Friday, 16 May 2014

How Valve's Steambox won the console war

If you weren't already aware this is the second in a two part look at the upcoming Steamboxes, It wasn't originally intended to be a two-part article, however, after speaking with an old friend, one sentence put me on a path to going almost completely 180° on my original view. To the point that I have just jumped back over to steam and started playing through my huge library of games. (I mean back through, right? No, probably like you, I bought most of this stuff in sales and never played it.) Thanks Humble Bundle.

Time................

...........is on my side, oh yes it issss. Song lyrics never come across aswell in text. but if you can imagine me as a young(er, he was never young) Denzel Washington and the year is 1998. you may know where that song is from (its from Fallen, if you haven't seen it, go now, go and watch it).

This was the thing my friend said to me which almost immediately switched my brain from believing the Steamboxes are doomed to believing they cannot actually fail, possibly ever. In my previous article I wrote how the Steam Platform as a whole still feels quite incomplete, and whilst I don't disagree with my earlier observation, it doesn't mean it isn't an incredible success used by over 7 million people daily (65 million total users as of Oct 2013 vs Xbox live 42 Million). and yes "used = running idly on their PCs", likely as a background task. But still, who in their right mind just leaves their Xbox or PlayStation (or Wii, lol) just sat on in the background? Rock Stars and Drug Dealers that's who.

But it wasn't all like this. Several years ago, I was the sole steam user amongst my friends, begging them frequently to give up on their Playstation 2sn Xboxes, Dreamcasts or even N64s (Luke) because PC gaming is the future and that future is steamy! And now, here we are 15 yeas later and we still debate over which console is/was better, but we all have Steam accounts...........

I sill totally agree that the SteamBox cannot compete with the PS4/Xbox One, but it doesn't need to. And I don't think valve are really even trying to. Like I previously said, there is no first party hardware. But for valve at least there doesn't need to be. Why not let manufacturers with dedicated hardware experience throw their money at the platform whilst they test the waters. lets be honest, few would want it to but as I said, this could fail. and if it does valve hasn't got got a warehouse worth of boxes they need to find a place in the destert for.

If you Google the words "Valve cancelled" you wont find any notable headlines pertaining to a product or service that they have announced. Steam OS and Steambox exist and I can't see valve canceling them, In a decade or two from now, these will exist  in some form because Steambox is not a console generational console it's a modular platform that Valve have more than enough money to ensure it passes the test of time.


Trust

I've never been upset with valve (except when they sent my Half-Life 2 Collectors Edition Box to me in a Jiffy bag!) their platform is solid, they never have any stupid DRM issues that stop me playing my games offline, prices are fair, they keep me up to date with updates but are never obtrusive. and did i mention prices are fair? I did? Well i'll still say it again. prices are fair.

Yes in some cases they are even cheap. but are you familiar with the argument that digitally distributed games are cheaper to distribute than physical games, therefore they should be cheaper. Well i'm not sure what logic Microsoft follow to believe that i would rather pay £54.99 for a Digital Copy Call of Duty: Ghosts when Game will sell me a retail box for only £49.99 and CDkeys.com will sell a code for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One version for only. £39.99! Especially when this game is awful. Steam however is often priced lower than a retail box and even when they aren't they tend to get a cut anyway because you pretty much always have to register it with Steam anyway. So yeah, I know the subtitle of this section was called "Trust" and it's more about price,but I'm not putting my cursor all the way back up there to change it. You should know by now I don't go back over my articles before I post them.

Bear in mind that once Valve truly win over "all" gamers and developers to make the one single platform, they can truly charge what they want and there's fuck all you can do about it. But the want to make money still. So if this vision (because that's what it is) comes to pass. I doubt they will be charging £500 for Call of Duty because there will be far fewer purchases. Prices will most likely be fair to maximize revenue. if they make more money selling fewer copies at a higher price then they do selling loads at a lower price. that's what'll happen. So stop buying expensive games and keep buying cheap stuff. Humble Bundle anyone

It isn't really just the pricing model that makes me trust Valve, it's the fact that I registered my original Half-Life CD key on steam about a decade ago and I can still play it now (but more on this in the next chapter). That and the "3" Half-Life 2 Episodes, Any day now.........


Sony and Microsoft

Honestly this section is more about how  your investment in the platform as shown to be more robust and long lasting based on the eraly indication. But I called it Sony and Microsoft to juxtapose it with those platforms and the heading in my previous Steammbox article.

