Why SteamOS will challenge Windows for PC gaming supremacy

You have to give it to PC gamers. Throughout all the trials and tribulations of the past few years—plummeting PC sales, the mainstream shift to mobile, Windows RT, et cetera—gamers were one of the few bedrocks Microsoft could rely upon. Virtually all major PC games run on Windows, and many run only on Windows.

That’s a big deal. In August, Jon Peddie Research predicted that Bohemia’s ARMA III would drive more than $800 million in PC hardware sales all by itself, and JPR estimates the total market for PC gaming hardware to hit nearly $18 billion in 2013. That’s a lot of quarters, and it’s all funneled toward Windows machines.

But suddenly that domination seems imperiled.

On Monday, Valve launched an assault on one of Windows’ strongest bastions with the announcement of SteamOS, a free, Linux-based operating system built around Steam, the most popular PC-game service in the land. And if any company has the brawn to shift PC gaming to Linux, it’s Valve.

A slow rebellion

The good news for Microsoft: Windows is going to be the featured destination for PC gamers for a while yet.

The Xi3 Piston shown at CES was thought to be an early Steam Box machine, but Valve and Xi3 distanced themselves soon thereafter. The Piston's small form factor nevertheless holds to the Steam Box ethos.

SteamOS was built to power so-called Steam Boxes—small, living-room-friendly PCs designed to challenge the gaming consoles’ death grip on the big screen. They're not fire-breathing enthusiast gaming computers. SteamOS was built around gamepads and Steam’s Big Picture mode rather than keyboards and mice, and perhaps more importantly, it removes the cost of a Windows license—a big expense in the price-competitive living room.

“I think it is important to understand that the vast majority of gamers consider ‘PC gaming’ to be a situation where the display is a few feet away from the gamer,” says Ted Pollak, the senior game industry analyst at Jon Peddie Research. “...Couch-based gaming is ‘console gaming’ and that is what Valve is making a play toward with Steam Box.”

What’s more, native Linux gaming is still in its infancy and mostly involves using WINE to run Windows games on your machine. Steam for Linux itself only supports around 200 games currently. Most are Valve titles or indie games, and even fewer offer the full gamepad support SteamOS begs for. In fact, SteamOS will rely on a proprietary Wi-Fi technology to stream the nearly 3,000 games available for Steam for Windows to your Steam Box.

Steam for Linux is relatively new, but it still offers nearly 200 games.

“I think Valve’s challenge will be to get the games ported to its OS,” says Jon Peddie himself. “They can start of course with their own games, and as interesting as they are, that’s a small library.” (Beyond Steam, Valve has created legendary PC-game series such as Portal, Half-Life, Team Fortress, Counter-Strike, and Left 4 Dead.)

For now, Windows is still firmly entrenched. And yet…

A simmering threat

Though Steam Boxes aren’t an immediate danger to Microsoft’s supremacy, the love PC gamers hold for Steam is fierce, and if SteamOS picks up popularity, Valve’s love for Linux could encroach upon Windows’ gaming stronghold.

“Possibly more important than the ‘PC vs. console’ question is that Valve’s move toward Linux cuts Microsoft Windows out of the picture,” Pollak says. “This then circles back to PC gaming in its traditional form. Will developers make—and people play—Linux-optimized games on the desktop?”

That prospect just got a big boost. On Wednesday, AMD announced 'Mantle,' a low-level, cross-platform programming interface driver (read: DirectX replacement) designed to eek superb hardware-optimized performance out of GPUs based on AMD's GCN architecture across multiple platforms—including both next-gen consoles as well as Windows and SteamOS-based PCs using Radeon graphics.

That could reap immediate benefits for SteamOS if it becomes popular with developers, especially as Steam machines are a natural fit for console ports. EA is already on board with its Frostbite engine; Battlefield 4 will be the first major title to use Mantle.

Valve says to “Watch for announcements in the coming weeks about all the AAA titles coming natively to SteamOS in 2014.”

Other cornerstones are being laid. Both AMD and Nvidia ramped up their Linux driver support as soon as SteamOS was announced, and Intel has also been working with Valve to improve its Linux driver performance. Valve also says that multiple SteamOS-powered Steam Boxes from multiple manufacturers will be released in 2014, though none were explicitly named and pricing was not announced.

Entertaining enthusiasts

But beyond ecosystem support, SteamOS and Steam for Linux could also beckon to PC enthusiasts who feel the urge to eke as much performance as possible out of their games.

When it announced SteamOS, Valve said it has "achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing" and is working on improving audio. That makes sense; in August, Valve said that the native Linux version of Left 4 Dead 2 ran far faster than the Windows version, because of “the underlying efficiency of the kernel and OpenGL.” Less OS and API bloat means more frames—a compelling pitch for speed freaks.

“Many people think that the Windows environment holds back the performance capabilities of the hardware in the PCs,” says Pollak. “PC gamers have historically enjoyed more performance than consoles. If processing efficiencies can be proven, this Linux effort may win the support of PC gamers who will continue to play from the desktop.”

Crazy like a headcrab

Yes, it sounds crazy to go toe-to-toe with the Xbox and PlayStation in the living room, and yes, challenging Windows’ dominance on the PC will be an intense uphill battle. But don’t forget that it was just as nutty for Valve to require you to sign up for Steam to play Half-Life 2 all those years ago, and look how well that turned out.

Like I said: If any company has the brawn to shift PC gaming to Linux, it's Valve—especially if Gabe Newell is crazy enough to make the much anticipated Half-Life 3 a Steam-for-Linux exclusive. Windows will reign supreme for a while yet, but watch for those AAA titles coming to SteamOS in 2014.

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