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Indies On SteamOS, Pt 1: 'Openness,' Potential Pitfalls

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You probably haven’t heard, but Valve’s officially going forward with its plan to launch its own Steam-centric OS, living room hardware, and a crazy, touch-pad-based controller to back it all up. I know, right? It’s weird that no one has been talking about it incessantly. But while Valve preaches openness and hackability, it’s downplayed an ugly reality of the situation: smaller developers still face a multitude of struggles in the treacherous green jungles of its ecosystem. SteamOS and various Steam Boxes, however, stand to bring brilliantly inventive indie games to an audience that doesn’t even have a clue that they exist, so I got in touch with developers behind Gone Home, Race The Sun, Eldritch, Mark of the Ninja, Incredipede, Project Eternity, and more for their thoughts on SteamOS, who it’s even for, Valve’s rocky relationship with indies, and what it’ll take for Steam to actually be an “open” platform.

Steam? In Living Rooms? Who Is This Even For?

PC gaming in the living room. A chance to overthrow the simplified scion of consoledom in favor of a glorious kingdom of customization and openness. That’s what we’ve always wanted, right? But no dream ever comes true without some kind of catch, and Valve’s plan for domination of all rooms (except maybe the bathroom… for now) isn’t without its complications. So then, the big one: who is SteamOS and its various hardware extensions really for? Many console gamers, after all, tend to prefer convenience over options, and PC gamers already have, well, PCs. Beyond that, who’s left?

[pullquote]If there’s anything Valve is good at, it’s playing the long game (insert Half-Life 3 pun here).[/pullquote]

“It kind of seems like an odd proposition to me,” said Gone Home project lead Steve Gaynor. “I guess the target market would be ‘somebody who wants to play these cool indie and PC games I keep hearing about, but doesn’t want to deal with building or maintaining a computer.’ Which does sound pretty cool. So, I dunno. I wouldn’t be the target market probably, since I’d just build my machine and play games on it. But I could see this filling a middleground between hardcore PC builders and console gamers with an interest in PC gaming but no interest in the headaches that come with maintaining a PC. And also it does give developers a single target hardware spec to test on, like consoles have, which is a plus.”

Former Mark of the Ninja lead and current Campo Santo founder Nels Anderson, meanwhile, figured that Valve has the time and resources to figure out where exactly its mighty steam engine is headed as it goes along. SteamOS won’t necessarily be an overnight success, but then, neither was Steam. Valve’s MO is adapting and evolving over time, and it’s gotten Gabe Newell and co insanely far. Why suddenly go for an instant, unsustainable smash hit instead?

“The thing is, a lot of PC games really aren’t meant to be played on a controller in a living room,” Anderson noted, speaking of the current landscape of these things. “Are the people who primarily want controller + TV games already having their needs met by the more proven and streamlined consoles? Do the console exclusives still have pull for those folks? No idea. If there’s anything Valve is good at though, it’s playing the long game (insert Half-Life 3 pun here), so it will definitely be interesting to see how this all develops for sure.”

Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart agreed, adding that Valve’s pretty clearly angling its molten-hot news eruptions at dyed-in-the-wool PC gamers right now, but we’re just the beginning. “I’m betting Gabe is looking for this to ultimately be for everyone,” he said. “If I had to guess though, the early adopters will most likely be users and fans of Steam along with gamers who want to play their PC libraries on their TVs.”

The question, then, is how Valve will catch the increasingly fickle eyes of all humans, and that’s where things get tricky. SteamOS’ big selling point is PC-style openness and options in the living room, but that on its own simply won’t be enough. Convenience always wins, and that mantra rules over living rooms with an iron fist. If Valve wants everyone on board, it’ll have to (somewhat paradoxically) offer both options and a smooth, streamlined experience that doesn’t paralyze users with indecision. Given that John Q Publicsmithingworthamshire views PC gaming as more trouble than its worth, SteamOS has its work cut out for it.

“If they can make it very very easy to buy, plug in, and use then I think it could take off,” said Incredipede creator Colin Northway. “I’ve always thought people avoided PC games because of the ‘hassle’. I make games and I have no idea how to benchmark a new gaming machine right now. It looks like Valve is looking to remove all the friction.”

Obsidian’s Chris Avellone concurred, adding that convenience is becoming even more key as mobile devices devour more and more of people’s gaming time. “Seeing the increased level of functionality a lot of mainstream TVs have nowadays (internet, USB ports, their own Netflix buttons on the controller, etc.), it feels like the migration into using the TV as a one-stop PC machine as well seems, well, inevitable,” he explained. “Already seeing a lot of that consolidation on mobile phone tech, bringing the PC to the living room via Steam seems like a smart move.”

