Why Valve’s Steam Tech may finally succeed in bringing PC gamers to the couch

Last Updated August 7th, 2021

Valve has proven that it is an innovative company, looking at all aspects of gaming and searching for a place to fill a niche market. The real question is: What niche are they looking to fill next?

It’s obvious they’re interested in taking a bit of the console pie with their recent focus on controller support and their own home console system. But what I see, and what I am desperately hoping for, is the development of a true gaming household. Not just a single room where you set up your PC and play, but a home where you can seamlessly transition from PC gaming by yourself upstairs, to playing with a bunch of buddies downstairs. Where you can decide where you want to play based on comfort and convenience, not where you park your system.

Let’s go over some of the tech that will make this dream possible, tech that Steam is already developing.

Steam Link

steam link

The Steam Link is a rather simple idea that a lot of people are quick to overlook. The Steam Link is a tiny box that connects to your TV and WiFi. From there you can access your entire steam library from your PC so long as it’s on the same network as the Link.

In-home streaming isn’t exactly a new concept for Steam. Last year they released the ability to stream games from one PC to another on relevant accounts. The biggest advantage to this kind of system is that you can play a game on any computer without having to worry about the concurrent system’s hardware performance. Everything is processed on the host machine, then sent directly to whatever system you’re playing on. There is a slight lag as your network transfers data from your mouse and keyboard input back and forth across your wireless network, but it’s usually small enough to not be noticeable in anything but competitive online games.

If you have an extra laptop laying around you can already do this to some extent with the help of an HDMI cable, but the Steam Link has the advantage of being a cheap alternative ata very reasonable $50 that you can set up easily in any room. It’s small and compact so you don’t have to worry about balancing a laptop or even storing a comparatively larger console.

Ideally the Steam Link will also allow app support so it can function as an entertainment system as well. The ability to stream Youtube, Netflix, or any other media services would be phenomenal. Even if it simply gives us access to the media files across multiple PCs that would be wonderful. It doesn’t seem like it would be a stretch to simply allow the Link to connect as a remote desktop in the same way it streams games. Valve has an opportunity to create a full-scale entertainment system here just by linking up a network of PCs which are already available. All at a tenth of the price of a console, smartTV, or any other entertainment system out there and with none of the bulk or complexity.

Sadly we’ll have to wait until November before we see Steam Link hit the shelves. I just hope Valve sees the utterly glorious possibilities available with this tiny box of sunshine.

Steam Controller

steam controller

Let’s talk about the storied Steam Controller. As with many PC gamers, I haven’t been a big controller guy for a while. I love the natural feel of a mouse and keyboard under my hand. It just feels like something that was meant to happen. So when Valve announced the Steam Controller originally I was only mildly excited. But recently I’ve been noticing that some games are just kind of built to run with a controller, and although I would love to see developers simply pay more attention to the PC audience so we don’t have to deal with the hazard of some key and button combos that can be remapped and some that can’t (*Cough*Dying Light dodge mechanic *Cough*) I also really like the idea of a controller built by PC gamers for PC gamers — which is exactly what Valve is aiming for.

On first sight I was worried about the shape of the overall controller. As a guy with rather comically over-sized hands I looked at the seemingly tiny handles and I feared that I simply wouldn’t be able to get a steady grip. That is until I realized that the controller actually has two extra buttons on the underside of the housing.  That  made me think about how I would be holding the controller and how that compares to when I grip my mouse.

steam controller underside

Personally I like to hold my mouse nice and loosely. It rests lightly between the pads of my palm while my fingers support minute movement. Broader movements are done with my wrist, and sweeping movements are done with my elbow. Either way if I want precise movement none of these muscles can ever be fully tensed, like they are when I use a PS4 controller for example. On a traditional controller you need a good solid grip to be able to properly manipulate the analog sticks. But on a Steam controller you only have one joystick. Replacing the traditional setup you have two trackpads meant to facilitate the precise muscle memory movement essential to PC gamers.

So what does this have to do with how you hold the controller? The Steam Controller is meant to be held like a mouse. It’s meant to have each handle sit lightly between the pads of your palm. With your ring finger lightly holding up the controller and the ring finger to brace lightly on the under-housing bumpers. As a result your hand is naturally going to feel relaxed as you hold it, which means that when you go to manipulate the trackpad-style controls your thumb will be loose and ready for precise, fast movement. Additionally your middle and pointer finger should naturally line up with the controller’s front mounted buttons just like they would on a mouse’s left and right click.

The whole controller is meant to feel like a natural extension of a control scheme PC gamers love. Frankly, I’m excited to see just how natural a fit the controller actually is. We don’t see many forays into the experimental with controllers outside of Nintendo these days but so far I’m optimistic about what changes Valve has embraced. The simple trackpad idea is new — and can be scary as a result for those who dislike change — but it’s a solid step away from the tradition of controllers to focus on accelerated analog sticks.

perfect aim callout

The Steam Controller also features analogue triggers that detect multiple levels of pressure. An analogue trigger can be squeezed as one form of feed back, and clicked at the end of the squeeze for a second response. Valve has toted the concept of possibly mapping this to aiming down sights, but has left the actual application open to developers. I see the concept really shining when considering the breathing and focusing mechanics of sniping. Imagine if, while gazing down a scope, your character would hold his breath while the trigger is squeezed, simulating the bit of focus you get as your finger squeezes the trigger on a rifle in real life. Then a minute application of more pressure would hit the click, firing the rifle. It’s an element of realism entirely unheard of in the current controller market.

