So, hands up how many people here use Steam? Eh, there’s quite a lot of you (over fifty million, in fact. Yeah, that’s our entire country on Steam). Valve’s online game distribution service is arguably the best in the business. It earns the company millions during the maddeningly low sales, it distributes a wealth of fun and free games and has a lot of cloud features that actually become very useful especially if you play your games on both a laptop and desktop. And now the Big Picture arrives and with it, an inkling of where Valve is planting its feet next…
Steam is a desktop app. Its very well-featured and looks great. Its divided into categories for your libraries and communities and when minimised, offers some nice power user features for those using Windows 7 or 8, like the Taskbar Jumplists. Valve has recently embarked on a worldwide beta testing phase of Steam on Linux and its going to bring Linux gaming into the mainstream in no time at all. So what does Big Picture have to do with this?
There was a recent survey by Valve and one of the questions was the size of your monitor and where you typically placed your computer. Obviously the company saw very early on the trend where people simply use a wireless Xbox 360 controller and place their PC next to their HDTV in their living room – a familiar, console-like experience without the hassle of a wireless keyboard and mouse. Using Steam on an HDTV didn’t always work because it wasn’t designed for a ten-foot user interface. Most people sit about ten feet away from their TVs, which is more or less three metres. Can you read size twelve font on your TV from ten feet away? If you can, you’re a hawk. In fact, you’re probably Superman.
“So its just a new user interface, big deal”, I hear you say. But you’re wrong, Not only does it make navigating the Steam app on a TV much more pleasant and useful, you get a whole lot of other things that make your life easier. Want to chat to a friend? You can now use the controller to type out your response on an awesome on-screen keyboard. Checking out something using the built-in browser? Navigating THAT was a schlepp with the old UI, today its much more functional. It looks modern and slick and I may even use it over the regular UI, its that pretty. Oh look, I just launched it again! Its tooooo cool!
I know what you’re thinking, you clever little NAGling. After watching that video, you’re seeing some similarities between this and the Windows 8 UI. And you’d be right: Big Picture also is more suited to touch screen use. I haven’t the luxury of trying it out, but I’m sure the text entry system would just use the tablet’s on-screen keys and the browser is eerily similar to Internet Explorer 10 on Windows 8’s Modern UI. So not only does big picture help the console-crushing couch potatoes, but could also help out the hipsters who are the early adopters of the latest batch of Windows 8 tablets.
But as usual with Valve, this goes deeper than what the promotional video presented. Do you remember this?
Valve’s Source Filmmaker is the company’s own in-house software tool that they’ve been using to create animated shorts for their games. Its still currently in beta and more locations are being worked on by the company and the community. Using Big Picture, its a great way to browse the movies you’ve made for yourself and for friends and watch them from your couch in high definition. Valve also expanded Steam this year to include the option to download other applications in various categories and while we’re still waiting for that to also go out of beta, it shows that the company is not afraid to branch out into new areas.
Does that mean that Big Picture is a template and a work-in-progress to develop a ten-foot UI for consoles? Valve could be heading that way. I’m toying around with Big Picture on my desktop monitor and it works really well – could it be overlaid for consoles? Could it be ported to Android tablets if Valve heads there? Is Valve still working on their own console? All will be revealed in….