Steam Vs Indies (And Why Steam Isn’t Actually ‘Open’)

Valve dreams of an entirely open gaming future, but well, the future sure seems far away sometimes, doesn’t it? While SteamOS and Steam-powered hardware might – to varying degrees – let anybody wriggle around in their innards, Steam itself is quite a different story. Valve’s spent years trying to figure out how best to curate its virtual shelves, but it’s yet to find a solution that makes everyone happy. Most recently, Steam Greenlight’s been giving many smaller developers no end of trouble. And with the prospect of expanding into living rooms and – with that – a whole new audience on the horizon, something needs to change lest gamers, developers, and even Valve miss out big time.

Former BioShock 2 developer and current Eldritch lead David Pittman made no bones about his hope that Valve swings in the opposite direction. If you’re going to try and be “open,” you may as well go all the way.

“The execution of Steam Greenlight has been a contentious subject, and I am not entirely convinced that curation ultimately benefits anyone,” he said. “Certainly, the present form of Greenlight seems to preclude the availability of niche titles, and that’s something that I hope improves over time as Valve continues to review the process.”

“I believe it is critically essential to the openness of the platform that SteamOS can be used to play games (and any other software) which are not available on Steam, just as a Windows- or Linux-based PC can do. It is unclear to me yet if that will be the case.”

Incredipede creator Colin Northway, who nearly found his game beaten and penniless at the bottom of Greenlight’s barrel, echoed that sentiment. The system came through for him eventually, but the circumstances were far from ideal. For his part, he doesn’t think it has to be that way anymore.

“I would love to see Steam become an open platform,” he exclaimed. “Steam is great for both players and game developers. I just want it to be more egalitarian. I dislike gate keepers, I don’t want Valve to be the one who decides what players see, I want it to be blogs and gaming sites and people’s friends and curators. I would like to see them step back from the curation side of things entirely. It would make a few people less money but more people more.”

Others, however, didn’t see the issue as so cut-and-dry. Race The Sun co-creator Aaron San Filippo, whose game has financially crashed and burned due to sluggish Greenlight progress, was surprisingly even-handed about the situation.

“Man, this one’s tough,” he began. “In a sense, we love Steam for its curation. As developers, we love hearing stories about how quality games can launch there and do really well, supporting developers where few other platforms can do this. On the other hand – what would really benefit us right now, is to be able to reach customers who love the convenience of Steam, and to be able to build on top of Steam’s social layers. It seems like Valve is moving in the direction of letting more and more games onto their system, and so for me the big question is: How do they handle curation? Maybe they’ll be able to use metrics in a way that other big platforms haven’t, and give games a chance to get front-page exposure based on how much players are engaging with them? It’ll be really interesting to see where they go.”

Mark of the Ninja/Campo Santo’s Nels Anderson chimed in with a similar point of view, adding: “It’s a hard problem to solve, and I don’t think a 100 percent open platform is the right approach. As the iTunes App store pretty clearly attests, complete openness does some severe violence to the signal vs. noise of content on platform. The pseudo popularity contest of Greenlight tends to self-select certain types of games too, though. I don’t know what the right answer is (easier access for developers that have already shipped on Steam or other platforms? Some kind of sponsorship from existing Steam devs?) but I think some kind of curation is important to Steam’s long-term health as a platform.”

This, too, is an area where SteamOS could get a major leg up on its new competition. Sony and Microsoft are finally (in the latter’s case, kind of) embracing indies, but PC’s already got them handily beat. Even Steam’s still very flawed approach has eclipsed consoletopia’s twin titans, but Valve can’t afford to rest on its laurels.

“Valve’s generally been pretty hands-off, as they are in most things,” explained Anderson. “You don’t see them promoting anyone else’s games at events or anything like that. In regard to exposure, which is one of a smaller developers biggest challenges, it’s really nice seeing Sony pointing some of their big ol’ media spotlight at smaller developers. But in terms of easiest, lowest overhead platform to develop for, Steam obviously can’t be beat.”

The Banner Saga technical director John Watson had similar praise for Sony, who’s taken quite a bit of initiative in giving indies the spotlight. “Sony has been extremely accommodating over the last few years, and is very active at outreach,” he said. “Steam is hard to approach and hard to get into, but once you are in, the developer’s life is pretty good.”

Northway also concurred, but he still thinks Valve has the best chance of sparking a real revolution. At least, if it plays its cards right.

“Of everyone embracing indies right now my favorite is Valve because for some reason, they actually care about what’s right and what’s fair,” he said. “It’s bizarre and I love it! I think Sony is laudable for what games they are publishing and it’s obviously working out for the game creators as well as Sony, but Valve is the only one that might actually change how we find, buy, and play games.”

Check back soon for developers’ thoughts on Linux’s many ups and downs, streaming, and of course SteamOS’ much-talked-about controller

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