PC gaming's future is no longer tied to Microsoft

First there was SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system whose open design aims to spur innovation. Then there were Steam Machines, a range of Valve-branded systems with SteamOS pre-installed that will provide a legitimate non-Windows alternative for PC gamers come 2014. Now, Valve has concluded its trio of announcements with a joystick-less Steam controller, a bizarre-looking (but admirably forward-thinking) input device that allows any Steam game to be played wirelessly from the comfort of your couch.

Taken at face value, these three announcements appear to be nothing more than an attempt by Valve to elbow its way into your living room, hoping its Steam Machines will earn a place alongside your set-top box or gaming consoles. That is, at least, part of the goal, especially considering PC sales continue to diminish each year. But I think there's a significantly more important conclusion to be derived from these announcements. By offering a free OS alternative, one that comes pre-installed on a wide variety of gaming rigs, Valve is attempting the unthinkable: to offer a PC gaming future that isn't inextricably bound to Microsoft.

Each of the three announcements plays its own part in Valve's end-game, and it's worth recapping what, exactly, those roles are. The most obvious starting point is SteamOS, Valve's Linux-based operating system. This, more than anything else, illustrates the ideological differences between Valve and Microsoft, the former emphasizing the value of open platforms, while the latter seems to be transitioning into a closed one. Valve is hedging its bets that major innovations--and therefore major $$$--will come primarily from its users, not from its developers. Remember: Counter-Strike, Portal, Dota 2, and a boatload of user-generated content for Team Fortress 2 have all played a part in Valve's continued success--and none of them were conceptualized in-house. Thus, SteamOS: a totally free alternative to Windows (making it an attractive choice for PC buyers and DIY builders alike) that encourages modding and experimentation.

The takeaway from SteamOS, then, is that openness breeds innovation. Valve's putting the very source code of its operating system in the hands of everyone who wants it just to see what happens. Comparatively, Microsoft is pushing its Windows Store, turning Windows into an increasingly closed platform (i.e. one that charges costly development licensing fees and restricts access to certain content providers). It will inevitably stifle creativity and technological advancement in the pursuit of profit (or at least that's what Valve believes)--a pursuit that could, eventually, knock on Valve's door and personally hand over an eviction notice.

Now let's take another look at Valve's Steam Machines. These will likely range from inexpensive streaming devices akin to a Roku (that have the added benefit of allowing you to stream titles from your gaming PC to any display in your home) to sleek, attractive boxes not unlike consoles to full-on high-end gaming desktops. Myriad options means you can find a Steam Machine that will accommodate your exact needs. But, more importantly, these are the trojan horses whose purpose is to get SteamOS in your home, to acquaint you with a new, non-Windows operating system that, someday, just might diminish the public perception that PCs are synonymous with Windows.

Then there's the Steam controller. It's an interesting design, to say the least, and I'm mega pumped to get my hands on one. But I can't help but wonder: Will PC users adopt anything other than the mouse and keyboard? Will console gamers accept a gamepad without analog sticks? Time will tell. The big thing here, though, is that this controller works with all Steam games, even if they've not been optimized for a gamepad, eliminating the final hurdle of playing said games from the sofa: not having a couch-friendly input device that supports your entire library.

Yes, all of these things--the SteamOS, Steam Machines, the controller--are an attempt to sell you something, but to think of that "thing" as just another gaming machine for the living room is incredibly shortsighted. What Valve is really selling is an alternative future for PC gaming, one that diverges from the whims of Microsoft. This path is an ideological one as much as it's motivated by turning a dollar.

But Valve has some immense hurdles to overcome if it's to be successful. Can it convince big publishers to port their games to Linux, an operating system that has a remarkably small presence in the gaming space? Perhaps once Valve gives every Steam member the opportunity to beta test SteamOS, we'll see some of the bigger players raise their eyebrows. Then again, perhaps not.

Can Valve explain to gamers, in a digestible manner, why open platforms are crucial for innovation, and how SteamOS will be any different than Windows long-term? If so, will Valve be able to convince you, the consumer, that investing your time into learning SteamOS, or money into a Steam Machine, is a worthwhile endeavor? Apathy, I think, is the greatest challenge Valve will inevitably face.

