What SteamOS Tells Us About the Rumored Steam Box

What does the SteamOS announcement mean for the long-rumored "Steam Box", and how will a Linux-based operating system impact consumers?

Valve kicked off its trio of announcements this week by unveiling its upcoming SteamOS, the Linux-based operating system targeted at small form factor PCs designed for the living room. The announcement comes as a bit of a surprise and leaves many questions unanswered, but an analysis of Valve's recent past and the technology behind a proposed Linux-based gaming system provides hints as to the future of Steam's presence in the living room.

Valve's current efforts started taking shape when it's simplified, controller optimized Big Picture mode UI entered beta back in September of 2012, and the proposal of a so-called "Steam Box", a console sized PC designed for gaming through Steam, made waves at the Consumer Electronics Show a few months later. With two more announcements to go this week, presumably related to the living room space, there's a chance that such a box will surface, but one question remains: will it come from Valve or third-party manufacturers?

Here's what we know so far: the SteamOS can be licensed and implemented at no cost to hardware manufacturers and users. That alone gives credence to the inevitability of third-party Steam-branded PCs. However, the Steam moniker and logo would presumably fall outside the license tied to the SteamOS, and it's likely that Valve will seek to control its brand through some semblance of quality assurance moving forward, especially so if it hopes to contend with the strength of brands such as PlayStation and Xbox.

Theoretically, working with third parties to maintain a certain level of quality for sanctioned Steam Boxes will take a considerable effort on Valve's part, but it's far more likely it will go this route as opposed to designing and manufacturing its own hardware. At least, a series of events over the past year seem to indicate as much. In the same month it released the Big Picture Mode beta, Valve began looking for new engineers to join its hardware division, specifically to "conceive, design, evaluate, and produce new types of input, output, and platform hardware." It then came to the Consumer Electronics Show with prototypes of Steam-dedicated PCs, thus reigniting rumors of an official Steam Box. Given the growth in the PC gaming space of late, the proposition of an easy-to-use, low-profile gaming PC for the living room caught on easily with an audience hungry for next-gen consoles, months before Sony and Microsoft had made any announcements of their own.

However, fast-forward to February of this year, and the hardware division was effectively disrupted when two of its key staff members were laid off: Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson. Valve is a company with a lot of fluid capital geared toward experimentation, but the same willingness to initiate efforts seems applicable to shaking them up, according to Ellsworth's interview with Develop last July, though Valve later stated that the layoffs weren't an indication that any projects had been cancelled.

Chances are, given the ubiquity of Steam, there will be numerous third party Steam Boxes designed specifically for the new OS in the years to come, but there are still hurdles to overcome if Valve or manufacturers hope to find success in a dedicated gaming box. Chief among those is the Linux environment.

Unlike Windows, Linux is unable to use Microsoft's DirectX graphics API; a framework developers use when creating games. OpenGL is the most popular alternative to DirectX, and it's plenty powerful in its own right, but it's nowhere near as popular. Some games support both OpenGL and DirectX, but only a fraction of the nearly 3,000 games available through Steam. Take one look at Steam's selection of games for Mac OSX (821 games) and Linux (299 games), and the disadvantage of a Linux box becomes clear: users will have access to only a fraction of the Steam library.

On the other hand, given SteamOS's ability to stream games from a secondary Windows PC to a TV, it's likely that steam-friendly boxes will become a new niche in manufacturers' line-ups alongside desktops, laptops and tablets. In the past, managing director and Valve frontman Gabe Newell has been outspoken about device-to-device streaming technology, calling out the Miracast technology by name as a means to deliver Windows-centric Steam content to low-cost TV-connected devices. Given this, it's likely that Steam Boxes will exist in two flavors once the OS gets rolling: low-cost devices that stream games from discrete gaming PCs running Windows, and dedicated Linux gaming PCs from third-party manufacturers.

Users hoping to construct their own SteamOS PCs have another hurdle to contend with beyond the lack of DirectX: Linux driver support. The Linux community and various manufacturers have come a long way toward improving support for the untold number of PC components on the market, but Windows remains king when it comes to providing users with functional drivers. Granted, popular manufacturers such as Nvidia and AMD are keeping up just fine, but it's not unusual for incomplete drivers to plague fresh Linux adopters with exotic hardware. Sometimes the incomplete support affects components within components, such as individual chips on motherboards that can affect everything from audio output to SATA support for hard drives. It's an imperfect environment, and it's likely that users will have to compromise one way or another, by building machines from an approved list of parts, purchasing a sanctioned Steam Box from a third party, or streaming their existing PC content to a connected SteamOS device.

