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Indies On SteamOS, Pt 2: Linux, The Controller

Haptically Ever After

Valve? Making its own OS for living rooms? Madness. Pure, coldly calculated and entirely premeditated madness. But SteamOS' success is far from guaranteed, and it's got some serious hurdles to overcome before it can establish a New World Order. Last time around, I gathered developers of games like Project Eternity, Gone Home, Mark of the Ninja, The Banner Saga, and Race The Sun to discuss who SteamOS/Steam Boxes are even for and the relative "openness" of Valve's platform in light of, er, Greenlight. Today, we dig even deeper, into the strange, nebulous guts of Linux and what sorts of challenges and opportunities Valve's crazy, newfangled controller presents. There are even some hands-on impressions from Dejobaan and Paradox. Read on for THE FUTURE.

Bro, Do You Even Linux?

Linux is a very hairy thing. Not in the sense that it is physically covered in lush, curly fur forests (I'm pretty sure it's not), but rather insofar as it's a difficult thing to properly wrangle. For many, the resulting malleability is part of the appeal. With a bit more than a bit of know-how, you can bend its operational prowess to your will, and Valve's betting on that flexibility for very big things. But still, it's Linux. Even with a custom version that - on the front-end - will in all likelihood be quick, game-centric, and user-friendly, this OS won't suddenly solve all of gaming's problems overnight - let alone its own. Valve has already (kind of) started to make a push toward Linux on PC, but there are still many challenges to overcome.

The first issue? Consistency. Linux is a multi-headed hydra of a beast with all its distros, and that's added a hurdle to the development process for years. That, hopefully, is where SteamOS will come in. As with Valve's own Steam Box and hardware configurations, developers are hoping that the operating system will provide a relatively stable target to shoot for.

"I love Linux, but I also spent way too many hours last weekend getting MAME to run on my recently acquired Raspberry Pi," admitted former Mark of the Ninja lead and current Campo Santo co-founder Nels Anderson. "Even though I installed a pretty stock Debian distro customized for the Pi and the Pi itself is uniform hardware, things that were supposed to be just work, well, didn't. From both a developer and player standpoint, having a target distro will hopefully make things easier when it comes to wrangling all the myriad things that could go wrong getting software running all the possible combinations of hardware out there."

The Banner Saga's John Watson shared a similar sentiment, further adding that SteamOS' built-in ability to stream games from Windows could render a lot of potential compatibility issues moot, even as the OS takes its almost-sure-to-be-awkward first steps.

"If you want to talk about Linux porting specifically, one of the major problems is the huge variety of hardware upon which it runs, and the somewhat spotty driver coverage for said hardware," he said. "Steam Box helps with a standard hardware spec, drivers, and OS configuration that have been tested, verified, and certified by Valve. If Valve is really committed to making this a viable native platform for developers, they will devote resources to make sure developers can port their games to Linux. For instance, ensuring that 'CrossOver' technology from CodeWeavers works well with Steam games. Or reaching out to Adobe to get Linux support on the priority list for Adobe AIR.  The Banner Saga will be on Linux, so we are certainly happy to be on the Steam Box as well."

"If you want to talk about stream-from-Windows, then the choice of Linux as the Steam Box OS is almost completely irrelevant: an implementation detail. If I were going to make a standalone device that only needs to run my custom software, then Linux would probably be a top choice. I'm sure their reasons are similar to Sony's when they chose a Unix-like for the PS3 OS, and Google choosing a Linux variant for the Android OS. I do hope that they make the streaming work from Mac OSX as well as Windows."

Indie developers, especially, are well-equipped to join The Linux Revolution thanks to the mighty, bourgeoisie-smashing equalizer known as Unity. It's natively cross-platform, so problem solved, in many cases. Or at least, that's the hope. Race The Sun's Aaron San Filippo explained:

"Luckily, we use the Unity game engine, so Linux support is about as easy as it gets. We've had some distro-specific support issues, but we're hopeful that with the weight of Steam behind this OS combined with Unity's track record of making things 'just work', we shouldn't have any trouble at all getting our game working well with the OS."

But Eldritch co-creator David Pittman doesn't think this should just be about how Valve and game developers stand to benefit from Linux's various strengths. Yes, SteamOS will probably line up a few Linux configurations so devs can knock them down nice and easy, but this doesn't have to be a one-way street.

"For developers who are already using a cross-platform engine like Unity, supporting SteamOS should be no problem," he reiterated. "But for developers like myself who write our own technology, Linux has historically been an unappealing platform to support because of its small market share and troublesome number of distributions. I am optimistic that SteamOS will help Linux penetrate the mainstream, but I also hope that it will improve the state of Linux development across the board, and not just see developers targeting a strict subset of Linux configurations for SteamOS compatibility."

In an ideal world, everybody wins. But then, I am not sure if ours has ever been an ideal world. We shall see.