If you have any interest in PC gaming, you'll have a big decision to make come 2014. The question is: who will you entrust with this slice of gaming's future?

What's Next? is a bi-weekly column exploring the future of gaming tech.


  • brickman409 - September 30, 2013 11:32 a.m.

    why is this such a hard sell to PC gamers? it's a free OS for crying out loud! just dual boot it with windows. You will get better performance without windows taking up huge chunks of your processing power. As for the controller and the boxes, well I'll wait until those come out to see if those are any good.
  • jonathan-campbell - September 29, 2013 11:16 a.m.

    I might be wrong, but I feel like the steam box is marketed more towards casual gamers. It's not going to offer anything that a hardcore pc gamer doesn't already have, but it will make steam and steam games much easier to access for the less computer inclined
  • JackC8 - September 28, 2013 2:28 p.m.

    I'd be very surprised if this controller works with ALL Steam games as the developers of some of those games never included any controller support in the first place. Stuff like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, the Mass Effect Games, and Dragon Age Origins to name a few. I'd guess it will be compatible with any game that was made to support a controller, just like the wired Xbox 360 controller for Windows does. The rest of the argument er, "article", lol. You do realize that very few games run on Linux, right? Whether or not developers start making their games compatible with the Steam OS depends entirely on how many people use it, which depends entirely on how well the Steam Machines sell. To predict total domination of the market to the point where PC gaming is no longer tied to Microsoft sounds like Gabe's wet dream - not journalism.
  • CUFCfan616 - September 28, 2013 3:45 p.m.

    you are aware that Steam OS will be a free to download OS which you can install on your PC, no Steam Machine needed? The takeup of Steam Machines might be slow to begin with, but I'd expect a large number of people to install Steam OS onto their PC.
  • ZeeCaptain - September 28, 2013 9:41 p.m.

    You're right about the controllers or well at least for games already released, although all three you mentioned have third party mods for controller support, but for future games with steam i'm sure they'll push for controller support until it's a common addition. As for the OS, Steam is in a really good position here, they dominate the downloadable marketplace for pc with the only competition being amazon, which usually give you keys that work with steam, or origins and that's just EA being a diva. You're right to say that Linux isn't widely used but there are mods that allow Linux users to play games meant for windows, which is why you hear so many Linux gamers vouching for it as the superior OS albeit the most un-user friendly; but again with where steam is at they have the best opportunity to make Linux into a thing, they have the popularity and the support, most valve games already work on Linux and developers will soon follow in suit if they see any success or if valve decides to only continuing steam support for developers that agree to use Linux. I'm not worried that Microsoft will be overthrown any time soon, or ever really, but I do see steam getting a lot of support for this.
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - September 28, 2013 10:40 p.m.

    Valve has already stated that any game on Steam--past, present, future--is compatible with its controller, regardless if devs have implemented controller support. The whole point is that the Steam controller mimics keyboard/mice inputs. So yes. All Steam games will work with it. And yes, very few games run on Linux, as stated in the article. The same hold true for developer support. It's mentioned. That's kind of the entire point: That Valve's trying to offer an alternative, but will have a hard time convince gamers to adopt that alternative.
  • raws - September 30, 2013 1:25 p.m.

    DA:O was another thing, but I don't think that Oblivion and Mass Effect are good examples, as they had console ports and I think could be played with a pad on computer too.
  • larkan - September 28, 2013 8:45 a.m.

    People will always be dependent on Windows, it's the truth and people need to face it. Linux support from Valve might raise their market share from 2% to 3%, but that's it. Developers (well, the ones we care about on PC) will not fully jump on board with this, mainly because it's another hurdle for them to jump to get their game released. Not trying to rain on Gabe's parade here, but they have a major uphill battle, and have made things too convoluted for people to care when they can just go and pick up a Sony or Microsoft console with a normal controller and only 1 box to choose from.
  • ZeeCaptain - September 28, 2013 9:47 p.m.

