A Beginner's Guide To SteamOS, Steam Machines and the Steam Controller

Steam Machines are coming, and everyone is confused. Valve is being muddy with their marketing (apparently what they are doing now is marketing?) In any case, so many forum posters and journalists are typing out misinformation on what Steam Machines/SteamOS actually is, and this has led any conversation into a puddle of stale urine. Here, I'll try to set everything straight using not much more than sources that already have existed. Cool? Not going to wait for your response. Alright. Here we go.

Steam Machines are dedicated towards existing PC Gamers, NOT console Gamers

This is the most common of all misconceptions driven by the idea of always trying to smash all competition as a business, as opposed to looking out for consumers. But combine Alienware explicitly stating that their Steam Machine is not competing for console owners with this quote from the SteamOS Announcement page:

Finally, you don’t have to give up your favorite games, your online friends, and all the Steam features you love just to play on the big screen. SteamOS, running on any living room machine, will provide access to the best games and user-generated content available.

That doesn't sound like marketing towards people who have never used Steam before. It sounds to me like aiming this at people who already use it. Considering that's where they got their idea from, it makes sense to me.

"Our customers have been wanting to access their games and their stuff in more places," Coomer said. "In some ways they were ahead of us in having that expectation. They were already clearly playing games in the living room, they had all this stuff that they loved about Steam and it was frustrating for them to not be able to access it in a place that seemed like a natural fit for the kind of content that they were playing."

From Polygon's interview with Greg Coomer at CES 2013... yes, that's 2013.

And this is the point where you "but why? These people already built PCs." This becomes the point that I tell you that building a PC does not make it fit in a living room...

"We're surprised that there aren't more PC manufacturers who are addressing the combination of form factor, meaning size, and things like noise and industrial design that seems appropriate for the living room," Coomer told Polygon.

...and that, due to Valve's hardware survey, we can clearly see the 3 most popular graphics solutions you see are integrated Intel HD graphics (and not even the newest ones), leading one to believe that there is a significant portion of Steam players that are not playing on DIY PCs, if on desktops at all. Of course, Valve isn't excluding console gamers from the Steam Living Room experience (that sounded like marketing terminology), but that is not what this initiative is for

Steam Machines are NOT a way to standardize PC Gaming hardware

There are a plethora of different CPU/GPU combinations for performance when it comes to building a PC. Many see it as confusing for the average consumer (who, to those people, would rather partake in their favorite hobby of sucking bark off a tree using a straw). Valve, however, considers it a part of why Steam is so successful (4 minutes in). Whether you have $400 to build a PC or $4000, Steam is there. From the look at all the Machines at CES, it seems Valve wants to keep it that way. Gabe has mentioned that they expect a low, mid, and high-tier segregation of Steam Machines, but that discrimination is far more abstract than something to be printed on the side of a box. Valve may consider creating software that can create setups for people who want to, say, play Game A at Resolution B with Graphics at C level and D fps because they actually have the database to do that. This quote is from Sean Hollister's Hands-on with the Steam Machine Prototype:

When I ask whether Steam Machines will have a dedicated hardware specification, the team reveals that they're working on something a little more elegant: a system built into Steam that shows you which games your hardware configuration can actually run, and conversely, what hardware you'd need to buy to play a given game well — based on the real-world data about computer configurations that Valve already collects with its Steam Hardware Survey.

"It's one of these places where Steam is particularly and perhaps uniquely positioned to be able to actually help customers… we're sitting at the nexus of these hardware specs, so we can harvest data about what's going on, and repeat it back in a digestible form to every Steam user who cares," Coomer explains. Valve says it hasn't hammered out all the details yet, but it plans to launch such a feature next year.

That being said, standardization and accessibility are not one and the same.

Steam does NOT suffer the same fragmentation issues that Android has

It's the argument that comes right after "but there will be so many different versions!" and it is also falsely applied. No matter how many different graphics cards are available, Steam will not suffer the same fate for one major reason: Android updates are bottlenecked by carriers and manufacturers. Obviously one of these is completely missing in the Steam Machine initiative, but what about the other? Will manufacturers create bloatware and skins to sell their Steam Machines? Maybe. However, since SteamOS is easily available to everyone at launch, users can wipe out any... disturbed versions of SteamOS via simple reinstallation. It's not like Android, where users have to do some rooting/unlocking and find a way to pull the sheets over the OSs eyes. Installing an OS on a PC is as straight-forward as installing Hangouts on your phone, and it wont void your warranty, either... you do have to question if these PCs even have warranties if they are so replaceable.

SteamOS is NOT a way for Valve to be a gatekeeper for your entire OS.

It is entirely possible to play Non-steam games on SteamOS, as long as its a Linux game (Minecraft, for example... just install Java, dude). If Valve wanted to keep this closed off, it would be pretty weird for them to offer the SteamOS Beta to every existing person with a computer, not to mention you'd have a hard time explaining how Ye Olde SteamOSe exists. Gabe even said himself that EA could make Origin for SteamOS if they really wanted.