Plenty of people are indeed excited about the prospect of taking their PC game libraries into the living room, and chief among the benefits of doing so is support for the Steam Workshop, Steam's repository for user-created game mods. PC users have held game mods over console-players' heads for as long as the two markets have vied for dominance in the gaming space, and the Steam Box may tip the scales for consumers who are skeptical of the two upcoming next-gen consoles' ability to outpace the growth of PC gaming. Mods provide a means to customize games in exciting and new ways, and in doing so, they enable the community to drastically extend the life of a product by delivering everything from custom characters to complete single-player campaigns, all free of charge.

Of course, Valve wouldn't be able to compete with consoles unless it found a way to integrate multiplayer at a system level as well as Microsoft and Sony have, but in today's SteamOS announcement, it also mentioned the inclusion of Game Hubs, which will let players easily join game groups, form clans, and chat in-game. With that final stroke, there isn't much ground that Valve won't have covered when SteamOS goes live in the near future.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of a Steam Box is the proposition of family sharing, a feature that will let people play games owned by other family members and, potentially, a select number of friends. Only one person at a time can use games from a distinct account, but support for account-specific game saves, in the cloud no less, makes family sharing something more than an official means to grant account permissions to numerous devices. Microsoft had a similar plan for the Xbox One, although it was retracted once the company altered its stance on DRM for its future console.

Where exactly Valve is headed is still anyone's guess, though it's likely the two remaining announcements this week, coming this Wednesday and Friday, will shed light on the future of its latest venture. It's certainly an exciting time for players, and perhaps scary for console manufacturers with hard street dates for static hardware looming overhead. If anything, Valve continues to ignite fires in the PC market, and if it has its way, the pillars of console gaming will have no choice but to react in someway to a successful Steam Box should one, or many, bring PC gaming to the living room in the near future.

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Peter Brown

Peter is an Editor at GameSpot who's passionate about gaming hardware and game preservation.
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420 comments
MarxMods
MarxMods

Well i think i'll start making my own PCs and selling to my friends with Steam OS. The only thing that kept me from it was Windows, and now there is no Windows OS.

But one thing remains to be seeing. Will developers support it? I mean, not only new games, but also older games will be able to run on Steam OS? I don't think people will just give up their old games. 

cousinmerl
cousinmerl

WHY DOES EVERYTHING LOOK LIKE A WINDOWS 8 MODERN UI SYSTEM THESE DAYS!!!!

robertcain
robertcain

1st Announcement: Steam OS, 2nd Announcement: Steam Box? 3rd Announcement: Half Life 3? (PLEASE!!!!)

Delston
Delston

Valve... Make it so.

g4bryael
g4bryael

I like the idea of streaming my games from my gaming rig to my living room, especially since I already have a SFF HTPC attached to the back of the TV for XBMC. Now if Steam also plans on integrating XBMC somehow, that would be a significant feather in their cap in my mind.

robertcain
robertcain

@g4bryael There's one thing I've thought about when Big Picture mode came out, can a HD TV make up for a lack of solid graphics cards. Say if my processing speed and RAM were all good would a high end game still work if I plugged into a TV?

TheJamin
TheJamin

Win - Its like an NVidia shield for the living room.

If it works well with low latency and no reduction in quality i'll be picking one up.

ClusterBlaster
ClusterBlaster

Gamers, please stick to your PC/360/PS3 etc at the moment. With the next gen on the horizon, it's good that one more contender is entering the market. Competition is good or the consumers.

However, I think a Stembox would be similar to a toned down game PC. Like a netbook is to a laptop. 

adrianjarca
adrianjarca

The near future:


GabeN releases SteamOS, announces Half Life 3 being developed for SteamOS. Half Life 3 released, SteamOS always on requirement to run the game. 

Tom McShae reviews Half Life 3 and gives it a 9 because he doesn't like mandatory SteamOS requirement. Ultimate nerd-rage ensues in the comments section. 

GS moderators desperately try to stem the tide and close the comment section permanently. Angry posters flood the internet with profanity. Internet implodes as a result. Chain reaction causes the global economy completely collapse. End of civilization as we know it, only North Korea in unaffected.

Skirner
Skirner

Isn't the PS3 and PS4 OpenGL? If so, all games that's on those should be pretty easy to port over to "Linux" SteamOS.

Killeak
Killeak

@Skirner Nop, PS3 has LibGCM and PS4 has LibGM. Both are Sony internal graphic API that matches each consoles capabilities, so developers can work close to the metal...

There is no need of an abstract API in a console. That is a need on open platforms like PC, tablets, cellphones where you need a way to abstract the hardware so you can target different devices with different capabilities or architectures.

Btw, the XBox DirectX is not the same of Windows DirectX. The API may looks similar but is more low level and matches the XBox capabilities...


highlanderjimd
highlanderjimd

its bullshit and pointless unless they can do one of a few things

1/ announce every new game will be compatible NATIVELY.