    I wouldn't count this out completely, if you look back Gabe Newell was the producer of the first three releases of windows and a major part of the reason windows is a viable gaming platform, so if anyone could get Linux to be the next big OS contender it will probably be him.
  • nai1210 - September 27, 2013 11:28 p.m.

    A lot of people think this is going to fail personally I think the majority of PC gamers are going to.embrace this I got a mate. To build me a gaming PC at the start of the year and will definitely have my.system set as.having a dual boot with the steam OS used when I'm gaming the only thing I don't like is the placement of the face button's on the controller but what do I know I have not used one yet
  • SirManguydude - September 28, 2013 3:10 a.m.

    One problem, how many games come out on launch with a Linux version?
  • ZeeCaptain - September 28, 2013 9:56 p.m.

    Ten years ago how many games were released on Mac? I mean after Newell released the port of Doom with ID for windows anything made on MS-DOS either got a port as well or burned out, and when Direct X evolved from WinG Microsoft had already secured windows as the gaming platform for PC's. Now a days a lot of games are released for Mac because Mac has made some good marketing plans and distanced themselves from windows with their more friendly user base and the synergy that it has with all of apple's other products. Sure right now Linux games are released far an in between but that's because it's not a big issue, if you're a Linux gamer you know how to make windows based games work on Linux, but if Linux were to get full steam support and if the steam box can be a viable choice over a expensive and usually large PC in the living room then there are sure to be developers who take notice.
  • ianfisch - September 28, 2013 10:34 p.m.

    Ha seriously? You're saying that SteamOS will be successful because of all the games...on Mac?! That's your argument? Usually games don't come to mac for months after they appear on Windows, and sometimes, like Farcry 3, they never arrive at all. I don't think anyone in the history of ever has switched from Windows to Mac for the games.
  • ZeeCaptain - October 2, 2013 11:09 p.m.

    You obviously misunderstood what I meant, I'm sure your right and that no one has ever changed over to Mac for there gaming, but the point was that Newell is the reason Windows was successful as a gaming platform and why Mac isn't, so if reason be worth more that a second glance at my comment then you'd see that if anyone were indeed to make Steam OS or Linux in general a successful gaming OS then it would indeed be him.
  • ianfisch - September 28, 2013 9:50 a.m.

    I guess my question is: what does this offer that a Windows machine doesn't? Windows is already free, for all intents and purposes. As of now Valve hasn't offered any reason for me to install SteamOS on my computer. Now if HL3 was an exclusive.....
  • ZeeCaptain - September 28, 2013 9:49 p.m.

    That would destroy valve's rep if they released HL3 exclusively. Also windows isn't free unless you pirate it and that's generally disapproved of .
  • Eightboll812 - September 27, 2013 7:49 p.m.

    I don't know if this will succeed, but I think it is great that there is someone leading the effort to bring Linux into serious PC gaming. The OS is far superior to anything MS has ever made and the only reason it hasn't flourished is the lack of credible apps and games, and also that the bar of knowledge required makes it more of a techie OS. But this could all change with Steam getting behind Linux. They are just the sort of company that could succeed where others can't. Competition is a great thing, and @GamesRadarCollanderCooper, the point here is that 1) its an open platform, and 2) its a free platform that is both mature and scalable. The article mentioned this, but perhaps people aren't aware. The push to mimic Apple and Android in the tablet space is taking MS down the road of the "appstore" approach, and they currently penalize anyone who doesn't push their software through the appstore. The license for "sideloading" I believe is somewhere around $70, so do the math for a $60 game. And now you can see that MS is demanding a [LARGE] piece of every pie that goes on Windows, and that will stifle what is left of PC gaming. I don't believe this applies (yet) to desktop versions of Windows 8, but ya know, I'm not holding my breath that it won't change soon. Anyway, that seems to be where MS wants to go with PC gaming, and if they do, it will kill it. It's great that there is an alternative that will force MS to stay honest here.
  • taokaka - September 27, 2013 6:56 p.m.

    If the OS gains popularity by the time I upgrade in a few years time then I'll consider it, especially if microsoft is still pushing touch interfaces on non touch devices and if both microsoft and apple are still doing their best to take away your freedom.

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