Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On Steam and Platform Convergence

So.  It seems that one big thing I've been missing out on in the PC gaming world is Valve's Steam, a digital distribution system for PC games.  I finally took the time to visit the Steam website, after hearing about it here and there over the years, after I picked up a number of adventure titles on the cheap during Telltale Games' big summer sale and decided to see if other games were available at such reasonable prices.  As it happens, Steam was also having a big summer sale, and so I downloaded the client application, and grabbed a couple of free demos, to see where things stand these days.

That might have been a mistake -- but I don't think so, really.

Now, my laptop is a decent little machine, but it's not a gaming powerhouse.  Its integrated graphics chip isn't up to playing the latest 3-D PC games, as was clear when I tried out the Duke Nukem Forever demo.  I had to minimize all the graphics settings to achieve 8-10 frames per second, which wasn't really playable.

But while most of the recent XBox 360/PC crossover games arrive on the service on release day, Steam isn't limited to those new titles.  There's a broad range of titles from nearly 50 publishers available.  And thanks to some attractive sale prices -- yes, I got suckered in -- I was able to pick up id's Quake, Valve's Half-Life, all 5 X-Com titles, and 5 of the Ubisoft post-Jordan Mechner Prince of Persia titles, all for under US$40.00 total.  Yes, I can't play some of them now -- but eventually someday  in the near future I intend to upgrade my PC gaming equipment.  And for the time being, I can play many of these titles, and consider picking up Her Interactive's Nancy Drew adventures, Lucasarts' LOOM, and quite a few classic older games which will run just fine.

What Steam does really nicely, and what gives the service a distinct advantage over rummage sales and piracy, is the packaging.  X-Com: Ufo Defense is a DOS game, and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is a 2003 Windows 2000/XP game.  Quake originated as a DOS game but runs under more modern engines as delivered by Steam -- the id Windows engine, as well as the graphically improved QuakeGL engine.  Steam hides a lot of these messy details; the service provides game-specific launchers and an environment that makes downloading, installing, patching, and running a wide variety of titles straightforward -- we don't have to mess with process settings and video resolutions and obsolete floppy disks to get these games working.  There are glitches here and there, but for the most part Steam's approach takes those familiar PC techie concerns off the table; we buy, download, and play.  And we can be satisfied that it's all legal, so at least some of our purchase price will make its way back to the developers, or at least the publisher.

We do have to mess with the controller settings, with older games; I have a Logitech gamepad I have used for years, and Microsoft makes a nice Windows-compatible version of its familiar XBox 360 controller.  But older games, if they support a gamepad input at all, need to have the buttons and movement controls defined.  The PC has always been customizable to a degree unheard of on consoles, but the downside is that nothing is very standardized, so the user has to do some work before getting down to serious gaming.  And yes, some PC games are optimized for mouse and keyboard play, or simply require the additional precision, which is why it's nice that we can also get reasonably priced wireless keyboards and mice these days.

Newer games are a different story -- the 360 controller has rapidly become a standard on the PC as well, at least for action games, and many crossover games work with the 360 gamepad out of the box.  This brings me to another realization: we are finally seeing the long-expected but never-quite-achieved convergence of the PC and console gaming platforms.  This is, in part, because new PCs have HDMI outputs, making it easy to put PC video and audio on the living room system without the Windows (or Mac) desktop becoming a blurry, unreadable mess.  It's also happening because the technology curve is starting to slow -- the technology gulf between a console and a PC today isn't nearly as wide as it was when the Atari 2600 had to compete with the Commodore 64.

As supporting evidence, I note that Steam plans to take advantage of this trend with an initiative they're calling the "Big Picture" -- like MAME front ends that can be driven with an arcade joystick and buttons, the goal is to present a modified Steam client optimized for the non-desktop PC environment.  Native controller support for this mode will be important -- required, according to Steam's publisher information -- and if this concept works we may soon have a PC equivalent of the console interface: once the front end is launched, the experience won't be much different from what we see on our familiar plug-in-and-play boxes.  Except, of course, we won't be swapping discs anymore; all the content will be downloaded over the Internet and stored on the gaming PC, while we sit back and play wirelessly.

Of course, getting a solid gaming machine up and running will cost more than a console normally does, and in many cases will not be suitable for double duty as a normal desktop machine; some non-gaming tasks just need to be done at close range with coffee, pencil and paper nearby.  And some titles will remain console exclusives; Nintendo's not going to bring Super Mario Galaxy to this platform any time in the foreseeable future.  But there are plenty of fine games that run conveniently on the PC or Mac under Steam, with a wide range of titles drawn from more than 15 years of gaming.  And as game budgets have gone up, the PC market has become more closely tied to the XBox 360 market; it's not difficult to develop for both platforms, maximizing sales and spreading out the development cost, and a relatively current PC can outperform the aging 360 by a fair margin, making this essentially a homebrewed "Super 360" proposition, with the advantage that it can be upgraded from time to time if it starts to seem a little long in the tooth.

I've been excited and optimistic about the prospects for downloadable gaming for several years now, so it's been a pleasant surprise to discover just how far ahead of the consoles the PC gaming world is in this regard.  Pricing is reasonable, title selection is good, nothing goes out of print, and the technology works better than I would have expected.

Now if only Steam would feature a little retro console content... I'm still looking for that single solution, but for now I have to be content with a mishmash of the Wii Virtual Console, the sadly short-lived Microsoft Game Room, various classics collections on various platforms, and genuine vintage hardware.  Maybe the emergence of the 360 gamepad as a standard will help.

I remain excited and optimistic.

1 comment:

  1. Sega has a over a dozen of their old arcade or genesis era games available (I'm guessing with a bundled emulator) and Steam has been adding a lot of indie titles in the last year, a lot of which have a retro feel to them (I'm tempted by the Breath of Death VII + Cthulhu Saves The World bundle I saw this morning).

    And watch out, those sales ARE really dangerous :) Feel free to add me on steam (txster) just don't email my gf with the total number of games shown on my profile...!