2/ it can be installed on desktops and support all of the hardware from about 2006 onwards

3/ they have somehow managed to emulated direct x or got WINE working 100% with most older titles.

As it stands its nothing more than a fucking onlive or gaikai box. 

Bexorcist
Bexorcist

I hear it's politically muddled and misogynistic though. No female characters anywhere in the game for example.

DTH17
DTH17

@Bexorcist I get the feeling we're not talking about SteamOS anymore...

harndoogle
harndoogle

This is interesting. AMD is having their huge unveiling. Valve is unveiling their second prong attack tomorrow. I can't help think that they are tied together and valve will be at the AMD unveil to reveal the steam box running on AMD tech. Not to mention, over at Cloud imperium, Chris Roberts of Star citizen will be appearing at the AMD unveil as well. This is going to be big guys. Everything is coming together.

Psycold
Psycold

@harndoogle I was saying this to my friend yesterday when he mentioned the AMD thing, maybe the processors will be used in the Steambox. 

Trickymaster
Trickymaster

Does it run Star Citizen? No? Well then it's a no-brainer for me.

bkohary
bkohary

For some reason I saw the heading on the front page in capitals and thought: "What has John Stamos got to do with video games?"


Daemoroth
Daemoroth

One thing I would like is the streaming capability. I play all manner of games, some would be better on a TV, some are still better on a monitor (RTS games for the most part). With streaming giving me the choice, pick a game, pick a chair and have fun.

Other than that I really don't see a point. Fragmentation will be a pain, different hardware AND software will make it nearly impossible for devs to get a stable release going, not to mention they lose access to DirecX... A lot of hurdles for Valve to get over, and I don't see it happening.

hitomo
hitomo

next step in dumping pc gaming down into oblivion ... thx

saucex4
saucex4

@hitomo How is this dumbing down PC gaming? You think you're smart by having an operating system from Microsoft? An operating system that is moving further and further away from PC gaming. M$ wants you to buy an XBone. SteamOS will be an operating system purpose built for gaming. You can boot it up just like windows on your PC. This will bring moddable gaming into the mainstream. Also this will be an open platform so innovation will be much faster than a closed system like Xbox, and Windows.

Daemoroth
Daemoroth

@saucex4 @hitomo lol... I love these statements. Sorry, could you provide a single example of Windows being a closed system? Or how Windows is moving away from PC gaming?

Last time I checked, W8 is better resource-wise (Means more for my games). Sure, the start menu if F***ING annoying and I avoid it wherever I go, but the OS itself?

saucex4
saucex4

@Daemoroth @saucex4 @hitomo derp...Windows is what we call "Proprietary Commercial Software" the definition of a closed system.

Xbox is Microsoft's answer to PC Gaming. A closed system, that is notorious for how it handles things like patching. Show me the last time Microsoft has engaged gamers regarding PC Gaming. Microsoft presentations are always about Xbox. Don't get me wrong. Windows is an all purpose operating system. It's competent at a lot of things. But it's not the ideal platform for gaming. Things like input latency are never really addressed to the degree that have to be for gaming in an operating system like Windows, which is why companies like Valve, and people like John Carmack are working so hard in that area with various devices.

I have not seen one morsel of gaming innovation for PC from Microsoft for a LONG time. Windows hasn't been promoted for gaming since DX9 came out.

The only reason I have a Windows partition left on this computer is for games. Everything else is on my ubuntu partition, which has made great progress over the last 5 years. Now with SteamOS, slowly but surely my games will find a new home, and the Windows partition will be history.

marceldelta
marceldelta

@hitomo Are you totally nuts? Crazy? Fruit case?? When PC gaming was not king?? Just the best graphics, best gameplay, best games (Total War, Civilization), the largest library of games, generation immunity, option of choosing controller or keyboard/mouse, cheaper games not to mention (and destroy consoles) modding community.


As a console owner, I've always known that the true platform of gaming is PC, the platform where gaming was born, where games are made and where gaming will always exist. Don't join the troll/ignorant (no offenses to you, buddy, respect) bandwagon by saying "this could bring PC gaming back to the top", it's always been king.


Everything else you said I agree. Respect.

Daemoroth
Daemoroth

@saucex4  @hitomo derp... What you're talking about is Windows being DESIGNED for gaming. And no, it's not, but that's not the argument I made. Neither is whether it's ideal nor promoted for gaming.

Whether it's designed for gamers, or drives gaming innovation or not does not make it a CLOSED system, because it's not.

Anyone can release anything on Windows, there is no "publisher gateway/approval" that needs to be passed before it can be released (See iOS for an actual closed system). I don't know if you're aware of this whole indie scene that's happening?

Oh, and Steam is also proprietary software, just FYI...

hystavito
hystavito

@hitomo This could actually bring PC gaming back to the top.  You never know, 10yrs from now PC could be king again.  The PC crowd running traditional PCs, the console crowd running pre-built SteamBox "consoles", but all playing the same games and together online.  Honestly that sounds pretty cool to me, no more closed markets for buying games, no more closed hardware platforms.