I don't know about you (and this is Microsoft focused because I don't own a PS4 yet) but Microsoft have fecked me right off. (Oi Sony, you can listen to this too, don't just sit in the corner giggling with your mates, because you're no better here). I swear I remember reading an article several years ag, and i'm less certain that it had one Larry "Major Nelson" Hyrb attached to it that suggested that our Xbox 360 Games could look and operate even better on the "next generation". I can't relocate that article now (first person to post a link gets a free copy of Dead Space on steam) and it was a few years ago, but that got me excited. From the moment the 360 Launched downloadable games I was excited. "Wow" I said to myself, it was only Xbox Live Arcarde titles at the time but some of those were great, it was just like steam but attached to the TV and with achievements! (Yes, I like Achievements). Having an excuse to play Castlevania : SOTN (the best one) again, get achievements and own it forever and ever until i'm dead! But now the next generation is here but the previous generation games don't look better on my new console. Because they aren't on my new console. And Yeah, I can just switch on my Xbox 360 because I still own 2 of them and have 2 extra for spare parts sat around. But I don't want to, I want to turn my new Xbox on and never look back at those old consoles. Why? Next Gen, that's why.

I had, what i considered to be a reasonable expectation that once I had invested in a digital platform, the content I purchased would remain available to me via that platform irrespective of the hardware. 

I've owned 3 generations of Xbox (not that the first counts when making this point) and so far I have been unable to carry over any content from one to t'other. But in  regard to steam, I bought half-Life on a 166MHz Pentium Processor, I played it on my next PC, an Advent something, I played it on my first laptop, my second, third, my girlfriends laptop my work laptop (don't work there anymore). I played it on my first MacBook, my first Linux machine my MacBook pro and can play it now on pretty much any PC where "on" works. I could even put steam on a USB key along with the games and play it from that!

So to sum up a clear 1-0 score on this front, I cant play Metal Gear: Ground Zeroes on my Xbox One, a game I bought a week prior to owning an Xbox one because it's a different platform (in fact it now costs me  £10 more for the Xbox One copy!). But most of the games I bought on steam can still be played today across several platforms.

So As I head into this new generation of consoles I've started asking myself, should I buy Borderlands: The pre-sequel on my Xbox 360, where it will likely be the last game I play on it before it meets the loft of eternal redundancy. Or do i buy it on steam, for less, and be able to play it forever, with more features (more on that later). unles Microsoft do something re: backwards compatibility very soon. or integrate my digital 360 library (including saves) into their cloud thingy I know where I'm going. Especially now that these games actually support controllers.


Controller Support

Oh USB/Bluetooth, how we love you.

Question to parents of multiple children. do you hate your youngest child? do you want them to fail at life? No? Then why would you buy them a horrible 3rd party controller to play on the computer games with their older sibling? It's because you don't know any better and despite several obvious objections from your child you dismissed this because both Official and Cheaper controllers look the same to you. Sorry to say, your child was right, you were wrong. but you can apologize now and go and get them a real controller.

To be fair, several modern third party controllers aren't that bad, and some could actually rival the originals for some people, but for those of us who do still like to go to our mates house for local multiplayer, we'd prefer having a controller that is the same as the one we have at home lest out host has an unfair advantage. It's clear that the most common controllers that are now in the wild are those of the PS3 and Xbox 360 and most prefer one or the other, this really is personal preference. For years the PC save a slew of different controllers and this was in huge part to blame for a lack of any real support, coupled with those first few years where there was simply no option for shooters to have both movement and look controls at the same time. But we have come a long way, and due to my own absence in the computer market (and the switch from PC to mac as my platform of choice), I completely missed just how much controller support has been added to PC, Mac & Linux titles. turns out it's a lot.

To say, as i noted earlier you may have a preference for the Xbox or Playstation controller, you can actually install these on your PC, Mac or Linux Box right now. You'll need a wired version or official wireless adapter for the former or bluetooth module for the latter. But have a quick look on the google and it'll steer you right.

So, I set up my Xbox controller this week because I had a wired one. the results are mixed as there is a good chunk of old games that don't work with a controller at all (unless you manually map the buttons) But all of the newer games I tried, (those that were released in the time since the Xbox 360 came out) they all worked. Even Valve's own shooters, although the online competitive ones (Left 4 Dead, and Team Fortress, weren't great when playing against users who have mouse and keyboard controls. Half-Life 2 was great to play sat back on my couch and even Borderlands 2 with witch I was able to continue the games I had started on my Xbox.


Mods, Add-ons, Expansions Packs and Hacks.

