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24 Sep 2013

Valve Announces SteamOS: What Indie Developers Need to Keep in Mind

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By now, you have probably heard the news: Valve has announced the release of SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system designed solely for gaming. That’s right: an operating system based in Linux, designed to play games. It seems crazy to think about, yet it looks like Linux may actually be getting the recognition it deserves. As you are probably aware, most games on Valve’s Steam client are not Linux-based (although that number is climbing consistently), yet if you are an indie developer and you are finding yourself worried that you need to port your game over to Linux, stop worrying.

The beauty of SteamOS is that players can stream their games from their regular gaming PC to a device running SteamOS, hooked up to their television in their living room. What does this mean? Not only will your games that you currently provide via Steam work alongside SteamOS, but your Steam games can now be played in the living room on a regular television screen.

Therein lays the real power of Valve’s announcement from yesterday: Valve is vying for control of the living room in a big way. But what does this announcement mean for indie developers? Potentially, it means a few things.


If you’re not on Steam, now is the time to reconsider

For nearly a decade, Steam consisted of mostly serious gamers. Sure, there is an abundance of casual games for sale on Steam, and there are quite a few casual players that use Steam to get their quick, 15-minute-a-day game fix. Yet while this demographic may be in the minority, this may be about to change.

You see, Valve opting to move to the living room means Steam is going to get a drove of new players using their client. Because streaming games from one PC to a simple, easy-to-use device (more on that in a moment) will (hopefully) be as easy as loading up Netflix (a task we all know how to do), many new types of players (i.e. not just casual players) are probably going to be more inclined to use Steam. Especially when it means they can play their all-time favorite games on a television – from Bejeweled  to Angry Birds Space to Puzzle Quest and beyond, casual players are going to flock to Steam more than ever (theoretically, of course).

And not solely casual players, either. In addition, anyone that has opted to not use Steam because they could not play their games on a television screen is now going to be forced to reconsider this decision.

If your game is not on Steam, start reconsidering now. There is no word on when SteamOS will be released, nor is there any news on a tentative release date of their yet-to-be-announced device that aims to tie their attempt to dominate the living room together (again, more on that in a moment), so for now, start contemplating a plan of action for releasing your game on Steam. Once SteamOS and its unannounced device is released (likely next year) and more people begin adopting it, the players that have never used Steam before (and there is going to be a lot of them) will hopefully find your game, buy it, and play it in their living room.


The SteamBox (and what it means for other platforms)

The unannounced device I spoke about in the last paragraph? That is the ‘SteamBox’ (that’s its tentative title, anyway) – a device designed to stream games from a PC to a television screen, monitor, etc. It’s the device that may make Steam an even more popular gaming client, as Steam will be making its foray into the living room – a space dominated primarily by Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Add to the fact ‘microconsoles’ are striving to carve a niche out of the living room, and it becomes incredibly clear that Steam is the latest platform that wants to be exclusive to your living room. Yet with all of these choices, which platforms should you choose to release your indie game onto and which ones do you simply ignore?

That’s a decision you will ultimately have to make for yourself, and it isn’t easy. Steam is simply the next platform that is joining the ‘War of the Living Room’ so to speak, yet consider this: Steam has one of the largest gaming libraries among any other platform, and the kicker? Each game in its library will have the ability to be played on your living room’s television screen in the near future. Use that information to make an informed decision on whether you need to release your game on Steam now, wait until later, or opt to not release on Steam at all.


Gamepad support?

One of the things currently unknown about the unannounced ‘SteamBox’ is whether or not games will need to include gamepad support. It makes sense for Valve’s upcoming ‘SteamBox’ to support a mouse and keyboard, whether the two are plugged into the device itself or are connected wirelessly, but until Valve releases additional information, the jury is still out.

Even so, you have to consider the type of players that will be using a ‘SteamBox.’ Sure, there will be many players that use the device with a mouse and keyboard (if they are supported), yet I suspect the majority of players will want to play their games in the living room like they always have: with a controller. Thus, you need to consider whether or not you want to incorporate gamepad support into your game(s) before releasing them onto Steam. And if they are already on Steam but lack gamepad support? Consider adding the feature.

However, this brings up a problem with some games, as there are games on Steam that have to primarily use a mouse and keyboard – some point-and-click adventure titles come to mind. Therefore, you will have to make another informed decision:

  1. Should I add gamepad support?
    1. Even if the ‘SteamBox’ has mouse/keyboard support?
  2. Will it possibly increase the sales of my game(s)?
  3. Can I incorporate the feature easily?
    1. Will the game(s) play just as well, or will it harm the overall quality of the game(s)?

It’s questions like these and more that you need to consider before adding gamepad support, so weigh the pros and cons accordingly.


Porting to Linux?

SteamOS is Linux-based, and while it is likely they will announce a ‘SteamBox’ fairly soon, Valve is hoping that in the near future, SteamOS will replace Windows as the dominant PC gaming platform. Whether this happens or not remains to be seen, yet it begs the question: “Should I port my game over to Linux so it can be played on gaming PCs running SteamOS?”

The quick answer is that it is too early to tell. As in way, way too early (the OS was only announced yesterday after all). Yet it’s a choice you need to keep in the back of your mind as SteamOS continues to evolve over time. Will it become the platform of choice for PC gaming? Time will tell, yet if it does, you will want your game (or games) to support Linux.


What to take away from Valve’s announcement yesterday

Is SteamOS and Valve’s to-be-announced ‘SteamBox’ going to revolutionize gaming in the living room? That remains to be seen, but theoretically, it seems as if they are at least going to have a significant presence – especially if streaming games from a PC to your living room’s television is seamless and simple (again, as simple as watching Netflix from your Blu-ray player, for instance). Add to the fact that Valve already has a gigantic library of games, and you’re looking at a platform that is transitioning into a platform that aims to attract every type of gamer.

Valve has two challenges:

  1. Inform the public that playing games on a television screen via their PC-operated Steam client is so simple, anyone can do it.
  2. Your favorite games, no matter if you play 2 hours a week or 2 hours a day, is on Steam.

By accomplishing both challenges, Steam is going to grow its userbase like never before, and you deserve to be there from the start. Make a few informed decisions before releasing the optimal version of your game to Steam, and prepare for what may be coming soon.

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