Did closed consoles do anything good for gaming?  Sure, some stuff, but for me they did more bad than good overall, so I would love to see a more open universal platform for us to all game on together.

Daemoroth
Daemoroth

@aborgraffiti Got nothing to do with whether it's a CLOSED system or not, derrr. Read my post again.

Zevvion
Zevvion

@marceldelta @hitomo You left out unreliability. It's why I still prefer consoles to PC gaming today. I had a high end PC that is now somewhat mid-high tier, which occasionally still can't play a game because it's not optimized. Almost half the time I have to search forums on how to make it work because it crashes on launch. The solution is often simple, but still. It's annoying.

Besides 'best gameplay' and 'best games' is completely subjective. If anything, you can't have the best games if you limit yourself to one platform. 

My PC complements my consoles. Not the other way around. 

Kunakai
Kunakai

@Zevvion @marceldelta @hitomo I've had my xbox sent off 5 times for RROD. Consoles aren't reliable, they're just easy to use when they work. 

My PC would be the only system I'd use if it weren't for console exclusives. 

saucex4
saucex4

@Daemoroth @saucex4 @hitomo  Of course I can provide you an example. All versions of windows since inception are what we call Proprietary Commericial Software. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Windows . The definition of a closed system. Linux on the other hand is a free and open source software.

How is Windows moving away from PC gaming? Well let me ask you this. What was the last innovation from Microsoft you've seen in PC gaming? DX11? Another piece of magic proprietary pixie dust? GfWL obviously went down the toilet as it's shutting down next year. Did you see Microsoft present anything at at PAX, Gamescom, E3, TGS regarding PC gaming? Of course not, it's all about their purpose built XBONE. Windows is a general purpose operating system. It is competent at a lot of things, but not good at everything. Microsoft have chosen to go the closed system route (XBox), which is indeed a logical choice. But it's a short sighted, and lazy choice.

Valve more than 10 years ago set a new standard for digital distribution. They essentially pioneered it for the PC when no one else was willing to take a chance. And look at all the digital distros that followed. Now they are doing it again. Valve is not only thinking about themselves, but also the consumer, hardware and software developers and bridging them together. And don't forget modders too. Steam is the only platform where modders actually make money off of their work.

I would much rather have an open gaming ecosystem that Valve is looking to create rather than Microsoft's closed and short sighted system.

The only reason I have a Windows partition right now is for games, I primarily use Ubuntu in the office.


Vozlov
Vozlov

Damn it Valve! Do I buy and build my new rig? Do I wait for a potential steambox?

WHY U MAKE ME WAIT! TAKE MY MONEY ALREADY!

oflow
oflow

@Vozlov just build your rig the steambox will basically be the same thing.

Kunakai
Kunakai

@Vozlov Build a rig. As stated above SteamOS will be limited as to what it can play due to its lack of DirectX support. 

You can always install SteamOS after the fact and have a custom Steambox (if your hardware is compatible).

Alexrmf
Alexrmf

let's call this one the Android of the console world... Sony and M$ are probably very worried right now

dogbert784
dogbert784

@Alexrmf There are quite a lot of people who have both a gaming console and a gaming PC or at least a PC that can play the games they like. I think the platform makers, universally, are going to do just fine. 

BLaverock
BLaverock

I hook up my PC to my flat screen, then -- depending on the game -- use a cordless controller or mouse/keyboard and game on! You can do so much more with PC, and STEAM SALES are unbeatable. <3 Steam Forever bizzos!

aka_gruntkiller
aka_gruntkiller

"Bring your computer to your living room!"

Why is this still such a strange concept for people. I been doing this for years and its been capable since as long as I can remember. Various flavors of Linux and Windows. Got a small wireless keyboard with a track ball to navigate to games, movies, youtube, Netflix, hulu, etc. Haven't had cable since my first apartment 5 apartments ago. Hardest thing in the entire process if finding a TV with the correct outputs and resolution I want, but isn't that what everyone looks for in a TV? Much rather use Linux or Windows 8 on my TV than UI's on some of those cable boxes.

I wish Valve success with this but this is far from a new concept.

jski
jski

@ShadowriverUB @aka_gruntkiller What part of the concept is different for the people that already play games through Steam on their PC's, hooked up to tv's? Also, it is not centered on games. The website clearly talks about music, movies, tv, etc..I hope Valve proves me wrong, but this is one of the most pointless, muddled, and confused product concepts I have seen in a while.

TheJamin
TheJamin

@aka_gruntkiller Agreed. It's just that my pc is sitting in a full tower case.

The ability to stream from a pc via miracast sounds like a nice fix.