Newly announced Steam OS hopes to end the reign of physical media in console gaming

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CacheFly Team

Date Posted:

November 12, 2013

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Valve’s Steam platform has been arguably the biggest force in PC gaming since its introduction 10 years ago. In that time, Valve’s PC gaming service has completely transformed the industry while almost single-handedly propelling digital distribution to the forefront of online gaming.

After a decade of success on the PC, recent announcements have revealed Valve’s intentions to keep innovation rolling in CDN-based gaming. Throwing its hat in the living room entertainment ring, an arena dominated by traditional consoles, Valve introduced details concerning the rumored Steam OS in late September.

An operating system for CDN-based gaming

Built from a custom Linux distribution, Steam OS will support all available Mac and Windows games currently found in the extensive Steam catalog. Don’t get too excited about Linux gaming yet, as details about this support reveal that non-Linux games will initially only be playable by streaming from a fully compatible Mac or Windows PC.

Despite the initial lack of native Steam OS games, Valve has laid out plans to introduce “premium” games that run directly from the new OS sometime in 2014. While dedicated gaming operating systems are certainly nothing new, Valve’s interpretation hopes to bring a decidedly unique touch to the future of console gaming: the power of the cloud.

Flexible software for a cohesive gaming environment

The cloud has recently been a popular buzzword in the gaming industry, with products like Ouya bringing digital content delivery into a larger role with console gaming. The big three themselves—Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony—have all implemented similar online marketplaces, yet physical media remains the primary method of content delivery. So how will Steam OS differentiate itself from the pack?

Valve’s console strategy comes two-fold. The first phase relies on Steam OS positioning itself as a cheaper, faster, and easier way for console gamers to sate their gaming appetite. This will no doubt unfold much the same way as it did on the PC. With wireless connectivity becoming a standard feature of today’s living room devices, online content delivery from the cloud is a natural evolution. Wireless streaming provides hassle-free gaming for users including automatic updates, cloud storage, and universal profiles.

Where Steam OS plans to truly diverge from the path of its console competitors is in its diversity of supported hardware. Taking a page out of Microsoft’s book, Steam OS will be compatible with numerous hardware vendors that are already committed to producing living room devices capable of running the gaming OS. Contrast this strategy with the first-party hardware approach of nearly every other console available and the difference becomes clear.

Customizable hardware

This hardware flexibility makes perfect sense given the nature of Steam’s CDN backbone. By leveraging the distributed power of modern CDNs, along with a robust Linux foundation, Steam OS is afforded much more flexibility when it comes to hardware requirements. Such hardware indifference is even more emphasized when home streaming enters the picture. In this situation, Steam OS would run on a comparatively inexpensive living room device (think thin client) and utilize the gaming PC already present in many Steam users’ households to do the heavy lifting.

While Steam OS users will have the option of low cost “streaming” devices, those with a need for power will still get their fill. Starting in 2014, Valve will offer what it calls “Steam Machines.” That is, Steam OS-powered, standalone consoles that are able to power the latest and greatest games in the Steam catalog. Again, these machines will be built by various third-party manufacturers as well as Valve themselves.

Those not happy with official Steam Machines needn’t worry either. Valve also announced that Steam OS will be supported on custom hardware that consumers can piece together themselves. This do-it-yourself route will allow users to update individual components of their Steam Machine, ensuring the best gaming experience without having to spring for an entirely new console.

Shaping the future

Steam OS is clearly setting out to separate itself from the current crop of living room consoles. Customizable hardware, device agnostic software, and an enormous catalog of supported games all add up to an impressive alternative. That being said, the most intriguing piece of Valve’s new take on console gaming has to be its long-term goal of supplanting physical media with a CDN framework.

Given Steam’s success in the PC arena, there’s a clear opportunity for an alternative to physical media distribution. Modern CDNs are built to deliver dynamic content through any number of distribution channels capable of reaching huge audiences. These aspects allow for tightly controlled product releases to more consumers in less time when compared to physical counterparts. Not only that, but the costs associated with this method of content delivery are more economical, which can lead to better profit margins for the publisher and decreased costs for the consumer. Evidence of this can be seen through Steam’s daily discounts on select games that encourage consumer sales. Dynamic pricing in this way is much more difficult and often yields less impressive results with physical media.

Valve’s announcement of the Steam OS and Steam Machines undoubtedly marks a new era in console gaming—an era that will surely rely more and more on a CDN backbone for media distribution. As such, the future of console gaming holds great opportunity for quick access to dynamic content on more flexible hardware, which is great news for the game industry and consumers alike.

Photo credit: Flickr

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