7 Big, Unanswered Questions About SteamOS and Steam Machines

It's hard to judge Valve's living room gaming plans when so many details are missing.

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Despite being spread over five days, Valve’s announcement of SteamOS, Steam Machines and the controller that goes with them was surprisingly light on details.

We do have a better sense of Valve’s living room plans than we did two weeks ago, along with the knowledge that actual consumer products will start falling into place next year. But there’s still a lot that we don’t know, to the point that it’s still hard to have a fully-formed opinion about Valve’s ambitions.

As a PC gamer who’s very much interested in taking my games library and save progress to the television, I’d like to see SteamOS and Steam Boxes succeed. But I’m not going to make any broad predictions until we have better answers to the following questions:

Just How Interested Are OEMs?

The announcement of Steam Machines–that is, devices that ship with SteamOS–might’ve had more impact had it included some supporting statements from device makers. Instead, all we have to go on is Valve’s word that it is “working with multiple partners to bring a variety of Steam gaming machines to market during 2014.” There’s no mention of specific hardware–save for 300 beta boxes from Valve–or even firm commitments from specific manufacturers, let alone prices or release dates.

Can Valve Really Get More Publishers onto Linux and What Are These AAA Titles?

SteamOS is based on Linux, and as my colleague Matt Peckham pointed out, the current crop of Linux-supported games on Steam is pretty thin. Valve says there are “hundreds” right now, but take a close look and you’ll notice the absence of some major publishers, such as Electronic Arts, Activision and Rockstar Games. Likewise, Valve’s promise of announcements about “all the AAA titles coming natively to SteamOS” is vague. How much work is left for Valve to get big publishers on board, and can SteamOS thrive without them?

What Are the System Requirements for In-Home Streaming?

Valve says you’ll be able to stream the full Steam catalog from your PC to devices running SteamOS, but once again we’re short on details. Most importantly, we don’t know what sort of hardware will be required on the PC side and on the SteamOS side. Can my AMD Radeon 6870 handle the streaming at acceptable latencies? If I load SteamOS on my Intel Atom-powered living room PC, will it be able to stream my PC library?

Consider, as a reference, that Nvidia’s Shield handheld gaming system can stream games on its Tegra 4 chip, but only if your PC runs a fairly recent GTX 650 or higher graphics card, and a 802.11 dual-band router is also recommended. SteamOS streaming could be an expensive investment if you have to buy a new graphics card and router to make it work well.

Is It Still Good, Better, Best?

Long before Valve made its announcements, The Verge managed to get Gabe Newell on record┬átalking about his vision for different categories of Steam boxes. He described a “good” class of devices, which would be small and cheap but could still stream games from another PC; “better” devices that would rival current-generation consoles; and “best” devices that would be total powerhouses. There’s no mention of these categories in Steam’s announcement. Was Newell just speaking in general terms, or are there going to be hard categories of Steam Machines, with criteria that device makers must meet? Put another way: What efforts will Valve make to keep OEMs in line?



How Well-Supported Will the Steam Controller Be?

Although Valve’s newfangled controller has the admirable goal of supporting every game in the Steam catalog, the best level of support won’t happen without some extra work from game developers. Otherwise, it’ll be up to players to do their own button mapping for legacy games–and to hunt down the best mappings from other members of the community. Valve says it will release developer tools later this year, so we’ll see how many game makers decide it’s worth the extra effort.

What Is Valve’s Vision for Music and Video?

We do know that Valve is “working with many of the media services you know and love” to bring them to SteamOS. Again, no specifics were mentioned. But beyond the commitments or (lack thereof) from companies like Netflix and Pandora, does Valve have any kind of broader plan for living room entertainment? We’re seeing a lot of innovation from set-top box makers, from second-screen uses like Apple’s AirPlay and Google’s Chromecast to voice control with Microsoft’s Kinect. Though I appreciate Steam’s focus on gaming, I hope that over time its media offerings become more than just a static collection of apps.

Where the Heck Is Half-Life 3?

I know, the non-existence of what could be PC gaming’s biggest sequel has become a hilarious running joke. But in all seriousness, first-party games are really important for consoles because they’re designed to show off what these devices can do. Valve has boasted about how it got its own Left 4 Dead 2 running faster on Linux, but let’s see that argument applied to a new game, not one that’s already a few years old.