All that wonderful DLC that console users are getting, yeah, they were originally called updates. Until all of the wonderful Halo and call of Duty fans showed developers that they would pay for this stuff. It was actually free, new maps were added to PC games all the time for the price of nothing. To extend the life of the game you enjoyed, developers would create expansion packs (new adventures using the same engine and many of the same assets from the original game) which could be bought and installed on top of the original game. These were basically mini-sequels (some lasting as long as the original game) but again, sold at half the price. One of the benefits of paid DLC however is that it is so much easier now to get your hands on, it's almost always sanctioned, approved and created by the original developer and installation is as clicking "download now". (unless you have a PS3 you also need to click install and wait an hour).

If there is one think that can be taken from the paid DLC is that the whole gaming community have benefit from now having a central repository. With the addition of Steam Greenlight, Indie developers can now get their content aded to Steam, and thanks to this being due to the quantity of peer reviews the quality is more often than not pretty good. Instead of having to search for files run through odd installers and copying/pasting files, you can not just click a couple of buttons and have the extras added.  And these are not just gameplay extras like new maps or weapon skins. These can be total conversions of games or mods to increase the graphics far beyond what the developers intended. Do you remember Max Payne (the original)? But, do you remember it with Kung Fu, what's scarier in Skyrim, Dragons or a massive Thomas the tank engine? So, loads more content for your games mostly free of charge

As I mentioned before, it wasn't too hard for me to port my Borderlands 2 character from the Xbox to my PC copy.It was actually quite simple, just copy the Xbox save to a USB stick, put it in my Pc and change the filename. then drop it in the save directory on my Mac and Voila. If I wanted to I could take this futher and build a custom save with some epic loot! cheating yes, but possible yes. You simply cannot do this on a console. Not easily anyway.

Therein is the key though, when Steam do deliver the steam box, in order to appeal to console users they need to make Steam OS in such a way that people who don't want to see the back-end, "never" do, but those who want to play with the advanced features of a full OS can do so easily. You simply don't want people pressing the wrong thing and installing some Malware that breaks the whole box.


User Protection

If i Load up my Playstation3 I still have an emulated PS1 memory card with my Final Fnatasy Vii Completed save game on it. The first real game I ever owned (of those that allowed saves anyway). That means a lot to me because it's mine. I earned it. I got all the Summons, all the Master Materia and defeated Emerald Weapon! it took ages. So I don't want to loose my evidence of that. Over the years I have transported this data from a PS1 card to my PS2 memory card, then had a special memory card reader to get those saves on My PS3. I can now stick them on a USB stick, move them to my and retain forevermore on my PC. It's good that I can, but it's also a pain. But for a while now Valve have been offering SteamCloud, According to the official page you can;  "Use it for personalized settings like keyboard, mouse, and gamepad configurations, multiplayer sprays, or even saved games" So if you turn up at your mates house, you just sign in as yourself and you're ready to go. This does not yet support all games however, some games even deal with it themselves. For some reason my FFVII PC Version save (which I think is actually in Square-Enixs cloud) would load from the cloud, but when I then reached the next save point it would not sync the other way? I had added some mods to FFVII to change the graphics and character models a while ago. I wonder if that has been detected and I have been blocked?

With that in mind I had better check the status of my Borderlands 2 save because i kinda hacked that a bit....... (What!). Yeah, cheating is technically easier on a PC. By that I mean its far easier to edit local files with something you just downloaded and change the game in such a way that you are super powered. But be careful because cheating in this way can truly break the game, to the point it isn't fun anymore. Yeah I've played with hacks and cheats a lot, and I do justify my actions by saying that I never do this in competitive multiplier games or get content for free. In my experience you can easily ruin a game for yourself by cheating. The idea of starting Skyrim with a character that has maxed stats in all areas may sound fun (and it may still be for you), but for me it puts me in a zone of thinking, what's the point! Half of the gam is the leveling system and it's just been removed, half the fun is gone. But for me, in cases like borderlands, I like to be in the "what if" machine. So I played the game on My Xbox as an Assassin, wasn't that fun. Then I played again with my wife using a Soldier class. I had much more fun for both reasons. I''ve maxed out the character completed all the DLC etc etc. but what if? what if I had played as a Gunzerker? I know there is no chance i'm playing all that content again, it's at this point that if I didn't create a maxed out Gunzerker by cheating, I'm done with the game. So these hacks and edits allow me to get more fun out of my game. Its the same if I'm half way through the game, not really enjoying it but want to get to the end of the story. I use this as a tool to ensure I get the experience I wanted or expected for my money and I'm glad that this is an option otherwise I may have never picked up Mass Effect 2 having not seen the end of the first. So it is a positive, But I also ruined Morrowind for myself by maxing out my character immediately, playing for 4 hours and being bored of just exploring. So these abilities are certainly welcomed and unavailable (kind of) on competitors machines but it's a double edged sword that may easily increase or reduce value in your games. My advice, use it as a last resort, only once you know you are done with a game, and only for Sandboxxy fun.

