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.

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  1. I don’t know if I’d write off cloud gaming just yet. The draw of cloud gaming is you don’t need a powerful rig. The server does all the heavy lifting. When I was stuck with my mediocre laptop, cloud gaming was great. I’ve upgraded my PC since then and so I’m not using OnLive as much anymore, however I don’t think cloud gaming will die just yet. Maybe I’m wrong but cloud gaming and Steam still have some pretty big differences between them.

    Also, a minor correction. OnLive at least is not subscription based per se. They have two packages, one where you buy single games, the other where you subscribe and get a library of games to play. I’ve found that OnLive sales are comparable to Steam sales, they just have a smaller library, so that’s a problem.

    Big Picture is pretty cool although I haven’t really explored it too much yet. I usually just boot up the game I want to play so I haven’t played around with the UI too much yet.

  2. So, forgive my ignorance, but how is this any advantage over using a simple DVI to HDMI converter and plugging a USB X360 controller into my PC? PC games have been playable on HDTVs for a long time. I remember seeing a display at CompUSA back in 2002 or so.

  3. Onlive doesn’t really hold an appeal to most PC gamers as it eliminates what PC gamers enjoy about PC gaming (customization, modding, etc.)

    PLay skyrim all you want on Onlive, no matter how hard you try you’ll never be able to enjoy those mods people have made. Sure consoles suffer from the same limitations but if they are smart the ‘next gen’ of consoles won’t have that issue.

    Honestly though, While this is cool/useful and everything, no one was waiting for something like this to hook their PC up to their TV, if they wanted to they have already done it.

    Id say in terms of additions they should look into adding a ‘media’ section so video and music can be played from within big pic. mode.

  4. Draugr, dunno if I would put all PC gamers in that category. I like PC gaming but I don’t ever really bother with a lot of mods or other customization. Plus, it really is a question of how powerful your rig is. If, as many are predicting, consoles begin to decline, not everyone is going to buy an Alienware or build a top-notch PC rig. Cloud gaming could help keep PC gaming accessible for people who don’t have the time and/or money to have a supercomputer. Right now, most of these gamers probably stick to consoles but if consoles go away. . . . Well, it’s going to be an interesting next few years no matter what. I think that the video game landscape is going to undergo some major shifts and it’s hard to say what exactly will happen.

    I do have to agree with you that this mode, while cool, isn’t a huge deal. Just using myself as an example, I already have my PC hooked up to my TV via HDMI cable. Big picture mode makes things look a little nicer but really doesn’t change any of the fundamentals, besides, I still play other things on my PC besides Steam games. So, if my PC was not already hooked up to my TV, big picture mode would not convince me to go and haul it downstairs.

  5. I think I have to agree with J Morales here – Big Picture does nothing to remedy the hardware problem, and as you, Paul, have pointed out yourself (I think it was in your Forbes column), there is no controller/console for BP yet, so users would still have to hook their PC to the TV, which…is the same thing I could have done years ago. So, unless Valve (which is by far my favorite gaming company) develops their own console or dips into the cloud gaming market, and lord knows, their servers seem to be big enough to handle that, BP will likely stay on the PC monitor.

  6. ya..this is neat but its not like a big change.. i’ve got an xbox controller for my computer and an hdmi cord and can play anything on my tv already..

    the interface for that setup is a good idea though i guess and might change how other people think about it..

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