PC gaming’s roots go back to the very beginning of the PC industry, long before Commodore, Apple, and the IBM PC. Gaming’s mainstream appeal coupled with the ability to push hardware to the limit has been partly responsible for driving hardware innovation forward. Despite some ups and downs over the years, there was a time when PC gaming struggled, fighting rampant piracy and losing consumer faith with overbearing DRM (digital rights management) technologies, many of which punished paying customers instead of pirates.
For a while, it seemed that gaming had almost universally shifted to living room consoles from companies like Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft. The Steam gaming platform from Bellevue, Wash.-based Valve Corp. single-handedly saved PC gaming, growing from a platform originally intended to make updating Valve games easier to a massive gaming marketplace and community with nearly 6,000 games and 35 million users. In recent years, Steam has branched out to support alternative PC platforms like Mac OSX and Linux, even though the majority of blockbuster gaming titles are Windows only.
The Birth of SteamOS
In 2013, Valve announced its intention to create SteamOS, a custom Linux distribution that would enable PC makers to build and market gaming “Steam Machines,” as well as a custom Steam Controller that should enable PC game play using a controller on games designed around the keyboard and mouse.
Valve’s CEO, Gabe Newell, embarked on a personal crusade to move the PC gaming industry to Linux in reaction to Microsoft’s direction with Windows 8. If modern apps on Windows, available only through the Windows Store, was the sole future of the PC, Steam wouldn’t have a future on Windows for long. Even though Windows 10 is far more desktop oriented than 8, Microsoft’s push for a single storefront and universal applications, which allow game developers to essentially write one binary that works across all Windows 10 devices and Xbox One, pose a direct threat to services like Steam.
Getting SteamOS off the ground has been easier said than done. It was initially scheduled to launch in the second half of 2014, with a fairly impressive number of PC makers lined up to release Steam Machines. However, with Steam’s special controller facing numerous criticisms and the supported game library on Linux lackluster, the Steam Machine push was delayed to fall 2015. Many of the initial Steam Machines were released, but with Windows and the Xbox 360 controller for PC in lieu of SteamOS.
As fall 2015 nears, Valve still has an uphill battle. The company’s Greenlight program and support of independent developers has gone a long way toward getting more games ready for SteamOS. However, SteamOS can only run slightly more than 2,000 of the near-11,000 games and game add-ons Steam offers, few are blockbuster titles from big developers, and few (if any) of those titles are exclusive to Linux. Worse yet, for $49 the Steam Link allows any PC running Steam to play games on a TV at 1080p over a home network, thereby reducing the need for a dedicated Steam Machine.
Dilemma for System Builders
This creates a dilemma for system builders. Why should a custom PC maker bother with SteamOS when Windows 8/10 can boot into the Steam client, utilize the wireless Steam Controller (or any other third-party gaming peripheral compatible with Windows), stream games to a TV via Steam Link, and give the gamer access to not only Steam’s entire catalog of games, but also games from third-party services like Origin, GOG, Amazon, and Microsoft? On a dedicated machine for playing games, SteamOS gives the gamer less ability to play games—and it’s not like Steam Machines cost less than Windows PCs.
For now, system builders would be wise to forgo SteamOS exclusivity, and either create purpose-built gaming machines around the Steam client on Windows, or create dual-boot systems that give gamers the option of both in the off chance Valve makes Half-Life 3 a SteamOS exclusive. Until Valve stops supporting Windows, Windows stops supporting Steam, or everyone stops buying Windows PCs, there’s little opportunity for SteamOS to thrive.