Valve co-founder Gabe Newell officially confirmed the long-rumored "Steam Box" this week, rekindling discussions of the looming console war and the role Valve will play in it.
The speculation kicked off with the debut at CES of the Piston, the pint-sized computer from Xi3, a company that Valve recently invested in. It turned out that the Piston is just one of many Steam Box prototypes for "low-cost, high-performance" living room computers that Valve brought to the convention.
As for the Steam Box specification, Newell said he envisions low-end, mid-range and high-end versions with varying capabilities and performance, but a few things in common. As devices designed for the living room, Steam Boxes will be quiet computers in attractive form factors. Valve's own Steam Box will run Linux instead of Windows, although the platform will be open so as to allow for the installation of Microsoft's operating system.
The vast majority of today's most popular PC games are made for Windows, with a growing number being ported to Mac OS X. Linux lags far behind in adoption by both consumers and game developers; among more than 1,800 games sold on Steam, approximately 40 are currently available on Linux.
But developers we spoke with this week seem to believe that if anyone can make it happen, Valve can.
"I'm very excited about this idea in general," said American McGee, founder of Spicy Horse, the Shanghai-based studio behind Alice: Madness Returns and Akaneiro: Demon Hunters. "It's going to be a good thing for the industry." McGee is "especially intrigued" by the idea of the Steam Box as a Linux-based platform, and believes the announcement of the Steam Box, along with the presence of other related factors, could herald a "tipping point for widespread adoption of the OS by core gamers."
if anyone can make it happen, Valve can
Spicy Horse is already starting to prepare for such a moment, according to McGee: The studio is beginning to make Linux versions of games it has developed in the cross-platform Unity engine.
"With Steam on Linux and news of cool devices like this on the horizon, the timing feels right," McGee explained.
Belgian developer Larian Studios is a longtime developer of Windows PC games, although the company released Divinity 2: Ego Draconis and Divinity 2: Dragon Knight Saga on Xbox 360 in recent years. According to creative director Sven Vincke, the studio is bullish on the Steam Box and its potential to not just disrupt the console market, but overtake it.
"This is something we've been hoping for for quite some time," said Vincke. "The PC has always had everything it needed to be the dominant games machine in the living room except... somebody with enough clout to put it there."
Assuming Valve keeps the platform open, Vincke said, the Steam Box would open up the living room to PC developers. Frederik Schreiber, CEO of Rise of the Triad developer Interceptor Entertainment, is similarly excited about the new market. "I believe there is a great market for the [Steam Box]," he said, "because it [would allow] developers to release quality PC games to a different audience."
Vincke hopes Valve is successful for that reason, and also because it would allow PC developers to "do away with all that nonsense of spending large [amounts] of development dollars on supporting different architectures just for the sake of supporting play on a living room device," which to this point has only been a console.
If Valve does this right, Vincke said, "I'd bet my money on the Steam Box becoming the dominant console instead of whatever Microsoft and Sony have in the pipeline [for the next console generation]."
"I'd bet my money on the Steam Box becoming the dominant console"
Small teams are particularly hopeful the Steam Box will give them an entrée into the living room.
Young Horses is the eight-person studio making Octodad: Dadliest Catch, the sequel to the third-person octopus family simulator created by DePaul University students. Kevin Geisler, programmer and producer on Dadliest Catch, said he also is sensing a growing "surge in interest in developing for Linux ... at least from indies."
The studio is developing Dadliest Catch on Windows, Mac and Linux simultaneously, which Geisler noted would put Young Horses "in good shape to support the device" upon the game's release.
Geisler also pointed out that Valve's clout is the key in making the Steam Box viable for consumers and developers. "With Valve's attention on it as well, it makes Linux support worth serious consideration," he said.
(We also reached out to a number of major studios for this piece, including Arkane Studios, Bethesda Game Studios, Blizzard Entertainment, Crytek, Epic Games, Firaxis Games, id Software, Irrational Games, Maxis, Relic Entertainment and Trion Worlds, but did not receive comments before press time.)