As regular readers should be aware by now, I am a pretty big fan of Steam (not a fanboy, I am aware of its flaws). Most of the time I am a PC gamer, which usually means I’m curled up at my desk. Whilst this isn’t a huge issue, it just can’t compare to kicking back on the sofa downstairs in front of the TV.
With the recent beta of Steam’s new Big Picture mode, there has been a complete overhaul of the UI that makes it fall more in line with console standards and it looks incredibly pretty on my 38″ HDTV downstairs. Indeed, it is almost as if the almighty Gaben has read my thoughts and designed it for me. OK well maybe it’s a more common complaint than that but still, it makes me feel special…
There have been rumours abound for some time about Valve getting into the console market and they’ve been shot down time and time again. Whilst there’s no ignoring the ever growing casual market, the strength of the PC has always been the ability to build your own console from the ground up. If Valve released their own console with top-line specs, some people would still complain over the use of an Intel chip rather than an AMD, or nVidia over AMD (formerly ATi).
This brings me to the entire point of this article. Is it time for the console market to open up to the user? By supplying the software, Valve have made it incredibly easy to build your own gaming console. Stick a few parts in a MicroATX case and you’re off! Combined with the increasing library of games for Mac, and eventually Ubuntu Linux, the choice really does lie with the end user. My main bugbear with consoles has always been their sole devotion to one task. I understand that is the whole point of their existence but in the recent generation especially we’ve seen a divergence from gaming only to a fully fledged entertainment centre. The PS3 is still one of the cheapest BluRay players on the market and from what I gather (I don’t own one), it’s also one of the best.
So even with this, why would I consider building my own? Well it’s for the same reason really. While my Xbox 360 does a pretty good job of playing games, music and videos (except AVIs which it insists on stuttering). It doesn’t do them as well as I’d like them to, it doesn’t play FLAC or MKV and the dashboard changes so bloody often that I can never remember where a damn thing is. Seriously, it took me nearly 15 minutes to change my theme because it is no longer in System Settings… It insists on charging me twice for content I already pay for (Netflix) and indeed for just playing online (PS3 can take a free pass on both of these).
Really it all boils down to an issue of control, I’m simply no longer content with someone else deciding what is best for my entertainment needs. I don’t want this to become a double standard because Valve really decide what goes on Steam (as do the community) but Steam would just be one facet of my own home-made console.
I am not the first person to build such a PC, HTPCs have been a thing for a good number of years. Apple sell the Mac Mini which is essentially built to be small and unnoticeable. In the Linux community there’s a large number of distributions where entertainment is the sole purpose, projects like XBMC, MythTV and LinuxMCE. Hell that last one can even automate your curtains. No really, it can. Windows, well there’s Media Centre but anyone who can make that work is a better man than I.
Nowadays it’s just a whole lot easier to accomplish, as well as being a lot more feasible because a good percentage of our media is delivered digitally. I’m entertained by games I get from Steam, music from Spotify or Last.fm (even though I still have a record collection…) and video from Netflix. By putting this out Valve are essentially saying “here’s your goal, now build it”. I’ve had a few people ask why I don’t intend to put my current PC downstairs and hook it up to my TV. Well, in short, my PC is huge. I also use it for a lot of other things besides gaming, like actual work!
In conclusion, I intend to build my own solution that caters to my needs because I am an awkward git who enjoys making life difficult for himself. Well, I do like a challenge!
You can find more on Steam’s Big Picture mode here