Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Expanding Steam Universe

http://store.steampowered.com/livingroom/

So, Valve put three announcements out... last week? Two weeks ago? I dragged my heels a bit with regard to getting this blog post out, but whatever, I still have opinions. Of course the whole thing, as it says, is aimed at bringing the Steam experience to the living room, though I think some of it will probably have applications elsewhere as well. So onto the announcements.

Announcement 1 - Steam OS

Steam gets its own operating system. Makes sense - the typical living room gaming machines are consoles, and they also have their own fairly simplistic operating system designed to let you get at your games, update them, get more games, etc (I have very little personal experience with it as I'm part of the PC Gaming Master Race and the newest console I have is a PS2, which just goes straight into games from the discs). If one has a computer in the living room hooked up to the TV its presumably being used as if it was a console, so why not just make it entirely gaming dedicated?
That said, I wonder if there will be more to this SteamOS. I mean, it is apparently based on Linux, which is of course used as a standard operating system by a number of people, so I wonder if it would be possible for me to hypothetically just replace Windows with SteamOS once it's available. I mean, if it supports a word processor and a web browser, then along with gaming that accounts for about 90% of my computer use. And since the OS is designed around Steam and therefore around gaming, presumably I would have less issues with superfluous background processes using up the computer power which I could really use for making my games run smoother. Just random musings.
Actually, thinking about it, one of the things they say is "Users can alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want." So I imagine that even if SteamOS as released doesn't work as a standard operating system for non-gaming purposes, I'm pretty sure within a week or so of its release some enterprising gaming enthusiast will have modded it so that it is. So, yeah. I'm quite interested in the possibility of getting a computer to run on SteamOS, given the claim that "In SteamOS, we have achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we’re now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level." i.e. hopefully it will make my games run better? As someone with a not-very-good computer which isn't really built for gaming, anything which gives me a performance increase sounds like a pretty good idea.

They also sneaked four smaller announcements into this big one. In-home streaming isn't really a big deal to me, though I can see how it could be handy for some people. The stuff about bringing media stuff online so they can be accessed with Steam and SteamOS could be interesting. It certainly does seem to lean somewhat towards supporting the idea that SteamOS could be or become a regular operating system with more functions than just letting you get at your games. And then, well, family options actually is kind of just an extra detail of family sharing, which they had already announced, but which is a very neat idea. The ability to lend your games to people could work out very nicely.

Additionally, of course I was following threads talking about this on forums I frequent. This was said by Kaneco on the teamfortress.tv forums:

"This is what stood out more for me... These will enable and even encourage all kinds of publishers from indie to AAA to develop and publish games to a new system that has no associated costs besides the development.

Xbox and PS charge very hefty fees iirc, often discouraging indie or smaller developers to publish their games.

This will result in one of 2 things, steamOS gets a huge catalogue of games from the start and lots of gamers start moving to steamOS as the home entertainment system, or the current existing systems (ps / xbox, etc) will have to change the way they do business to compete with steamOS and don't lose costumers to a far superior platform (at first glance). Either way its a win-win situation for us costumers."

Seems like a good point to me.


Announcement 2 - Steam Machines

a.k.a. the Steam Box. This had been talked about somewhat for a while before this announcement, but the new point brought in here which as far as I know had not been hitherto mentioned was the plurality of Steam machines - if you want an XBox or Playstation of whatever brand/number they're up to at the time of your purchase, that is your only option. The Steam Machines, by the sound of it, will basically be like gaming PCs, and just as customisable and variable, so you can get one which suits your own personal requirements with regards to quality and price. The only question is how they'll stack up pricewise - if they cost as much as a good gaming PC, then why not just get a gaming PC? In which case, they wouldn't really be able to compete with the console market, which is the obvious goal, so they'd just get the same PC gaming audience they already have. On the other hand, if they can offer a decent experience at a comparable pricepoint to the XBox One and PS4, then  they could make quite a splash.

They could make an especially big splash because they're blurring some boundaries. Credit to gr8stalin on the teamfortress.tv forums for the insight, but this one I'm going to put into my own words.
So. There are a few reasons why the term 'PC Gaming Master Race' gets thrown around. There's the fact that mouse + keyboard is a superior control mechanism for certain types of game (more on that further down the post), and in any case nowadays you can use a controller with a PC, whereas you can't use mouse + keyboard on a console as far as I'm aware. Then there's the fact that PCs get used for so many other things as well as gaming, whereas cosnoles have fairly limited non-gaming functionality. But possibly the biggest point is just the variety of games available. There are a lot of games for PC which you can't get on console, and while there are games which you can only get on one brand of console but the other, a large proportion of those games will later be ported to PC (the ports vary in quality, but they happen). And the SteamBoxes/Steam Machines, despite being consoles, still act like PCs. Or possibly they act like consoles but are still PCs, either way.
The point is, on the console game market, Sony and Microsoft can force people to buy their console to play certain specific games, and cut out their competition. But if those games get ported to PC, the SteamBox can probably run them. If they want to cut out Valve they have to lose the PC market for these games entirely, whereas if they want to keep that PC market by having the games ported, then they enable the SteamBox to become a superior choice for variety of gaming, because it will be the one available console able to play (nearly) everything.