(7/24/2014 Update) As Steam now approaches 600 games for Linux, I created a graph that outlines the frankly remarkable growth.

February 14, 2013 - 57 Games
April 11, 2013 - 100 games
September 30, 2013* - 200 games
Feb 10, 2014* - 300 games
April 18, 2014 - 400 Games
June 5, 2014 - 500 Games
July 24, 2014 - 600 Games

*fairly rough estimates based on Googling.

While I didn't include it in the graph, I calculated a prediction on when Steam for Linux would reach 700 games. Google Sheets responded with August 25th. As a reminder, Valve predicted earlier this year that they would have 500 games for Linux by October/November 2014.

SteamOS IS a way to control your gaming experience from top to bottom with just a gamepad.

If you are saying to yourself, "But you can already build a Windows Machine for the living room" then you'd have been about 15% right. You can, but a keyboard and mouse in the living room is pretty much undesired by the masses. It isn't ergonomic. You'd have to find a board to sit your keyboard and mouse on while you are on your chair. A bit on the tacky side. Also, try to going from boot to Steam Big Picture Mode with a game controller and the most current version of Windows; it just won't let you. Maybe some of you have better luck than I, but the bootup process for many on a Windows 8 PC is as follows: Turn on PC, Wait until Login window appears, Log in to account, Enter Start Screen, Click the Desktop tile, Press Steam Icon, Go to Big Picture Mode.
...none of that is actually possible with an Xbox 360 controller. There are certain part that you can automate... actually, all of that (except the first step) can be automated. I've done it. However, when Steam would load in BPM, I can't control it with my controller until I use the mouse to click away from the taskbar, forcing it to hide. Even the Metro environment, the same one on the Xbox One, is not usable with a controller. The Windows OS is not built from the ground up for a controller. SteamOS can boot directly into Big Picture Mode on an OS level, which already gives it a leg up.

SteamOS DOES have quite a few games supported, even before an official launch.

According to SteamDB, there are over 300 Steam games confirmed to be working on Linux. The Xbox One currently has 29 games available according to its site. The PS4? 66 announced, 26 available now. If we're going to play the "Indies only count as three-fifths of a real game" role, that's still 187.2... and Valve has already mentioned that there will be AAA games natively running for SteamOS in 2014 (see the SteamOS Announcement page).

Should the Steam Controller have a left analog stick? Probably not

This may actually blow your mind, but Valve already tried the analog stick multiple times. Look at these prototype controllers laid out when TheVerge visited. There are 4 controllers there that have analog sticks. It turned out to not be necessary. The trackpad is far more advantageous than an analog stick, and it all comes down to software. The following quote comes from the Steam Dev Days, specifically with regards to the controller. Eric Hope explains why the trackpad had an advantage over the trackball, but feel free to replace "trackball" with "analog stick" here:

with the trackball, a trackballs always a trackball, and when it's always a trackball you you're kinda gated in terms of the types of games that it is ideal for. But with the trackpad we can virtualize pretty much any type of input surface. We can virtualize a trackpad, we can virtualize a trackball, we can virtualize an analog stick, we can virtualize a racing wheel, we could do gestural input in the form of handwriting with your thumb... There's all kinds on interesting software opportunities that made, themselves available to a trackpad.

Simply put, the trackpad can emulate an analog stick, and that's why you don't see any sticks there. This was mentioned in the Q&A of that same video:

Initially, that was one of our primary goals for trackpads. We needed to be able to replicate that type of [analog] movement. In fact, the left trackpad is typically ideal for a virtual analog stick because when you're moving inside of games, that actually feels really good. Most PC games however are very digital, so you'd be tapping at interval rates or you're holding the key down, and so direct integration of the steam controller where you're actually doing a virtual analog stick is ideal and it can be done.

The analog problem seems to come from its "legacy mode" and an ideal that may not even be possible. Most PC gamers know the interface of many games change automatically depending on when you use an Xbox 360 controller or a KB/M (i.e. "Press LT to brake" vs "Press S to brake"). The software would recognize one trackpad used as a analog stick and the other a mouse as using a controller and mouse at the same time, and things like QTE icons or commands would flash different buttons back and forth frantically on the screen, making it a game-breaking experience (again, this would only happen in legacy mode where the controller isn't officially supported). it is yet to be clear how Valve would solve that problem, if it is actually solvable at all.

(7/24/2014 Update) Oh, brilliant.

Should the Steam Controller have a 'real' d-pad? Probably not

There are three reasons why people generally use d-pads while gaming


1) Navigating through menus - In this case, having 4 separate buttons is clearly better because you can avoid accidental input

2) Moves in fighting games - When it comes to answering "How does Game X work with the Steam Controller," the "Trial By Game" YouTube channel is your best resource for answering those question. With the games played (SSF4 and Injustice: Gods Among Us), the left trackpad was used instead, and it was just as good if not better than using a d-pad.

3) 2D platformers - The creator of Super Meat Boy did some testing with it... on his own game, in addition to playing Spelunky, and posted his thoughts on a blog in September. "TL;DR; Great Start, needs some improvements, but I could play any game I wanted with it just fine."