ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Will Steam’s New Big Picture Mode Save PC Gaming?

I have a confession to make: up until now, I was a PC gamer that didn’t use Steam, Valve‘s mega-popular digital gaming distribution center. Gasp! And why not? Well, simply because from my perspective, Steam was ill-fit in the PC gaming world. To me, playing a game on my PC meant installing an independent program that I could do with as I saw fit (within legal boundaries of course). I didn’t see the sense in installing a program that allowed me to install other programs inside it. That just made my games dependent on and limited by other software. Not cool. But then, one day…

…I got into console gaming. Gasp! Another heresy for a PC gamer! I caught a glimpse of something I only know how to describe as ‘the console feel’. There’s just something entirely more pleasing about gaming when it is done on a dedicated piece of hardware that requires virtually no setup, is standardized around a single type of controller, and operates on the big screen. My PC may have still been able to crank out higher definition, higher detail games than my PS3, but if I had the choice, suddenly I was going for buying a game for PS3 and not for PC. After being such a dedicated PC gamer for so long, this new tendency surprised me. However, I am far from alone in feeling this way.

Developers like consoles because they provide a singular set of hardware to code for. What works on one gamer’s PS3 or 360 or WiiU will work just the same on every other gamer’s PS3 or 360 or WiiU. It’s a break for the devs, and quality assurance for gamers. Add in the fact that consoles are much more affordable than gaming PC’s, and it’s clear why in recent years PC gaming is being cast more and more by the wayside.

Now, we may have seen a small resurgence of PC gamers with titles like Skyrim, Battlefield 3, and Batman: Arkham City that all offer clearly superior graphics on the PC, but now that we’re hearing rumors for next generation’s consoles and new console titles are stealing the limelight from past releases, once again the PC gaming market has slipped into relative obscurity.

The PC offers wide compatibility, superior graphics, a range of control methods, mods, and other such benefits as well. So…why is it failing to hold a major draw for develoepers and gamers alike in today’s market? If you were to ask the developers, they’d pretty unanimously cite piracy as their reason for not producing their games for the platform. While this may be an exaggerated problem, it is nonetheless a deterrent to game companies, several of which are struggling financially. And for gamers, it really boils down to that console experience I mentioned earlier. The problem isn’t so much the platform, it’s the system in which it presetly operates. The general population has grown accustomed to console paradigms, and for good reason: consoles are attractive and convenient. Where is this same sort of system in PC gaming?

The answer:

Steam Big Picture Mode

For some time now rumors have been mounting up for a dedicated Steam console, and we may have even seen it at CES this past January, but with Big Screen Mode you don’t have to wait for such dedicated hardware to have a Steam console (is that an oxymoron?). This feature, which was introduced in beta form towards the end of last year and now is in the stable release of Steam, will add a console-like interface to the Steam service by Valve. Think of it like a Media Center application for games. While that may not sound like such a big deal, it could actually be the game-changer PC gaming needs to once again be an industry standard–the benchmark which consoles once again have to live up to.

On its own, Steam just felt odd within the PC ecosystem. It had some good elements of console gaming in it, but they were removed from other console paradigms and instead placed within decidedly PC paradigms, thereby creating a mishmash of functionality that never appealed to me. What Big Screen Mode does, in a nutshell, is take additional console paradigms and implement them very nicely on the PC in a full-featured new interface. Big Picture Mode changes Steam from simply being a program to actually being a platform, and that’s why it has the chance to ‘save’ PC gaming.

What Makes an Interface so Important?

So of course it would be foolish to say that Steam without Big Picture Mode is useless. Far from it! But it’s only half of the equation. On a core level, Steam provides developers with a standard to code to and a reliable DRM to work with (to answer that piracy complaint). Oh sure, this is still the PC and games must still support a variety of hardware configurations, but Steam defines a standard feature set that most games will adhere to and provides a convenient all-in-one solution for hosting it all. It makes it easier for developers to know what to support in their games, and considering this standard is based on familiar APIs, it isn’t even asking much of the devs anyway. In other words, Steam makes the PC platform as attractive to developers as console platforms. That’s step 1.

Step 2 is where Big Picture Mode comes in: providing a standard and convenience for gamers within an attractive user interface. Steam may have already had an achievements system, social integration, widespread controller support, and an easy way to locate and install DLC, but it was all done in just another slightly decorated window. Transitioning between a game and Steam was awkward compared to taking advantage of similar features on consoles. Big Picture Mode solves that problem completely. Everything good about Steam has finally been united into one slick interface that can be operated entirely with a controller, and then a few new features were thrown in to really round out the experience.

But enough ambiguity. Now that we have seen the problem with PC gaming and what could solve it, let’s take a look at just why Steam in Big Picture Mode is such a contender–and really the only contender–to do just that. It’s really something that needs to be experienced to be appreciated, so go ahead, take a look at the video below, and behold the awesomeness that awaits.

From the moment you’re greeted by the fancy splash screen, you’ll find yourself immersed in a very smooth console-like interface with design elements cleverly featuring water in keeping with ‘Valve’ and ‘Steam’. From there, all aspects of the Steam service are accessible easily and intuitively. And leave it to Valve to design the best controller-based web browsing experience out there! Their unique approach to moving the page to the cursor rather than vice versa takes a bit of getting used to, but ultimately works much better than actual console browsers that simulate a mouse with an analog stick. Typing is also comparatively phenomenal with the interesting flower layout. And while for the most part you may be able to forget you’re using a PC, reminders come along in the form of things like full Flash support, rendering web pages exactly as they are meant to be seen and even allowing you to use services like Hulu without the premium subscription fee attached to Hulu Plus for consoles. While in games, a press of a button pops up an in-game console-like menu that gives you full access to Steam features without ever having to stop playing.

This is exactly what the PC needs: a way to tune out of the PC ecosystem and lock in to gaming. In a way, just by plugging in a controller, hooking up your computer to a big screen of some sort, and opening Steam in Big Picture Mode, you’ve converted your PC into a dedicated piece of gaming hardware for a while. The resulting experience is engaging, attractive, and convenient. The openness of the PC is still there for those that want it, but once you’ve gotten your setup just how you like it, Steam will do the rest to take your computer and turn it into the ultimate gaming console.

It’s official, folks: PC gaming is back.