Valve's SteamOS Brings New Hope to Linux Gamers

Valve's SteamOS Brings New Hope to Linux Gamers

Valve wants the Linux-based SteamOS to take over your living room.

Valve has taken the wraps off its first big bid for a spot in your entertainment center: SteamOS. SteamOS is a Linux-based operating system focused on gaming on your television, like home consoles. We have yet to hear about any hardware, but what Valve has outlined here is interesting.

When I speculated about Valve's possible announcements last week, I figured that any possible SteamBox would have a Linux-based operating system. What I didn't foresee was that the operating system would be such a major push for Valve. The announcement mentions SteamOS machines in a generic sense: while Valve may offer it's own SteamBox, SteamOS will be free and readily available to anyone who wants to install it on their PC.

SteamOS will have options for families, including the the previously-announced Family Sharing and filtering options for user libraries. It will also offer "your favorite music and video" services, though the company didn't provide any details on which services we can expect. Steam Cloud, Game Hubs, Steam Community, and Steam Workshop are all along for the ride. If you've come to expect it on the Steam client, you'll see it on SteamOS.

Since there isn't a huge library of Linux-enabled games right now, SteamOS machines can also stream games from existing Steam clients. Like the PlayStation Vita TV or Nvidia Shield, you can stream gameplay to a relatively cheap and weak SteamOS box while your workhorse PC does all the real work. For some, this may be the killer application of SteamOS, but the real news is the fact that Valve is now all-in on Linux.

Linux gaming has been sort of puttering in the background for a very long time. Windows owns most of the gaming PC market, and the sales of MacBooks have fueled a growth in Mac game development. Both platforms see a lot of support from publishers, developers, and hardware accessory makers. In contrast, Linux's driver problems have gotten better, but not enough for gamers and developers to jump in wholeheartedly. Linux hasn't had a big chance to get all the major players on board for gaming. Until now.

"Hundreds of great games are already running natively on SteamOS. Watch for announcements in the coming weeks about all the AAA titles coming natively to SteamOS in 2014," says the Steam OS website. "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. Game developers are already taking advantage of these gains as they target SteamOS for their new releases."

Valve is big and has strong connections to most of the PC development community. It also has a lot of money. Valve has the clout to sit at the discussion table with PC game publishers like Sega, Capcom, 2K Games. It has 50 million Steam users it can point to and say: "We can probably get those people on our side. You should join us." Microsoft's Windows 8 hasn't gone over well with all PC gamers and assuming improved support from hardware manufacturers, a SteamOS PC could be a new port in a storm. Even if most Steam players stick with their gaming PCs and merely use SteamOS for a cheap TV streamer, that's still a SteamOS user Valve can point to. And every user who switches or even dabbles in SteamOS makes the case for supporting Linux gaming even stronger.

Is SteamOS a big blow to PC gaming? Not really. There's still too many unanswered questions about hardware and software support. And for the time being, major home consoles are probably safe, though Valve's possible hardware announcements could tank smaller offerings like Ouya. But ultimately SteamOS is a long-term play by Valve. Years down the line, SteamOS machines could be a tangible thing sitting alongside Windows PCs and Macs. If Valve plays their cards right, when people turnover to newer PCs, SteamOS could be a compelling alternative to just getting another Windows box. SteamOS isn't an immediate revolution, it's the possible beginning of a slow evolution in the PC gaming market.

Valve's second announcement will be on Wednesday, with the third and final announcement probably coming on Friday. I'm expecting SteamBox, or at least SteamBox official specs, will be Wednesday's release. Anyone else excited by possibilities of Valve's SteamOS?

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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