Valve’s Big Picture Could be a Game Changer

When I was a kid my father wouldn’t allow me to use his work computer to play games until after dinner. If I wanted to play a game before then I had to use my Nintendo. I would grumble and complain that computer games were different but my father would always tell me that a “game was a game,” and that it didn’t matter which room I played in. He didn’t quite understand the difference between the two. I had just got my hands on Space Quest II for PC and while I enjoyed my Nintendo I could only spend so much time playing Bases Loaded before getting bored. “Why couldn’t I play Space Quest on my TV?” I thought. I was a silly child who knew nothing about how business was “supposed” to work.

Eventually I and many others began to accept that there were two worlds of gaming; PC gaming and console gaming. At first this was mainly due to hardware differences but even as technology became more versatile, the companies in charge of the gaming business kept them independent from one another. Consoles remained exclusive for the most part, with larger titles sometimes being released to PC on a secondary basis. Then Valve came along like a kid who doesn’t know how the world is “supposed” to work and asked, like I did many years earlier, “Why can’t I just play PC games on my TV?” A question so brilliantly honest and naïve that it’s hard to believe it came from a billion dollar company.

Easy enough to use, difficult enough to keep 13 year olds from telling me how bad I am. 

With all the fuss people have been making over Big Picture you would think it was some sort of remarkably complicated idea, but it isn’t. It’s really just Steam with a TV friendly interface and web browser designed with controllers in mind, that’s it. There are no hoops to jump through, no need for additional hardware, allowing existing Steam users to just head on over to play their games on the couch. Oh and of course it’s free, that helps too.

I have to admit that Valve’s Big Picture only appears as brilliant as it does because everyone else seems to be doing exactly the opposite. While other companies have been thinking of ways in which to double down on the old model by charging more for exclusive content, elite versions, and map packs, Valve has been releasing almost nothing but free content. TF2’s new Mann vs. Machine horde mode and Dota 2 are free, so are Source Filmmaker, Greenlight, and now Big Picture. The only Valve software I paid for this year was CS: GO and it was only $13.

Somewhere, this happened. 

Although this is bad news for console developers, it’s most likely the nail in the coffin for cloud gaming services such as OnLive who, let’s face it, aren’t doing that great these days to begin with. Most of those services are often too reliant on internet connections that simply aren’t always capable of delivering the crisp online play that users are looking for. Not to mention that they’re also subscription based and require the actual physical space required to house the hardware. When it comes down to it, it’s obvious that the free and reliable service that many already have is going to win out over an unreliable fringe service that has a price tag.

I don’t think that Valve did this to squash any competition, although it is a happy coincidence for them, but rather did this as just another common sense service for their users. This has been their modus operandi for a while now; providing free software for their users, and it’s a pretty straight forward idea. Most companies choose to gamble on large titles, adding sequels and spin-offs to lure users back every year while Valve focuses on services for users in order to create long term relationships. It turns out that people like simple and free solutions, who would have thought?

TF2 became vastly more profitable after going free-to-play.

There are also some implications here for developers as well, who for a long time have been forced to code and test for more than one medium if they wanted both a PC and console release. I can’t think of a developer that wouldn’t be happy to spend all of their development time working in one medium in lieu of spending additional resources for the same game on multiple mediums. Obviously something like this won’t happen overnight, but I doubt smaller indie developers, the ones Valve have been courting with Greenlight, are going to waste time with console exclusivity when users can play from their couch through Steam. Not to mention that if they want to give players a console-like experience they can now do so without publishers’ lackeys standing over their shoulder approving each keystroke.

Big Picture may also help stop developers from selling multiple versions of the same title to the same user over and over. Take Terraria for example which announced just yesterday that they’re developing for XBLA and PSN. Before Big Picture if I had a copy on Steam and I wanted to play on my TV I would have had to buy an additional console version, with Big Picture I can ignore my console all together and simply play the version I already own through my TV. This type of double dipping isn’t particularly rampant, but there are some users who can now play the games they own in whichever fashion they like instead of having to buy one for each medium they own.

As a kid growing-up in the tech boom there was really nothing worse than owning a record only to have to continue buying it on tape, CD, and digital formats as the listening devices changed. Like many I prefer buying something once to buying something more than once. It’s really that simple.

I’ve bought this record about 5 times in my lifetime. 

I don’t really know how console developers will react to this. There are plenty of big titles, Call of Duty for example, which are the backbone of console gaming and they’re probably not too happy about sharing the couch with Valve. Why buy a game that you can only play on your TV when you could buy it on your computer and play it on both? I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some sort of large developer backlash from this, either by delaying releases on Steam or banning them altogether, but even so that’s really only a temporary stop-gap.

The next gen consoles are on their way and nothing’s going to stop them, but console developers need to be careful how they react. They haven’t shown a real aptitude for adapting to the times, using digital distribution as a way to charge even more for their products while Valve have been giving content away for free. Developers only really care about where the users are, and while console exclusivity may have helped retain users in the past, now it’s more likely that the opposite is true. Big Picture doesn’t spell the end for consoles, but it is a body blow they might never recover from.