Controlled Chaos

Valve has created its own videogame controller. It looks like someone put a boombox and some burnt-to-a-crisp pancakes in the Hadron Supercollider, but it is none of those things. Instead, Valve claims it packs all the functionality of a mouse-and-keyboard setup into the living-room-friendly form factor of a gamepad. Also, they say it still feels all tangible, reactive, and not like a ghost thanks to sophisticated haptic feedback tech. And there's a touchscreen! It is Frankenstein's controller, but maybe, just maybe, man is the greatest monster of all Valve is onto something here.

Gone Home's Steve Gaynor, however, is skeptical of a few details - mainly, the buttons. Because, well, I mean, look at them.

"The placement of the face buttons strikes me as really strange," he said. "As a developer, it's useful to know that the face buttons and the right stick are mutually exclusive (i.e. you can always be moving with left stick even while doing face button inputs, but have to stop looking with right stick to press a face button). On Valve's controller it seems like two of the face buttons require you to take your thumb off of left stick, and two require you to take your thumb off of right stick? Which, maybe that's fine in practice, but it seems like the lack of parity with the PS4/Xbox controller will make it more annoying to create consistent cross-platform binds between the two devices. This is all theoretical though. Maybe every console game on the market binds perfectly well to the Steam controller. But it strikes me as a fairly odd choice off the bat."

But perhaps those potential pratfalls aren't worth getting your fingers in knots over after all. AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! and Drunken Robot Pornography dev Ichiro Lambe actually got to go hands-on with the controller, and he came away exceedingly optimistic.

"It's different from what either [console gamers or PC gamers] are used to," he explained. "It'll be interesting to see what console FPS players think of it. I was able to grab the controller and exceed my ability to aim with a gamepad within about 5 minutes. Will the controller allow those console FPS players to exceed their gamepad FPS skills?"

Lambe's first impressions were strong, but questions of long-term viability loom on the horizon. There, he saw promise, but first there's a whole, whole, whole lot of work to be done.

"The one thing I'm curious about is what happens at the edge of the trackpads," he pondered. "On a gamepad, an analog stick will resist your thumb when you've pushed it fully in a particular direction. With the Steam Controller, your thumb gets a different type of feedback (ridges and and haptic response). Over time, will your thumbs learn that that's a boundary, or will they forever careen off into the sunset, never to be heard from again?"

"It's all new stuff, so I think the biggest chunk of work will be refinement and experimentation. For instance, our FPS, Drunken Robot Pornography, includes a great deal of vertical movement. Should the game give you touch feedback when you've landed on a platform, so you know you're on firm ground? How about using haptics to tell you when you're about to slip off of a ledge? Valve's always made it easy for our games to talk to their software, so I think the bulk of time we spend will be in designing for the controller ('What cool shit can we do?') rather than technical implementation ('What's the API call to query the device to see if it's on fire?')."

Overall, though, he was confident that the controller has plenty of room to grow into multiple genres - and perhaps even thrive in them. While there's certainly danger that such an all-encompassing controller could end up a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, Lambe thinks Valve is on the right track.

"I'm hoping it'll do neat things that gamepads, keyboards, and mice can't do, from the comfort of my living room, with my friends and frienemies," he concluded. "But not my enemies, because they aren't invited."

Paradox CEO Fredrik Wester also went hands-on, but he came away with slightly more reserved praise. The learning curve for a simple third-person game, he felt, was a snap (well, it took him five minutes, so maybe a multi-part snap chorus), but more complex games might push the controller past its limits.

"I think it's friendly to both [players from console and PC backgrounds], but some PC games, like our own grand strategy games, will need some work before it's natural to play with controllers."

On the upside, he was fairly certain that the controller will reliably and easily auto-adapt keyboard/mouse control layouts to fit its newfangled setup, so you probably won't have to manually map controls for previously released games. That's good, seeing as the idea of configuring something like the Portal 2 promo control scheme Valve mocked up sounds like a console gamer's worst nightmare - an initial hump that could easily scare off many disciples of the holy church of "it just works."

"From what I understand, this gamepad emulates WASD controls which means that little or no extra work will have to be done for the controller to work in its basic form," Wester explained. "I guess it will need some tweaking after that depending on the game, but the basic support should already be built in."

"I think most first and third-person games will work out of the box, it's always intimidating if people have to do extra work."

The controller is, however, still obviously early, and Valve likes to iterate and iterate and iterate and iterate and iterate until the word "iterate" loses all meaning. Wester, then, liked what he was able to play, but saw plenty of question marks dotting the road ahead.

"I need more time with the controller to make a judgement, but from where I see things right now I think it's doing a really good job at being a lot of different things at the same time," he said. "It all comes down to how much work needs to be done by the gamers to get it to work in a good way. If that can be ironed out, I'm looking forward to using it for our games going forward."

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