We are currently in the middle of a console generation transition. In less than two months Sony will launch the Playstation 4 and Microsoft will launch the Xbox One. Nintendo’s Wii U, the first next-generation console to come out of the gate, has failed to gain traction with gamers and consumers, and Nintendo is attempting a “soft-relaunch” of sorts, by lowering the price to $299 and bundling the console with Wiimotes and its best available game, “The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker HD”. The gaming madia’s attention is focused on these things. But there’s always lesser-known stuff that happens during console transitions… other players that move their pieces around on the proverbial chessboard, trying to get a piece of the console gaming market/ Case in point…
As the creator of the Half Life series of games and of the Steam online games service, Valve Corporation is probably the largest player in the PC Gaming realm. However, the company is pretty much an unknown when it comes to the average consumer, console gaming and the living room., much to company founder and CEO Gabe Newell’s chagrin. Clearly, Valve would like to change all that. For over a year, gamers have been reading/hearing rumors about Valve entering the gaming hardware market, with a “Steam Box”, a low-cost, small form-factor PC that would connect to an HDTV. Steam certainly took the first steps in that direction with its “Big Picture” mode, which optimized the Steam client app for viewing on an HDTV’s 1080p screen and for use with a control pad instead of a mouse and keyboard. The feature was welcomed by enthusiasts, who happily used it to build and connect HTPCs to their televisions, but nothing else happened (unless you count the sad, sad Piston fiasco… but I digress) until now.
Since last week, Steam has been teasing gamers, the media, and the industry that it would be making three (3) separate announcements this week. The first announcement was regarding Steam OS, a full-fledged, gaming-focused computer operating system based on Linux. Valve developed Steam OS in partnership with Nvidia, to optimize graphics performance for the user interface and for gaming. Nvidia provided its streaming technology, to allow users to stream non-Steam OS games with zero latency or lag. This is pretty much the solution Sony is using to allow Playstation 4 gamers to play Playstation 3 games. And the whole thing will be free.
The second announcement had to do with “Steam Machines” (the official name, so Steam Box is no more). Essentially, Valve has partnered with several hardware makers to create new computers specially made to run Steam OS. Valve has given manufacturers spec guidelines for these machines, which it did not disclose in the announcement, but we can guess a few obvious things. Since Nvidia was a major partner in developing Steam OS, expect an Nvidia GPU for sure. No AMD or Intel GPUs need apply. And since Nvidia doesn’t play all that well with AMD processors, expect at least an Intel Core i5 “Haswell” in there.
But that’s not all… Valve revealed that it has had a secret beta program running for some time now. As part of the now expanded beta, it has built three hundred (300) Steam Machines of its own, which it will send to 300 lucky new beta testers, free of charge. The requirements for the beta are posted on Steam’s website.
The third announcemet was the controller, which can be used for both the Steam client and Steam OS, and looks like nothing we’ve seen before… unless you want to count the old Mattel Intellivision console.
The Steam Controller has no thumbsticks. Instead, it has dual clickable touchpads, with a high-resolution touchscreen in the middle. The controller featured advanced haptic feedback. Steam promises gamers will be able to “feel” speed, textures, action confirmations, etc. though their fingertips. Also, when users touch the controllers screen, whatever is being displayed there will be overlaid on top of what is being displayed on their TV screen, so as to not distract from the gameplay. The controller will be provided to beta testers, along with the Steam Machines and Steam OS.
The implications of valve’s moves this week are pretty big. They are directly challenging Microsoft’s PC gaming dominance, since they’re seeking to eliminate the need to run Microsoft Windows to play PC games. Valve’s streaming on non-Steam OS-compatible games is a stopgap solution while they distribute Steam OS and drum up game developer support for native Steam OS games. They are also challenging Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo in the gaming console arena, by eliminating or automating the need for things like graphics driver and OS updates and game patches, and providing the Steam social gaming and multiplayer features we all know and love. Time will tell if Steam will be successful at this. We have to see how the Xbox One and Playstation 4 fare in the market. If the new consoles face the same difficulties as the Wii U, Steam may have an opening… or it could mean they have no chance at all, and that gaming consoles are dying out. We’ll know for sure next year.
ONE OTHER THING YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED
AMD held a special event this week to announce their new line of gaming GPUs, the Hawaii, or “GPU14”. They intended to livestream the event, but they had to desist from doing so, do to technical problems (and apparently copyright issues with the music they were using).
Their new GPUs will be divided into two series, the R9 and the R7. The R7 cards’s prices will start at under $100, while the top-of-the-line R9 cards, the R9 280X and 290X will be priced at $299 and above. The 280X will have 3GB RAM, and the 290X will have 4GB RAM.
AMD described the R9 as an enhancement to the current GCN architecture, which is used in the Radeon 7xxx and Radeon 8xxx (mobile) series of cards. They will have a 512 bit memory interface, over 300 GB/s of bandwith, 4 billion triables per second and over 6 billion transistors. The card and its Eyefinity technology is compatible with 4K displays.
The new cards also feature AMD’s new TrueAudio programmable sound technology, which AMD says will enable game makers to use hundreds of voices and sound channels over what can be used with just a CPU today. Eidos reps at the event praised the effects the technology allowed them to use in the new Thief game. Xaviant showed their new game, LIichdom, which uses CryEngine 3, and looks particularly impressive when running on the new cards.
The cards are the first graphics hardware to be compatible with DirectX 11.2, Oh, and Saints Row IV also got added to the free games bundle you get with the purchase of an AMD graphics card.
AMD also announced that they partnered with Raptr to create a new, joint PC gaming app, the AMD Gaming Evolved App, powered by Raptr. It will optimize GPU settings for your games automatically, and do all the game tracking and social and video streaming the Raptr app is famous for.
Finally, AMD announced Mantle, a low-level API to give direct GPU access to programmers. They stated that their goal is to offload most of the game code from the CPU to the GPU. After realizing how slow the AMD Jaguar CPU core in the Xbox One and PS4 really is, I can understand why this is AMD’s preferred coding model. Lucky for them this is the industry trend overall right now.
THE GAME OF THE WEEK
The Game of the Week is Grand Theft Auto V…. ‘cause of Trevor an’ stuff. It helps that I’m binge-viewing all the seasons of “Breaking Bad” right now. 😛
THE MMO OF THE WEEK
The MMO of the week is still Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, though honorable mentions go to Star Wars: The Old Republic, DC Universe Online and Tera, which I’m playing on-and-off on the side.
THE TV SHOW OF THE WEEK
It’s a tie between MARVEL’s AGENTS OF SHIELD on ABC and Revolution, on NBC. The latter has been improved so much that it’s an antirely new show (my thanks to new showrunner Rockne S. O’banon, of Alien Nation and Farscape fame.