" (or more) have been focusing more on what kind of peripherals they can add to their consoles and locking fans out of doing their own serious upgrades for a while now, huh?

"Oh, a way of playing games on my comfortable couch, on a big screen, with an up to date system I can upgrade, that I can play with a mouse and keyboard, if I choose to do so? Yes please!"

Maybe it's just me, but I think that Valve really cares about giving their consumers what they want.

Kel Skye
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When I sit at my desk, my monitor takes up a larger FOV than sitting on the couch to watch TV. It'll be interesting to follow where Steam goes with this, though at least from the article and video, I don't see the point of hooking up my PC to my TV just yet.


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