I must admit that Android gaming for the living room did not take off like I expected. Ouya, the most prominent effort so far, had a lot of promise on paper; all the potential to disrupt the market, allowing anyone to make and share games for it with only the console itself acting as an sdk, and mandating that every game published on the platform be free for anyone to download and try. In practice it proved unappealing to developers when more mature living room focused systems offer better return on investment, and the shortcut of lazily adapting games from the wider Android world set a bad precedent for quality. Nobody wants to play phone games on their television.
Valve’s newly announced Steam OS (and Steam machines that run it) do not have such problems. A linux distro designed for gaming on big screens, it already has thousands of PC games which are fit for purpose in the living room with no retooling required, in addition to millions of existing Valve customers who can simply download the OS for free and take their game libraries with them, or otherwise find the OS preinstalled on forthcoming Steam machines. Game developers need not target Steam OS specifically – it already plays their games. Naturally that comes with an asterisk because only Linux games will play natively while games designed for Windows will need to be streamed from a Windows machine somewhere in the home. Valve promises that many high-profile games will make the jump and go native next year, but until that happens it’s an important limitation to be considered.
The missing link in bringing PC games to the living room is input devices, and Valve believes it has this problem solved with its new touch-based controller that mimics a mouse and keyboard. Its touch screen and physical buttons can be freely remapped to cover keyboard functionality, while the big twin trackpads are said to have precision approaching that of a mouse. Far from the kind of ‘light touch’ trackpads you would find on a laptop, these things are round discs, backed by electro-magnets to provide haptic feedback, and can even be used to produce sound. Games which are specifically programmed to support this controller can use the central touch screen as a display for things like maps, and the trackpad can simulate the feeling of different textures, but all games will have basic compatibility, even very old ones.
Steam OS coming soon. Steam machines and Steam controller coming 2014.