Yesterday, Valve announced that their Big Picture service will be entering a beta phase soon. The Big Picture is a version of Steam optimised for television screens and controllers. Plug your PC into your 50" TV, and you can kick back on the sofa with a version of Steam that's designed to be readable from across the room, rather than squinting at the standard version.
Nothing has been stopping PC gamers from plugging their systems into a TV before now, of course. I've sat on the sofa with my mouse and keyboard before, when I wanted to share the game with others. But it's true that the world of text, small mouse pointers, and unobtrusive icons doesn't necessarily translate well to a larger format. There's a reason that Xbox Live and PlayStation Network both use larger, more spaced out icons and layouts and it's as much for function as it is for aesthetics.
The Big Picture mode sounds like a great way for PC gamers to have even more choice over their gameplay experiences. But there's more to it than that. The easier Valve makes it for you to kick back on your sofa with a gamepad in hand and keep using their product, the more of a competitor they become in the console space.
Rumors of Valve's imminent entry into the hardware market have been swirling around all year. Valve explicitly shot down the "Steam Box" rumors in March, saying that Valve had no plans to release hardware "anytime soon. Of course, "soon" can mean a lot of things to a lot of people — and is far different from "never." Valve keeps hiring hardware engineers and working on prototype projects like wearable computing. Not all of Valve's experimental projects reach fruition, but the fact that they invest time and money in them says they are at least open to exploring what value may come from hardware.
Meanwhile, Steam has rapidly been branching out far beyond their original scope as a digital storefront, game launcher, and DRM service. Not only has the platform expanded to include Mac and, soon, Linux support, but also will be branching out beyond games into other software in just a few weeks, at the beginning of September.
With the platform expansion, the change to add non-gaming software, and the version specifically formatted for TV use, Steam now seems determined to take on, well, pretty much everyone.
One of the most common complaints against PC gaming is that players find the larger screen, sofa, and controller that are part of the Xbox or PlayStation experience to be more comfortable and easier to use for long sessions than they find a computer monitor and keyboard to be. Valve, now, has an answer for that. Apple's App Store has proven to be a wildly successful and popular way to distribute software. Valve has an answer for that. And gamers who might like to have their gaming driven by computer hardware of their choice, but don't want to use Windows? Valve's got an answer for that, too.
The way Steam keeps changing and expanding, Valve seems to want not only to keep PC gaming vibrant, but also to change what the entire term means.
It might just be the perfect moment to take that leap. Gabe Newell has said he feels Windows 8 is likely to be a catastrophe, and other developers have expressed similar misgivings. And with the rise of tablets — not just the iPad, but also Android devices and, soon, Microsoft's own Surface — the idea of the traditional, bulky PC gets less and less popular outside of a particular kind of hobbyist. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are themselves just specialised, pre-configured computers that already duplicate many of the functions of a PC.
Until now, high-powered, big-budget gaming has felt pretty well split into the "console" and "computer" branches. But as technology evolves, the dividing line between the two shifts along with.
Should we be expecting some kind of Ouya-like SteamOS box to plug into our screens in the future? Maybe, and maybe not. Either way, the way we engage with PC gaming is changing — and Valve is doing everything they can to make sure Steam stays right at the centre of it.