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.