Valve Brings Steam To TVs

Valve will today launch the beta of Big Picture mode, a version of Steam designed for your television. The de facto central hub of PC gaming is now designed to run while you're lounging in your living room -- and with a controller, no less. I've tried out Big Picture. It's sleek, intuitive and groundbreaking in several ways.

No, this new "Steam TV" isn't going to make our video game consoles go away. It's not going to turn your Xbox into a doorstop or obviate your PS3. But Big Picture could be a crucial first step towards making PC gaming more accessible, more convenient and more suited for living rooms than ever before.

Here are the basics: this afternoon, when Big Picture goes live, you'll be able to push a button and turn Steam into an entirely new interface. It sort of looks like the dashboard on an Xbox 360, minus the advertisements and other clutter that can make that system so irritating to navigate. And it allows you to do almost everything you can do on vanilla Steam: you can buy games, browse the web, and even chat with your friends using the platform's standard in-game overlay.

The fonts, icons and menus are all large enough to be comfortably viewed on a big-screen television, and the prompts are designed for a game controller. You can use Big Picture on your normal monitor with a mouse and keyboard, but that would defeat the purpose: this is an interface designed for your living room. Because the living room, Valve says, is where most people prefer playing video games.

And maybe, just maybe, if fans seem to want it, and if it makes financial sense, the people who make Half-Life will use Big Picture to create their own version of a video game console.

Steam Box 720

Valve isn't happy with today's gaming consoles. It made that quite clear as I sat in one of the back rooms of Valve's Seattle office in late August, looking at Big Picture mode in action.

See, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are walled gardens. You can't open them up or modify their insides. Developers can't release new updates or patches to their games without going through a restrictive, bureaucractic certification process. Nothing about these systems is open at all and Valve doesn't like that.

Our mockup of what Steam's Big Picture could look like on your television.

Still, consoles have some advantages over computers: they're cheaper and more accessible. You can play them on your sofa with feet propped up and a comfy controller in your hands. It's not so easy to do that with a computer. At least not yet.

"We're confident in some things that customers want," Valve's Greg Coomer, head of the small team that designed and developed Big Picture mode, told me in his office. "They want a full-screen experience. They want to be in the living room. They want to use a game controller. They wanna have a social gaming experience. And we have this platform that lets us ship a significant portion of that experience."

Valve: "If it's getting involved in shipping some kind of hardware, then we will get involved in doing that if we need to."

While Big Picture won't "connect all the dots," Coomer said, it will make it easier for gamers to play Valve's games -- and the vast array of games that Valve supports on Steam -- in the comfort of their living rooms.

I ask the obvious question: is this the first step towards Valve making a console of their own? Maybe the Steam Box that has been rumoured (and repeatedly shot down) for months now?

"What we really want is to ship [Big Picture mode] and then learn," Coomer said. "So we want to find out what people value about that. How they make use of it. When they make use of it. Whether it's even a good idea for the broadest set of customers or not. And then decide what to do next.

"So it could be that the thing that really makes sense is to build the box that you're describing. But we really don't have a road map. And we think we're going to learn a tremendous amount through this first release."

Seen at Valve HQ: Printed prototypes of Steam's Big Picture mode, including a Kotaku shout-out (complete with fake article text).

No plans. But Steam's Big Picture mode is step #1 of an open-ended gameplan that could eventually lead to the company building -- or stamping its name on -- some sort of gaming console in the future.

What Valve really wants to know is what its users do with this new feature. Will people lug bulky computer towers back and forth between their desks and their living rooms? Will they use their televisions as second monitors? Will they buy dedicated gaming computers to sit next to the TV and run nothing but Steam? (You can toggle a setting that boots up Steam Big Picture as soon as you turn on your PC, effectively turning it into a Steam console.)

Or will fans ignore Big Picture entirely?

"Each individual gamer is going to have to decide in the short term whether the value that Big Picture brings is something they want to configure for themselves," Coomer said. "And for some users it's going to be quite easy. For some users it might not be worth it yet. But that's one of the things we're going to find out when we ship. And then over time, I think we're going to figure out which of those scenarios, or what ways do customers really want us to get involved in solving the rest of the problems that, say, our software can't solve for them.

"And if it's getting involved in shipping some kind of hardware, then we will get involved in doing that if we need to."

Lots of hypothetical possibilities there. Valve could team up with some third-party manufacturer and start selling a Steam-branded bundle, for example, that ships with a controller and an affordable mid-tier computer that runs Big Picture right out of the box. Or maybe Valve could work with an open-source hardware platform like the recently funded Ouya. (In case you're wondering: No, Coomer says Valve hasn't had any conversations with the folks who make Ouya.)

What matters more is that Big Picture works as promised. And from what I've tried out so far, I don't think fans will be disappointed.

A Virtual Keyboard That Doesn't Suck

In some ways, Big Picture is just like an Xbox 360's dashboard. In others, it's not. And the system's biggest feature is one that I imagine will be copied quite a bit over the next few years: a total redesign of the virtual keyboard.