AND! DON'T EVER use cheats in online play, because of The VAC, or just VAC as it's actually known, Valve Anti Cheat is a little part of of online games that protects you from cheaters. Yeah, I know, people come up with new cheating methods every day. But this is quite strict. If you are detected as cheating in a game in a specific list, you are banned from all games in that list, but certain games only block you within that specific game. Even then it's only when you play on VAC enabled servers, so if you and your mates want to play with cheats on. Feel free to make your own server. But it's unclear as to what is OK to do and what isn't. for example. is my Borderlands 2 hack OK or not? If the Steam platform going forward intends to be open people should be able to play with these kinda cheats on, but completely segregated from players who do not want cheating to happen. Titanfall has nailed this, if you are caught cheating, you can only play with cheaters from then on. I hope this becomes the state in all games however, I would hope there is a redemption method implemented. I wouldn't want to loose my entire Steam library for performing an odd tweak and the developers just have a bad day and just implement a Zero Tolerence policy.

Family Sharing

I've talked all about Borderlands 2 haven't I, would it surprise you to realize that I play it on Steam and I haven't bought it? And no, It wasn't a gift, or free in a deal and I haven't stolen it, but I have legitimate access to this game. Steam now allows family game sharing which means you can allow other users to access your games (whilst still signed in as themselves) with up to 5 other user on 10 PC's. Now this is intended for families in the same home, but as I don't have a large family in my home (yet), I decided to try this out with my best mate, a man I would happily call brother, so this its totally OK to do in my book. Anyway, it was simple to set up, He logged in with his account on my Mac, in preferences, under family sharing, you get a list of all the other people who have signed in on my Mac (so, just me). Simply check a tick-box, or tick a check-box to allow that player access to your library. Once he signed out and i signed in, I saw that i had a new list, below my a list, showing all of his games which I didn't own (ask you can imagine there was already a lot of crossover. but my game library just jumped from 200 to 300 games in minutes. I did the same on his PC and now we're sharing our games. As I never bough the Steam version of Borderlands 2 (since I had the Xbox version) I was happy to see I now had access to this. Although, he hasn't bought the DLC and I had I'm missing out on that . And before you ask, no, i can't just buy the DLC on my account and have it work with the game on his account. (But it'll likely be in a sale at some point for a tenner, with all content included).

But I would like to see a future where I can play on one PC and my wife plays on another but we don't have to buy two copies of the game and all the associated DLC twice. Basically like today's split screen, but with 2 screens

For more on the Game sharing features, check out this page.

Best All of Indie

Some of the best and most creative content now comes from those in-home developers and small studios who want to deliver their vision mostly for the passion of making it real. And yes you can now get a lot of this stuff on the consoles. But the greatest majority almost always started on a computer of some kind. And this is mainly because you can make games on a PC with no additional cost. You want to make Xbox games? buy the SDK, you want to make PC games? Install a free program! Its part of the box you already own so there's no wonder dev's start here. You can get a lot of crap, but as we mentioned before, thanks to peer review systems the good stuff is normally at the top.

Green-light allows smaller developers to find out how popular their game is before release thanks to Greenlight's community voting over 200 games were added to the approved greenlit list in April alone. And beyond that, steam seem to be the defacto port or call for anything that shows it's face on Kickstarter. For example, I pledged money to the creators of Carmageddon, and because of this I can now play the game before release. It's unfinished, crashes a lot and has numerous missing textures, but I get to play with the world early and even see some of the stages of the development process. It's incredible that this exists.

So you you have any interest in making games or even just bits of game content, you can play with Project Spark, Minecraft or even Little Big Planet to make games on your consoles, but can you make a games that makes games? Here's betting you can on the Steambox. Because its open to do anything.

The Potential 

As I come to the close of this article ("finally", I hear you sigh), I'm now more hyped for the future of Steam ever. As I spent the last 2 days revisiting my library and playing games on my mac to reacquaint myself with Steam I can say it has been such a positive ride. What steam does is miles beyond any other platform, and it's open to so much more. I'd like to just take a few minutes to consider what the future of gaming could be with the Steambox platform.

Oculus Rift - If you aren't aware this is a Virtual Reality headset. I haven't seen one yet but i want one yesterday. Unlike the horrible 90's attempt, according to those who've had hands eyes on, this actually works. and works well. For those of you who read Neoromancer and had the same dream as I, let me just say, it begins.

