This afternoon PC game service provider and developer Valve announced that Steam — their game platform for PC, Mac and Linux computers — surpassed 65 million accounts. What might be more impressive than a user base equivalent to the population of France is that Steam is still relatively unknown. Despite being significantly larger than Xbox Live and its 48 million subscribers (approximately Ukraine), Steam has never quite enjoyed the same limelight as other major consoles. Quietly though, Steam has become the go-to for PC gaming. 65 million users later, Steam is making a concerted push into the living room — and you can bet Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are watching with apprehension.
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Originally launched in September, 2003 for Windows computers in an effort to manage and update the brand’s own games like Counterstrike, Steam has evolved beyond the games it serviced. Today it’s blossomed into a hub of computer gaming that includes a marketplace, software sharing services and, most importantly, a flourishing realm of community both within and without games. The last 12 months alone saw Steam gaining 15 million active accounts, and their opportunities next 12 months are looking even more impressive.
The announcement of their subscriber dominance doesn’t come out of the blue, either. Valve began a whirlwind of announcements this September that made clear its aim to bring Steam into the living room and earn the mainstream awareness they service has long deserved.
The first volley began with the announcement of Steam OS, a Linux-based operating system that will run games natively as well as stream games from your Mac or PC directly to your TV. The second announcement — a natural progression from the OS yet the most exciting because its tangible — is the Steam Machine, or rather, the Steam Machines. The dedicated box will run Valve’s Linux-based custom OS, but unlike other consoles, Valve will be only one of many companies manufacturing the box; the platform will give a variety of builders the chance to create consoles unique specifications, prices and performance levels, all united by the Steam OS. The possibilities are seemingly endless.
The third and final announcement was for the final piece in the “living room” puzzle: the Steam Controller. The (perhaps) least creatively named of the three components more than makes up for its cleverness in design. What at first glance looks like any other game controller actually uses two clickable trackpads and a center touchscreen (in lieu of thumbsticks and excessive buttons) to empower gamers with the levels of input sensitivity and customization that serious gaming demands. That being said, many PC gamers will take a bullet for their right to use a keyboard and mouse, and Steam knows better than to change things too much; they’ll offer the ability to also use a keyboard and mouse. D-pads? This ain’t amateur hour, folks.
The real pièce de résistance though is the Steam Machine, which brings PC gaming squarely into powerhouse console turf. The idea of multiple hardware options sharing a single software architecture is taken straight from the world of PC gaming and ensures hardware doesn’t limit game performance. While it’s a novel approach, there is argument that mainstream consoles have succeeded because gamers (casual and enthusiasts) no longer have to worry about system requirements and frame rates but can instead pick up and go. In reality, the market seems to be further bifurcating between hardcore gamers and an aging generation of casual gamers who also want living room media convenience. Time will tell, but we’re looking forward to learning more about the boxes themselves. The Steam Machines’ ability to walk the tightrope between accessibility and capability will have a large impact on its success.
Steam is striking while the iron is hot: Microsoft and Sony’s next-gen console releases are focused squarely on the future of console gaming, when not on their own personal cold war. Steam’s solution ventures down a less-traveled path (or Portal) — one that’s wildly undiscovered but potentially wildly rewarding. Perhaps the console’s half-life is nigh.
ADVENTURE IS ONE CLICK AWAY
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