Why Steam’s Big Picture mode isn’t a big deal… yet
Valve is launching Big Picture in its Steam client today, allowing gamers to use the service with a brand new interface specifically tuned to big screen televisions. This will allow gamers to hook their PCs up to their television sets and use their systems just like a console, complete with a virtual keyboard and support for gamepads. There are already breathless cries that the console needs to watch its back, because this is the year of PC gaming! That may be true, PC gaming has never been stronger, but Big Picture mode is a smaller deal than you may think.
What does this get you?
Big Picture mode is a neat addition to the features of Steam, and those gamers who already liked to play PC games on their televisions are going to welcome the new way to view and control the experience. The problem is that most gaming PCs are still large, ungainly things, and wireless PC compatible game controllers are not exactly a mainstream product. It’s not a question of whether this will help people who already liked to play PC games on their television, it definitely will, the question is whether this will cause more people to connect their PCs to their living room televisions. It’s doubtful. Our living rooms simply aren’t designed for PC towers, and those gamers who built their own Shuttle boxes make up a small minority of the game playing populace. Hardcore PC gamers aren’t going to want to give up their mouse and keyboard for a console-style controller and, even if players have wireless mice and keyboards, the ergonomics of playing with that configuration doesn’t work very well in the living room. No one wants to balance a mouse pad on their recliner. Steam’s biggest fans, the players who spend hundreds of dollars on PC gaming, are likely comfortable playing in their home office or study.The more casual gamer who wants to play in the living room, with a controller, is likely to be better served by a less-expensive console that’s designed for that environment. People may be more tempted to build inexpensive, flexible home theater PCs to take advantage of the Big Picture mode, but we’re again talking about a very engaged, enthusiast market. Valve gets points for making the process seem so friendly, but will that be enough to get people to physically move their systems? For something to be truly disruptive it has to change the behavior of a large number of people. Big Picture mode is going to make life better for a small number of players who are already using their televisions as a monitor. It may cause a few hundred new people to try to play their games that way. The rest of the market is going to continue to play their games on a computer monitors, with a mouse and keyboard. That’s why people love PC gaming anyway.
Is Valve going to release a console?
There does seem to evidence of that Valve is going to enter hardware design and sales, mostly due to the fact they said they’re going to enter hardware design and sales. “Valve is traditionally a software company. Open platforms like the PC and Mac are important to us, as they enable us and our partners to have a robust and direct relationship with customers. We’re frustrated by the lack of innovation in the computer hardware space though, so we’re jumping in,” Valve stated in a job listing for an industrial designer. I asked Gabe Newell last February if he saw a future where Valve sold hardware. “Well, if we have to sell hardware we will. We have no reason to believe we’re any good at it, it’s more we think that we need to continue to have innovation and if the only way to get these kind of projects started is by us going and developing and selling the hardware directly then that’s what we’ll do,” Gabe said. “It’s definitely not the first thought that crosses our mind; we’d rather hardware people that are good at manufacturing and distributing hardware do that. We think it’s important enough that if that’s what we end up having to do then that’s what we end up having to do.” There was also the big “Steam Box” rumor that never amounted to anything. If you read through my interview with Mr. Newell and the full job listing above, do you see anything that leads you to believe that Valve is going to start selling their own “Steam Console?” That would require a partnership with any number of hardware vendors, and would either play mostly casual games or be sold for a higher price point than competing consoles. Valve certainly has the data about what hardware people use to play games, and the clout to make strong deals to leverage that information to create a standardized box with a specialized controller, but is that really what people want out of PC gaming? At that point Valve wouldn't be innovating, they would simply be creating another walled garden, an approach that causes many gamers to turn their nose up at Apple. We know Valve is distrustful of Windows 8, but any form of gaming console based on Steam would require some form of Windows licensing, which is another hurdle to overcome. It's more likely Valve is working on different approaches to displays or controllers, as a full platform would be hard to pull off, difficult to sell to consumers if it came in at a price above modern consoles, and would likely leave Valve with a low margin. Most consoles are sold at a loss during their early days in order to get into the homes of consumers. Valve is likely disinterested in losing money on a product with no clear reason for being.
So what does Big Picture mean?
Big Picture is certainly going to be a selling point for vendors who make small, living room friendly PCs, and it may cause a few more players to try playing their games on their television sets. Valve may also have some ideas on how to solve the problem of the mouse and keyboard in the living room, which would certainly be an interesting step forward in interactivity for PC gaming. It's unlikely that any of this is going to happen soon, though, so the idea that Big Picture is causing the console manufacturers any stress is hyperbole. Big Picture is a good thing for Valve to create, and it gives them many interesting ways to build off a living room PC, but I don't think we can expect any other large moves in that area in the near future. Heck, the mythical Steam Box would run into many of the problems I described when poking holes through the idea of the all-digital console. This is a toe in the water, an experiment to see how many people will play games this way. It makes sense to put a few software men and women on the interface, see if the results move the needle in terms of broad user patterns, and then use that data to inform the company's other hardware plans. Or it could go nowhere. The hype doesn't match the level of known investment on the part of Valve, so it's time to take a breath and look at what's actually happening, not what we hope will happen. I'm going to throw it to you guys, although we need to remember that PAR readers aren't exactly representative of your average gamer. Are you more likely to bring your PC to the living room? Was it already there?