What if one day you woke up and realized that you’ve essentially been living the same day of your life over and over with only minor deviations separating one from the other? How would you react to suddenly discovering that all those twists and turns you’ve taken through your life that you thought led to a new road, instead proved to be detours that inevitably led you to the same path as before? Would you accept this destiny? Would you deny its existence and go on believing you are the master of several fates? Could you find a way to stop the pattern for good?
It appears that one day Gabe Newell, or more likely some collection of employees at Valve, did wake up and realize that for all of the advancements video games have made, the industry is ultimately treading the same ground and abiding to the same rules. Rules that, whether we fully realized it or not, set a basic template for how the entire game business would work that have been loosely followed ever since.
The biggest, and most problematic, of these rules would have to be the roles that everyone and everything in the industry (including console manufacturers, consoles themselves, the PC industry, and you the gamer) have been assigned and are expected to live by. There have been the aforementioned deviations of course (consoles serving as multimedia machines, elements of PC and console gaming bleeding into each other, etc.) but for the most part, if you look closely enough you can see that year after year, and generation after generation the basic mold of how gaming functions doesn’t really suffer much change out of fear that doing so will screw the over $60 billion a year pooch the industry has become.
Valve has never really been a company that lived and died by these conventions however. While you could easily write an essay on how they proved this on the game design side with the innovations of Half-Life, their biggest rebellion came with the arrival of Steam, which not only threatened to remove the role of the traditional video game retailer, but provided a marketplace where the guy making a game in his garage could theoretically have as much shelf space as a AAA gaming conglomerate, among other innovations.
Still though, when everyone started to realize that Valve was going to support a piece of hardware, and when Vavle themselves revealed that they wanted to expand their domain into the living room, it was not some radical new approach many of us envisioned, but rather ideas formulated by those invisible conceptual strings that have been making gaming dance for decades now. Many pictured a unique “Steambox” with big exclusives to help sell it, and a clear and present plan accentuated by a heavy amount of presentation flash that would reveal that Gabe and co. were coming after Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo in a way that affords the poor headline writers of the world an afternoon off as they hastily scribble some variation of the new phrase “The Big Four.”
To some extent Valve did give us that, but they did it in a fashion that reminds me of the classic American Gothic painting as, on the surface, we are able to look at their news and be reminded of the traditional homeland style console reveals like Momma used to announce. A deeper look, though, shows a certain unsettling hidden agenda behind the comforting image that makes you somewhat nauseous with its implications.
That feeling derives from the fact that Valve isn’t releasing a traditional console, nor or they necessarily aiming to engage in a direct sales war with the big three. Instead, their target appears to be nearly every convention we’ve come to accept about gaming. While this approach is obvious through the intent of Steam OS to replace Windows as the go to operating system for games on the PC, the basic design of the controller (which is already drawing a host of Photoshop mocks) that only seems to loosely resemble the ideas we’ve come to associate with a controller, or the theory that with a Steam Machine your gaming device can serve as a true all in one system, the real signs of Valve’s intentions to facilitate a change on a large scale go much deeper.
By far the biggest example of this is the effort being put towards offering users true input and accessibility when it comes to interacting with their gaming machine. From being able to select a variety of Steam machines that works for your specific needs, to the ability to map their controller’s functions down to the most minute of preferences, right down to the OS itself which is open sourced enough to encourage independent development on a level never conceived before, one of the primary ideas that fuel this new campaign is the idea that gamers themselves have the ability to play a role much grander than that of consumers. Gabe Newell said as much during the recent Linux speech when he commented that the one group of developers that Valve wouldn’t want to compete with is the community itself who he says have far outstripped the creative productivity of Valve, and could potentially become more effective contributors to games than traditional developers. To the high powers of old, this is a logic equivalent to building an unlocked gate on the side of Rome that reads “Barbarians Only.”
While many of the mentioned ideas have existed in one form or another in PC gaming for years, never before has a company attempted to take those aspects of PC gaming and port them over to format that encroaches on the territory of the traditional console/living room set up, which is usually acknowledged as the base of operations for all of the most lucrative forms of home entertainment.
What’s brilliant about the entire notion, though, is how unassuming it is. Valve is not forcing anyone to buy a Steam machine or convert to Steam OS, and have, in fact, gone out of their way to emphasize how anyone who is comfortable with their current PC gaming set up will be allowed to continue living with it. That’s the aspect Microsoft didn’t understand when trying to re-invent the console wheel with the Xbox One, and, as such, the early design of that system came across like an obvious Trojan horse that once accepted into your home would force its ways and beliefs on you without choice. Valve’s approach on the other hand is like a secret meaning in a clandestine location where revolution is only whispered between capable parties. They are slowly letting the idea of change enter the hearts and minds of the people, and are only willing to proceed further if the development and reception to that idea merits it.
In taking the pulse of the online gaming community regarding Valve’s announcements, it seems that there are a lot of feelings of either disinterest or confusion regarding them. If those are your reactions, don’t feel slighted or lost, but rather understand that everything that has been revealed isn’t meant to be a set in stone vision of the future of gaming. but instead is intended to set the foundation of an idea regarding the future of gaming that will only become standard or encouraged if it is executed in a way that warrants success, rather than serving as the one and only option for consumers that don’t want to be left behind and are forced to buy a system that may or may not be fully capable, just to stay current.
Ultimately, that may just be the biggest convention that Valve is attacking. It’s also the one that, if defeated, may just light the way to a truly new path in gaming.