Will it work with steam? Yes. In fact it already does, have a browse of this Steam Store Category, showing all the games with Oculus Rift works with right now. Try out "Slender: The Arrival" on a VR headset, I dare you. Valve have also announced Steam VR. I'm not sure exactly what this looks like, but where Steam itself is tailored as a computer program and SteamOS (aka Big picture Mode) mode is for your TV, This is literally for your skull!, that's the bit connected directly to the eyes and ears.

Streaming - I've not actually tried this out yet, but being an owner of 3 Chromecasts I can see the potential here is incredible. Basically what the Chromecast does is allow me to stream content directly to a TV. for most people this would be Netflix (or LoveFilm, lol). but for some its media stored on a home server. I set up Plex on my PC years ago and spent weeks upon week ripping my DVD's to my PC. I'm so glad I did because my Discs are now all up in the loft in boxes but I can access the films immediately via Plex (so they are all in one digital place like steam). Because of the tiny Chromecast devices plugged into 3 TV's in my house. From my phone I can now command any of these films to play on a specific TV at any time, if I move rooms I just tell it to go to the new room and it continues where I was, but on that new TV! You can literally start a film in the living room and finish it off in bed.

Now imagine this with Games. Imagine you're playing ion your TV, but you have some tasks to do in another room. or your mum/wife is doing the hoovering (oh, he wen't there). You could,

a) own two or more consoles and move to the other console.
b) unplug all your gear and move it into another room
c) stop playing

But in this scenario, you don't have to.. You simply pause the game and move it to another screen. At present this only works in steam by streaming to other PC's running steam. But it has the potential to send the game video to any device in the future possibly even your tablet or phone!

Want to get really excited you can kind of already do this, Here's an article with a Rasberry Pi operating as a mini Steambox!

Custom Stuff - As we mentioned earlier you have the benefit of tweaks and hacks, and with Steam Workshop it's so easy to get your hand on this stuff. Games are now implementing it into their builds to support Workshop seamlessly. Within steam you can browse the user generated content (which is peer reviewed). and simply click one button to drop it in the game. then within the game itself you simply access a menu to enable it. Want exta Cars in your game, Change The Dragons in Skyrim into Thomas the Tank Engine or get hundreds of free levels for Portal. it's there at the click of a button! We know already that games like the upcoming Carmagedddon: Reincarnation and Unreal will directly support user created content. It's entirely feasible that one single game can  support your entire gaming fix!

Conclusion

Are we there yet? and by there I mean the point at which we just call PC Games, Steam Games? Not quite, but several times in this article I've taken that route just co clearly differentiate between games on the PC,Linux & Mac combined platform vs the individual consoles.

The main point I wanted to make with this article is that Valve can play the long game here and all they need to do is get you to make 1 purchase.  Once a person has invested in a platform it becomes far easier to continue making further investments. Lets be fair, once you've bout some smurf-berries you are already open to spending the money so next time it will be that little bit easier. Now consider that because you've spent money buying smurfberries you need to justify that purchase by spending more time in the platform. More time with one platform = more reluctance to change = more investment in that platform. its basic maths people.

Stage 1 is Valve getting the super hardcore PC gamer, and once they shell out, the're in and part of the platform. Once manufacturers have cut their teeth on how well their products were received. they will refine them to capture the next round. Once you have enough of a following, your market does most of your publicity for you.

The history of Valve has shown us that they do work to make their products & services better and better and this holds true for their products ranging back to the original Half-Life which is still getting updates (Last Update Sept 2013) to make sure it runs with today's hardware and is smoother and faster than ever. That, coupled with the fact that this platform will not be refreshing, if you care about digital purchases and retaining your library of games then the platform is clearly miles ahead of any other competitor available now.

I'm of the strong opinion that if Microsoft and Sony don't reverse their attitude soon and make your digital library available to you on their new console people will truly begin to wonder what the benefit is to the purchase of digital content. We all know that all media is going digital (probably to the point of cloud gaming eventually) and the push is clearly for the end of physical discs.  If this is going to be realized on home consoles soon, we need some better incentives to buy digitally. If I get the physical copy, it costs the same but I can sell it back later. With digital, I can't sell it on, but i can eventually loose access to it all-together!

We don't know how any of the future will play out, Nintendo could stop making hardware, Sony could move all processing to the cloud. Microsoft could stop banging on about that stupid Kinnect peripheral.  These are all possibilities. but the main thing I'm quite certain of, is that Steam is not going anywhere.

Come on Steamboxes, get on the market and let the war of the platforms finally begin
Post a Comment