On top of it all the Steam Controller is said to come with its own program for adjusting sensitivity and key mapping similar to the way high end gaming mice and keyboards do today. This would mean that if you don’t like the way the controller is configured in a certain game you can find a way around it one way or another.  If you’re just interested in finding a whole new control scheme the program is said to save a variety of popular setups developed by the community, so you’ll be able to play with the same setup as your favorite YouTuber or streamer with almost no difficulty.

The Steam Controller is also set for a November release and is currently competitively priced at $50 , which is a steal for the number of features packed into such a small package.

Steam Machine

asus steam machine The vision of the Steam Machine from Asus.

 

The Steam Machine is Valve’s foray into both the console market and the high-end gaming PC market. The ultimate goal is to give Steam users the option to buy a wide variety of consoles all with varying hardware specs so they can buy the best console to fit their needs. The possibility of a console built for PC gamers stirred up some curiosity, but after an announcement back in 2013 and a few demo/beta builds Valve’s front running console seemed to simply drop off the map. Now it’s back and Valve has revealed a boatload of new information on the subject.

Valve has 15 different manufacturers ready for a November launch, each with their own level of customization and distinct price range, with the cheapest starting at around $500 and the most expensive coming from Origin and FalconNorthwest at a staggering $4999.99. The concept is you get what you pay for, and if you invest a lot of cash you’ll get a lot of performance. If some of the prices seem high compared to performance ratings for that hardware, don’t panic; Valve claims that because of the lightweight nature of their Linux-based SteamOS that they’ve seen a marked increase in performance compared to Windows, so keep in mind you may also be paying for the SteamOS.

You could probably build something better for cheaper, but Steam Machines aren’t really marketed directly at the custom-build fanatics. They’re really meant as a way to give a standard controllable test group for people interested in PC gaming who don’t want to mess around with their own builds or complicated prebuilt websites. Right now we don’t have any solid benchmarks available but not long after Steam Machines hit the shelves I’m sure we’ll see a huge number of performance reviews — and if Valve is smart they’ll post those directly on the Store Page.

It’s all about accessibility. The easier Valve makes it for gamers to get into the PC gaming world the more they’ll be able to grow.

Alienware_Steam_Machine_Concern

The best way to make Steam Machines marketable to traditional PC gamers is to invest in creating a system of interchangeable parts. If we buy a Steam machine we want to know that we can physically control what’s inside. We want to be able to upgrade its graphics card or cards, its CPU, and its hard drive all with relative ease. If Valve wants to sell their machines to the entire PC audience as well as attract new customers from the console market, that’s what we’re going to need to see. Unfortunately Valve hasn’t posted any concrete news about what kind of control we’ll have under the hood, but with any luck it’ll be forthcoming.

Steam Machines are looking like an interesting competitor in the console market. Even if they never reach the level of a lot of the larger brand consoles out there it’s part of a continued effort by Valve to push new ideas and new technology to help pull PC gamers away from the desk and back to the couch.

So What Is Valve Planning?

Valve

Valve seems to be making an aggressive push into a very deep and scary ocean. They’re putting themselves up right next to giants like Microsoft and Sony in an attempt to steal some of their business. Only time will tell whether they’re successful, but nobody expected Steam to hit it off in the first place. Maybe we’ll see something that’ll surprise everyone.

They certainly have the right idea. They aren’t simply taking the mold and fitting themselves comfortably inside. They’re working on innovation, and new ideas besides simply upgrading hardware and slightly changing form factor. They’re looking to put control of the gaming experience in the hands of the Gamer, and that’s not something we often see these days with Sony and Microsoft too scared to step out of line for fear of losing some of the market share.

What happens with Valve is ultimately our choice. We can choose to stuff ourselves in our rooms, build our PCs, and never actually play games together as a community. Or we can step out. We can invest in our homes, invest in our children, and invest in future gamers. Build ourselves a way to make gaming fun and easy again. Not a battle of wires and connectivity, but a way a home and a family can come together.

I’m a hardcore PC gamer. I didn’t ever think I would want to use something other than my rig. But Steam is showing us that we can still use our hardware, and our choices, to influence how we play. That’s what Valve wants. They want to see us go back to the gaming of our bygone years, when we could have a simple plug-and-play experience. When long weekends could be spent playing Left for Dead or Star Wars: Battlefront over and over until the wee hours of Monday morning tore you kicking and screaming back to the world of responsibility and regular work hours.

Valve has always developed games that focus on building a community and accentuating the fun of social gaming. Their line of consoles and hardware will hopefully be no different.