Announcement 3 - The Steam Controller

I've seen several people say the Steam Controller looks weird, or ugly, or like it'll never work. Most if not all of that I think is just down to a stick-in-the-mud mentality - they think it won't work because it doesn't work like the kind of controllers they're used to. People see buttons labelled A, B, X and Y and assume they have to be used regularly, when in fact on the Steam Controller it's expected that those controls will be used for things you want available but not so much in the heat of the moment. They see a controller without an analog stick or a d-pad and say "THEY CHANGED IT NOW IT SUCKS."

So here is my more measured opinion. One point - buttons on the back, so your third and fourth fingers on each hand can actually do something rather than just sitting there holding the controller. Personally I don't see why they don't have four buttons back there instead of two, but it's still handy. Now the big thing, of course, is the touchpads. This is the big potential stumbling block. If they work well, then the controller will be the best controller around in my opinion. If they don't then it won't. But I saw an article recently talking to some game developers who had a chance to use the controller and they were positive about them, so I'm inclined to be positive as well (Here's the article I read, you can find others if you just google game devs steam controller or something).

Let's look at this from the two opposing points of view - coming from a more standard controller and coming from keyboard + mouse. Controller first.
So, as I said, people are bothered by the lack of analog sticks or d-pad. But the thing is, both of those things can be easily replicated by the touchpads. Apparently the touchpads, in addition to just being touchpads, can be effectively divided into multiple buttons. Assuming there's suitable feedback so you can feel when you're pressing one of these imaginary buttons (which apparently you can, due to the haptic feedback which they apparently put a lot into for this reason), the touchpad is now a d-pad. But then when you need it to be a touchpad again, it can do that as well, which an actual d-pad cannot. Similarly for analog sticks. Then, buttons. There are six available to your fingers, and in a lot of games you'll only need one touchpad for movement, so the second can quite possibly be turned into more buttons. The big stumbling point I suspect would be fighting games, because they rely on some very precise button presses. So it's possible that even with the haptic feedback, a touchpad wouldn't be able to adequately replicate just having buttons for a fighting game. But any other genre of console game I don't see why the Steam controller shouldn't just be superior.
Now, coming from the opposite direction of mouse + keyboard. There are two main reasons why m+k is a superior control system for certain types of game. Firstly, hotkeys. If there are numerous actions you want to have fairly quick access to, without having to navigate through menus to find them, a keyboard is better because it has several times the number of buttons that any controller does. This is still the case with the Steam Controller, but they have substantially mitigated it with the addition of the back buttons, the touchscreen, and the ability to use the touchpads as multiple buttons as well as as touchpads. Secondly, the mouse is a much better precision tool. In many games you will use the keyboard to move and the mouse to aim or move the cursor (depending on the type of game). If you try to do this on a controller you use one analog stick for one and the other stick for the other. Now, the movement is alright. But the aiming simply doesn't have the same potential for a quick response. If it's, say, a turn-based strategy game, then yes, an analog stick can be used to move your cursor around just fine. But if you're operating in real time, then time is a factor. The amount of time you take to move your cursor or crosshair with an analog stick is based on the length of time you hold it in the relevant direction, whereas with a mouse it's dependent on the distance you move it, which allows much more precision at speed. Making a 180 degree turn in an FPS, say, may take several seconds with an analog stick, but with a mouse it can take a fraction of a second. Of course you probably could switch up the sensitivity such that you could turn that quickly with an analog stick, but that would then require inhuman levels of accuracy to hold the stick only for the very precise fraction of a second you wanted, lest you accidentally turn your back on an enemy who was only slightly to your right. Whereas with a mouse it's much easier to just move your hand more or less depending on the circumstances. So, with regards to the Steam Controller, there are trackpads. Now trackpads come as standard on laptop computers as a mouse substitute. They're not great, but they work, and apparently these ones are much better. They'll still be limited - the trackpads are significantly smaller than any mousemat, and that's a very small area in which to try and be precise with your movements, but it's a step in the more effective direction. I don't think the Steam Controller stands a chance of replacing keyboard + mouse as the most effective input method for games like first person shooters which require that level of high-speed precision and turning. But it'll be streets better than anything with analog sticks, and it should be just fine for anything where you need that precision in a smaller area.

All-in-all, I, who have never bothered to play any PC game with a controller (screw you, Super Meat Boy, I am offended by your messages telling me my keyboard is an inferior form of input for you), am considering that I may well want to get one of these once they're available, and I may well use it.

So, anyone reading this have any opinions they want to share? Anyone want to tell me I'm an idiot and clearly don't understand anything about the subject on which I'm speaking? Or agree with me? Leave comments if so.

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