On most consoles, you're stuck with a QWERTY keyboard that you have to painstakingly manipulate by dragging a cursor around the screen and selecting one letter or number at a time. Steam Big Picture's keyboard looks more like a lotus flower (and you can see it in action right below this paragraph). In order to select keys, you move your left thumbstick in one of eight standard directions, then pick one of the buttons on the right side of your controller. When I looked at the mode, we were using a standard Xbox 360 controller, and each of the four coloured buttons represented a different letter. So to press M, N, O or P, for example, you just tilt the joystick diagonally right-down and hit the corresponding button.

Already this gives you instant access to every character in a way that a virtual QWERTY keyboard can't. And the cool thing about this lotus is that it's not awful. In fact, it's actually kind of great. It's intuitive and quick. Seconds after picking up the controller and playing around with the interface, I was writing sentences at a solid, if not perfect pace. It can't quite match a physical keyboard, but it's better than any other virtual typing I've ever tried. A Valve team member proudly noted that when people have tested it out, "they're almost instantly faster than [when using] QWERTY".

TWO SCREENS? Nintendo has the Wii U, Microsoft has Smart Glass, and Sony has Vita-PS3 cross-compatibility. I asked Valve's Greg Coomer if, like all of those other big companies, it feels like the future of gaming could lie in dual-screen play.

"We are really interested in it but it hasn't been any of the focus in our work," he said. "Having a secondary experience, driving the primary experience, augmenting it with stuff that's social but ancillary -- all those things are great, it's just not at the front of our priority list right now."

(When I ask the Valve staff sitting with me how the hell nobody has implemented something like this first, they have no answer. "We're surprised nobody has," one said.)

Navigating the interface is also rather easy. You can use a controller's trigger buttons to zoom around your game library, shop for new games (and take advantage of Steam's frequent discounts and sales) and interact with your Steam friends.

Fittingly, Big Picture's store will also highlight some of the games that are most suitable for your controller. You can even browse the internet, a function included, but not often used in today's gaming consoles. Coomer notes that the staff tried particularly hard to make a web browser that could actually be navigable with a controller, and they seem to have succeeded, although it's still not quite as pleasant as using a mouse.

You can even multitask within Big Picture, switching back and forth between a game and your browser without minimising to the desktop at all.

Future plans for Big Picture mode include auto-correct, context awareness -- "When you're in a web browser, it should know that you might want to put 'dot com' at the end of your address," Coomer said -- and, in the distant future, some way to support cooperative split-screen mode, so multiple people can sit down in the same living room and simultaneously use their individual Steam accounts.

As for hardware? Some sort of game-changing, earth-shattering, open-source Steam Box that combines the power and flexibility of a computer with the affordability and accessibility of a console?

Let's not hold our breath. Valve still hasn't stopped running on Valve Time. But if Big Picture is the first step, it's a significant one. And after seeing Steam's TV mode in action, I'm tempted to go out and get a new desktop PC solely for my living room, just to play cheap, high-quality Steam games, to hook up and use alongside my Wii, Xbox and PlayStation.

Five years from now though? Maybe Steam will be the only console we need.

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Comments

    I'm excited about this, I use my computer on a 96" digital projector screen, mindblowing for games, but it's a pain in the ass trying to read steam's tiny unscalable fonts.

    Kudos to Valve. I can't see how EA's Origin can ever hope to compete with Steam.

    Our computer is already hooked up to our TV. We had to buy a wireless keyboard and mouse just so we didn't have cords tripping us up every time we tried to traverse the living room, but it seems to work ok.
    (though for some games we still break out the nicer, wired, weighted mouse)

    I Couldn't imagine not having the computer linked to the TV anymore, it's so convenient.

    Being it on Valve, continue to take over the world.

      I really can't imagine using a mouse and keyboard to play on a big TV. Do you have some kind of desk set up in front of the couch?

        I have a dining room table in front of my 42" TV & I almost solely play with Keyboard & mouse. I have an Xbox controller for the PC, but it's been sitting gathering dust on the shelf for the last 8months. It only comes out for racing games as im too tight to invest in a steering wheel. Oh and nothing is wireless, all wired.

        With my setup if I'm just doing something quickly with keyboard and mouse before I switch to a controller then I make do with the keyboard on my lap and the mouse on a side table, but if I'm playing a dedicated keyboard+mouse game I have a laptop tray thing I can sit on my lap to use the kb+mouse. It works pretty well for me but probably not as comfy as a desk (but I tend to play games with the controller).

