Tuesday, June 28, 2016

So I bought a Steam Machine. How did that go?

A year ago I wrote this post I am a person who will buy a Steam Machine, then Followup on Steam Machines, and I felt all clever. To reiterate the basic argument:
  • PCs are a horrid swamp of choosing hardware parts with model numbers a mile long and people calling you an idiot for picking the wrong third letter. Plus, I don't want to maintain Windows. But they run all the games.
  • Macs have a few easy-to-choose models, which is good, but they don't get all the games. Some of the games, but not all the games.
  • Consoles have just one model (per decade) and run all the games. But I don't want to do business with Sony or Xbox (Windows).

I've been getting along all-Mac for a long time. But, well, The Witness. And other cool-sounding indie titles. And then there's Obduction, which will be available for Mac, but... the recommended graphics hardware just isn't cheap on the Mac side of the universe.

SteamOS looked like a tolerable compromise. It's not Windows. (I know how to maintain Linux.) But it's as cheap as Windows. There are too many models, but if I pick one brand it's only about four models and I don't have to read about graphics cards until my eyes bleed. I figured Valve was a big enough gorilla to corral the game studios into Linux/SteamOS support. Maybe not top priority, but some support.

So, last winter I bought a Steam Machine. Alienware, one of the middle models, I don't remember the letters and numbers. It arrived in December.

(Long embarrassing pause...)

The machine then sat in its carton for six months.

Here's the thing. Games fall into these rough categories:
  • Games from giant publishers that can do cross-platform development. Some of these ship for Mac and Windows simultaneously. Others ship for Windows first, Mac later. Others ship for Windows and the hell with everything else. Linux/SteamOS support might come along with Mac support, or later, or never.
  • Games from indie publishers using cross-platform tools (usually Unity). These ship for Mac and Windows simultaneously. Maybe Linux/SteamOS too, maybe not.
  • Games from indies who write directly in Windows. Mac comes a long time later, if ever. Linux is hosed.

In no case does the SteamOS version come before the Mac version. Oh, occasionally it happens. I looked through Steam's list and found... the Saint's Row series was Win and SteamOS but not Mac. There might have been another example. But not the stuff I cared about.

My Steam hardware was getting me exactly zero leverage in playing new games. So much for the big gorilla argument.

(Further embarrassed pause...)

So last weekend I uncrated my Steam Machine, stuck a Windows 10 thumb drive into it, and wiped that puppy clean. Fresh Win10 install. Worked great. Installed the Steam app, installed The Witness, launched it. I'm up to two lasers.

That's pretty much my whole blog post.

It's kind of embarrassing for everybody, really. If it weren't for the brute momentum of the industry, would we want the epicenter of gaming to be glued to Windows? Of course not. Windows is the only consumer OS that costs money -- and when it inevitably goes free, it will be because Microsoft has tied Windows to some other miserable business model. Desktop ads or force-integrated Office subscriptions, who knows. It won't do gamers any favors, you can bet.

Consoles are run for the benefit of their owners -- not game developers or players. The Mac world is, yes, run for the benefit of Apple.

(Sure, I'd argue that Apple wants to make Mac users happy. But that's not the same as "game developers and players". The iOS App Store is harsh terrain for devs these days; the Mac App Store is worse; nobody wants to see those conditions spread industry-wide. Anyhow, Apple already launched their living-room console-oid, and it didn't make much splash.)

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that a dominant Linux gaming console would be better than what we've got now. PC-equivalent hardware prices; no Windows license fees; a common hardware model anchored by Valve, whose biggest motivation is "make sure all games run well". It's clearly the vision Valve was shooting for. They just failed to make it happen. Insufficient gorilla.

(If Valve were the size of Apple, they would have rolled their own hardware. And if I were as powerful as Doctor Manhattan, I'd have a birthday party on Mars.)

So what will actually happen to Steam Machines? I see that Alienware, at least, is doubling down on the idea... but why not, right? It's just a PC gaming rig with a different software setup. They're already in that business. And they got my money; I just wasted the marginal cost of buying Win10 retail.

(As for the Steam controller, it has turned out to be a distraction. You can like it, hate it, or ignore it -- it's doing fine on Witness for me. But it's platform-neutral hardware, irrelevant to the SteamOS/Steam Machine effort.)

I doubt Valve will kill their SteamOS effort, but I doubt it will gain much momentum either. In the meantime, I will (dammit) be playing games on a Windows box.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Dan Fabulich (Jun 29, 2016 at 1:12 AM):

The only thing that builds a console's audience is paid exclusives (and expensive first party titles, same idea), but Valve can't afford that. The PC industry is shrinking, which was the whole impetus of developing SteamOS as an escape strategy.

Surprisingly, even their larger competitors like Apple, Amazon, and Google can't/won't afford to pay for big exclusives, presumably because they've figured out that the console market is shrinking, too, dying at the hands of mobile phones.

Doodpants (Jun 29, 2016 at 10:21 AM):

"It's hard to avoid the conclusion that a dominant Linux gaming console would be better than what we've got now. ... It's clearly the vision Valve was shooting for. They just failed to make it happen."

I had high hopes for the Ouya, whose goal was to be a low-cost, hacker-friendly, Linux-based game console. Yes, I bought one (as an impuse buy at retail, not Kickstarted). It's a shame that it failed to get enough momentum to last.

Oreolek (Jun 30, 2016 at 2:37 AM):

Another sad tale of Linux gaming. The drivers are not there yet (Windows drivers are better prepared and tested), the developers are scarce. Steam push came as a real Big Boom but it's not enough to make Linux gaming any close to the mainstream.

Andrew Plotkin (Jun 30, 2016 at 10:17 AM):

I'm sure that the drivers, at least, are a solved problem on SteamOS. I haven't gone looking for developer docs, but that's the one obstacle that the Steam Machine manufacturers can take care of.

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