Like the push for Americans to power their cars with corn ethanol—despite the fact that even Al Gore admits this particular biofuel is a net negative for the universe—getting people to use their computers as their main living-room entertainment hub is bad idea that just won't die. The latest dreamer of this impossible dream is video game company Valve Software, which on Monday announced it's coming out with a free, Linux-based operating system called SteamOS. The existence of a new challenger to Windows 8 is exciting for computing in general, and SteamOS may very well "cause a major shake-up in the operating system business," as Cyrus Nemati wrote on Future Tense. But it's unlikely to shake your Xbox out of your living room.
Granted, if anybody could get you to hook your computer up to your TV and even kick your gaming consoles out of your living room, it would be Valve. While you've been busy playing Valve masterpieces like Half-Life and Portal, the game-maker has pulled a Heisenberg, expanding from production to distribution, and is now the key player in computer games sales with its download service, Steam. Not content with merely running the iTunes of computer games, Valve is reviving the shattered dreams of WebTV and marrying them to the joy of gaming because, at some level, the living-room PC seems like a natural technological endpoint. (See Steve Jobs' dream of an all-in-one living room device.)
Valve already took the most important step in turning your living room into a big computer station a year ago, with something called Big Picture mode. Like a large-print edition of a book, Big Picture mode blows up text and icons so they can be seen on your TV. But Big Picture mode plus SteamOS isn’t enough to make gaming consoles extinct.
Why, you might ask, would someone ditch the Xbox in favor of hooking a computer up to his TV? Heck, why would he play a game on a computer instead of an Xbox at all? The traditional argument in favor of PC gaming is scalability: You can upgrade your computer at any time, with things like extra RAM or a new video card, whereas with consoles you're stuck with the same, rapidly aging hardware for five years or more. Ironically, this is the exact reason I do most of my gaming on consoles. The rebuttal to scalability is stability: Stable hardware makes for a stable software experience. Every Xbox is functionally identical, so games can be tailored to the Xbox's exact specifications. But there are infinite combinations of interchangeable parts that can make up a computer, and a game's incompatibility with any one of those parts can cause mysterious problems, the gaming equivalent of the unidentifiable clanging coming from under your hood. Even the recent indie gem Gone Home, far from a graphical showpiece, ran like blackstrap molasses on my new laptop, giving me flashbacks to Betrayal at Krondor constantly crashing and to the low-level air raid siren that inexplicably wailed every second that I played Diablo. (I thought it was part of the game, till I played the game on a friend’s computer.) An operating system optimized for gaming, like SteamOS, might iron out some of the wrinkles of the platform, but not all of them.
Valve, meanwhile, blames computer gaming's problems on the keyboard and mouse, with company co-founder Gabe Newell saying in February that controls were the No. 1 issue keeping PCs from taking over the living room. Putting its R&D money where its frontman’s mouth is, Valve on Wednesday made its second major announcement of the week. The company unveiled its long-rumored "Steam Box," a PC that's meant for playing in your living room, runs on SteamOS, and uses a traditional controller. Now dubbed the "Steam Machine," Valve's device is set to be available at three price points, depending on the level of performance you want (and can afford).
So, let's see: Valve's bold plan to save PC gaming is a box that connects to your TV, runs its own operating system, and is played with a controller. The future of computer gaming, apparently, is console gaming. Console gaming, that is, for rich people, because you'll have to get a new console more often, or at least update it more often, if you want the latest games to look their best. In short, Valve is bringing one of the worst aspects of computer gaming—the relentless graphical arms race— to the living room, while leaving behind, or at least de-emphasizing, the best aspect of computer gaming: the mouse and keyboard. Playing first-person shooters with a controller has become much more natural than I ever would have guessed the first time I tried Halo, and bowling with a Wii Remote is a lot more natural than bowling with a keyboard and mouse. But anyone who's tried to play strategy series like StarCraft and Civilization knows that for a certain segment of games, there's simply no substitute for the computer interface.
Valve, which commands massive loyalty among Steam-happy PC gamers, ought to sell a healthy number of Steam Machines, but let’s not pretend this is a revolution for PC gaming. It’s just another console. And with Amazon, Google, and Apple reportedly getting into the console business as well, it’s one of eight—count ’em—game machines in the new console generation. My only question: Will it play Netflix?