        If you buy the games that have controller support built in, you don't need a Keyboard and Mouse (except to launch Steam, but that's easily fixed)

    Looks awesome, but it's not something that I'm going to use a lot. Don't often hook my pc up to my TV, plus it's only a CRT TV anyway. What I really would like is a Tablet Mode, makes it look kinda like this but good for touch input. Also, a customisable virtual gamepad for games too. And finally, a streaming mode, so you can have the game being run on your desktop but be playing it on your tablet. Then you just hook your tablet up to your tv and use Big Picture mode, making it easier than having to drag your computer out and hook it up (unless it's a laptop you have).
    I really hope Valve has put some serious thought into how steam will work on tablets, seeing as though it's going to be on quite a lot of them thanks to Windows 'Catastrophe'. (Depending how successful Win 8 on tablets is, of course)

      That sounds like a lot more work than getting steam to work on a tv. I don't know if there will be that much demand for it....

        Hook tablet up to TV, select game in Steam, steam starts streaming it automatically. It'll work for people that don't have their gaming rigs set up in the same room as the TV and don't want to have to move it around just to play on the TV.

          It would also work with normal PCs too. Set up a cheap media centre pc with the tv, have it stream all your games from your beefy gaming rig. Stuff like that. Maybe they could also build it into their android/ios apps, then you can stream your games to your phone/tablet over wifi. Would work so much better than OnLive and similar services.

    looking forward to this, already have my PC linked to the 50" :D
    But native steam support would be great

    time to pull apart my 360 controllers and replace the home button with the steam logo

    So is the beta of Big Picture actually live yet for Australia

    My gaming PC is hooked up to the TV and I had to lower the desktop resolution so I could read Steam, so I have been waiting for this update.

      you should be able to increase text size

        ugh, in windows 7 just search "make text bigger" in the start menu and it should be the first thing to come up

    This is a disaster. Overly annoying that we have so many companies trying to take over the living room now. Console gamers are going to choose PS3/XBOX, and XBOX is a PC remember, that's why the dev kits are shipped in PC cases. Over companies trying to sell **** off as their own innovative product, especially while they put down the likes of Sony and MS who have been in the game a lot longer.

      yeah but if anyone can do it correctly it will be Valve, the Xbox is OK, but it doesnt go far enough IMO.

      I really don't see why this is a "disaster".

      "XBOX is a PC"
      "dev kit shipped in pc cases"
      "sell **** off as their own innovative product?"

      Oh, so there's another universe is there? One in which traditiona l consoles by Sony/MS arent giant walled gardens, with long certification processes, primarily physical media and no customisation?

      A universe where a company not only developing a digital distribution service and taking it mainstream, but developing a mode that allows you to use your TV and not deal with the hassles / issues that are typical in a console ?

      Tell me, where did you acquire your koolaid?

        second paragraph: *is derided as being a thief of ideas?

    XBOX is NOT a PC, XBOX 1 was, Xbox 360 is PowerPC based, it's closer to being an Old Macintosh than a PC. X86 instruction set is not used in any current console locking out backwards compatibility with the entire old library of PC games. What valve is doing here is interesting not necessarily groundbreaking, but interesting to see what they choose to fund next. I predict a Linux based steam console.

    Woohoo! More people will connect PC's up to TV's going forward so I can see this catching on.

    I've had my PC in my lounge room for a few months now (at the request of my partner so that I don't "leave" her all alone if I got play some games) and I only have 1 major problem with the setup. It has nothing to do with a dashboard or using a controller... the problem is being able to read the screen.
    I have a 42inch plasma and my couch is bout 3 meters away. There is no way in hell I can read the text on a website or in game chat. Thus I sit on a bean bag with a little table for my mouse and keyboard.
    I see the benefit of using a controller from the couch (I'm not a massive controller fan) but it's all kind of pointless if I can't read the screen from that far back. Yes you can zoom but it's not the same.

    Also for this to work, steam need to release good quality built in controller drivers. I haven't got an xbox360 controller but I've tried playing things with a PS3 controller, and it's very annoying and difficult to set up properly.

    And finally - I'm not going to play CS with a controller... especially on steam, against other PC gamers. Either there needs to be some "keyboard/mouse on the couch" equivalent or this whole idea is only useful for certain game types such as platformers and side scrollers, and maybe 3rd person games.
    I'm not saying you can't play a shooter with a controller but it's different when everyone uses a controller...

    I like that onscreen keyboard. Reminds me of the one used in the original Killzone on PS2 which was great - worked very well with the controller. Never understood why nobody copied that until now - it's certainly a lot nicer to use with a controller than the existing onscreen keyboard that the PS3 offers.

      That's the whole point of Steam Big Picture - 10 foot UI using large text and gamepad compatible navigation. It's not an either/or situation. It designed for keyboard and mouse as well, it's merely making it navigable using a controller which Steam desktop is not and needs to be as a minimum in the lounge.

      Also, it's crazy when people mod stuff and then complain about it not working. That's the same as overclocking and complaining of crashing. The Xbox controller (or Xbox compatible controllers) spec is designed for Windows and is part of DirectX. Otherwise you buy from a manufacturer who releases proper drivers - that's not a Valve problem . Get a Windows gamepad, and it's absolutely seemless and works perfect for Steam BP and controller games. No fuss.

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