Steam’s ‘Big Picture’ Mode May Reshape What PC Gaming Really Means

Steam’s ‘Big Picture’ Mode May Reshape What PC Gaming Really Means

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.


  • No matter how many PC’s I get, or how many phones I get, my steam library will be the same. And that is awesome.

  • big picture mode will be nice but you can already make the text larger for TV’s by editing the steam.styles file in C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\resource\styles and changing all the font-size= entries though it does reset when steam updates

    • It’s not just about making the text larger.

      It’s about the entire UI, and the entire way information is displayed and how the user responds to it.

      The current Steam interface (and Windows in general) is not remotely useful for people sitting on a couch.

      There are three main problems here: (1) the controls, and (2) the system, (3) the games.

      (1) You cannot have a keyboard and a mouse on a couch. Well, you can, but that’s awful. Only die-hard PC master race zealots would even suggest it’s viable. And they’re wrong.

      (2) Secondly, the system. It’s designed primarily for desktop applications, for use on monitors. There are fundamental problems using Windows on the couch. These are not surmountable by editing configuration files. You need a significant application/platform approach to the problem.

      (3) Games need to support couch-viewing. This is a technical problem and a design problem. It can take a LOT of effort to support both a keyboard/mouse and a controller properly.

      I can see Valve releasing a SteamOS, based on a linux distro. Maybe not manufacturing the hardware, but licensing out the OS. This solves the platform problem; Valve would own it, and could dictate all the terms (which is really what Valve wants to do). To be warm and cuddly to geeks, it would talk a lot about Open Source, but really, it would be Valve’s OS and Valve’s store.

      That leaves the games. And this is trickier. Most (bigger) games are developed for the PC, with Windows specific technologies. Those technologies will not exist on a SteamOS, and will have to be replaced. Games will have to be rewritten and redesigned. This is non-trivial. It is, however, very good news for the OpenGL camp.

      • Nah you can use a keyboard and mouse on the couch and you’re not wrong if you say so.

        I cut out a piece of plywood, 90cm wide, by 40cm long. I painted it and glossed it and stuck a mousepad to it. Its a lapboard. My wireless KB and Mouse sit on it with ease and I sit on the couch all the time using it. I’m not ‘wrong’. Im innovative. I made a lapboard. Its stable as hell, comfortable as hell and took me 30 minutes to make with minimal effort. Its fantastic.

  • I can’t wait for this, I do my PC gaming on my TV and had to switch to a lower resolution in windows so I could read anything (still have 1920×1080 in games though)

  • Valve would be crazy if they didn’t see the potential of a Steambox console thing. I’d pay crazy money for something like that.

    • It wouldn’t be “just a PC” because the PC doesn’t cut it for couch viewing.

      Would it run on a PC? Yes, probably. But that’s not the same thing as just plonking any old Windows box in your lounge and having fun playing games from the couch.

  • This is already how I play most of my steam/PC games, and I have no problem reading anything from my couch, maybe you guys are sitting too far back from your TVs.

    • I agree, though I must admit I have had to adjust the text size in quite a few things to larger then default. I imaging this will mainly be useful for people wanting to use a controller to navigate through their games library.

  • so i can have an adapter in my pc and another in my tv to play my steam games on the TV? my Pc is not near my TV so a wireless adapter would be great

      • In theory it would be brilliant. If you could wirelessly connect everything to everything removing the need for cables???? O_O

        • I think I confused myself here =P

          What i’m thinking of is this totally not applicable, it’s for streaming video over your LAN and plugs in via HDMI and it runs Android lol.

    • It sounds to me that your best bet would be a HDMI extension cable and setting your PC to dual screen s with clone mode on. That basically would mean you can see what’s going on from your office or your lounge without having to toggle things around.

      The main problem would be controls which may require investing in a good quality wireless keyboard and mouse though depending on about a dozen different variables wireless might be out of the question as well. You would also need to make sure your video card is powerful enough to handle both monitors without a noticeable drop in performance.

      There might be other options I don’t know of but personally I think getting a second computer and networking them would be the best result. It really comes down to what exactly you want out of your set up and how much you are willing to spend on it.

  • PCs seriously need to change, because in their current state they’re giant tanks of huge parts and loud fans. If somehow they could shrink down the size of all hardware to the point where the most powerful PC could be the size of an Xbox 360 slim would be perfect. I think it’s time for consoles to die, and PCs to go through a state of metamorphosis where they can replace consoles while still pushing the frontier of PC gaming.

    • You can make one that size if you want. No probs. You can fit one inside a NES case if you want.

      Or you can buy a massive tower that you upgrade forever with 20TB of storage and a 3GB video card… that’s the cool thing about PCs. You can just do whatever! 🙂

      PS. Join Us!!!

    • that is already a possibility. i’ve just built myself a high powered silent shoe box sized pc with an ssd harddrive, silent after market cpu fan and a surprisingly quiet asus directcu gtx670 in a silverstone sg07 case. unfortunately that sort of setup isn’t being sold on the mainstream market, because i think a lot of people would find a lower profile pc more acceptable in their living room.

  • About damn time, I’m playing more game on my new TV these days but some games still demand to be played in eyefinity. I hope we can either setup each rig to run in a format, would hate I use something like this on m main rig or have to switch it every time I change systems.

    • One way to deal with that is to not make PC ports at all.

      Make “console” games instead, except the “console” runs PC-level games, but with a decent controller, and a decent UI.

      There is nothing sacred (or good) about using a keyboard and mouse for most modern games. The only reason a keyboard and mouse were used is because that’s all we had. For most modern games, a controller is the better choice. Particularly if they have motion control and vibration and touch features. Most people who argue otherwise haven’t done much gaming with a good controller.

      Even some traditionally controlled games have shown that it’s possible to have a better experience with a controller. See Torchlight: the game is at least as fun to play with a 360 controller.

      (RTS games are still a problem though, as well as a few other genres.)

  • this has been mentioned for months… wish they’d hurry up already…

    i get around the small text issue by bumping up the overall DPI of windows… and viewing the game list i use the large’ish icon view which has a nicer slider to adjust it how you want… yes a dedicated “tv mode” would be nice but there are functional ways to get this working nicely right now…

    running my htpc on a 65″ btw… sitting probably 2m or so away

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!