Usually I dislike commenting on stuff in the news, instead keeping to topics I have at least some direct experience of — even if I’m frequently documenting my own lack of experience.
But I believe that a lot of people are misinterpreting Gabe Newell’s keynote speech at LinuxCon, in which he said that Linux is the “future of gaming”. In just over a day that Ars article has drawn over 400 comments but only a handful have come close to what I believe is the real issue.
(If you’ve only read summaries, I urge you to watch Gabe’s talk. It’s only about 20 minutes long.)
Most of the reaction concerns Windows 8, its software store and tightly-controlled computing environments in general. This misses the point.
Here’s my take: Valve are preparing for the next decade of PC gaming.
But first let’s do a bit of groundwork that will address the common arguments against Gabe’s talk (or what those people imagine he said) and put us in position to view the wider landscape.
Valve began considering the direction of the PC industry “several years ago”. When Gabe talks about “some bad thinking” it’s clear that he means iOS and the tightly-controlled App Store. It should be obvious that Steam would not have been able to exist in that environment.
Steam started on Windows. So where’s Windows now? Doing OK. Windows 8 is a tad confused but doing fine. The Windows Store that plenty of commenters think that Valve fears will eat its lunch? A bit like the Mac App Store. Nothing to worry about.
But where is Windows going? To answer that you must consider where Microsoft is going.
No-one knows where Microsoft is going. I don’t think that Microsoft even knows where Microsoft is going.
Its 13-year CEO has just been fired and it desperately needs to unhook itself from the twin Windows and Office morphine drips. Selling Windows licences to PC-makers hits a snag when PC unit sales fall off a cliff and it’s difficult to sell Office to people on platforms where they can’t buy it even if they wanted to.
So where does that leave Windows? It’s not clear but the mishmash of tablet and desktop OS that is Windows 8, coupled with the Windows Store, suggests Microsoft wants to head in Apple’s direction. It is this which I think Gabe was referring to when he branded Windows 8 a “catastrophe”.
The end of Windows as we know it? Impossible! Well maybe not. Microsoft’s in a bind and who knows what it is willing to throw into the engine in order to keep the wheels turning?
Valve makes a lot of money from Steam but it’s dependent on having a stable environment where it can more or less do what it likes, ship whatever client software it wants with a store run in a way that suits the business and its customers. Not the rules of a third party.
Linux provides that platform. It is stable in the sense that it has no master which can suddenly make a self-interested change that makes life difficult for Valve.
This is not about the quality of Windows 8, how much business the Windows Store is going to take from Steam or an objection to giving a controlling party some say or a monetary cut.
This is about moving to a platform in which Steam can exist without a guillotine blade hanging over its head.
However, Valve can’t just snap its fingers and have everyone switch to Linux (as many, many commenters noted). But let me tell you a story.
My Steam account is 10 years old this month. I signed up in September 2003. At the time Steam was a joke. There was a horrendous GIF doing the rounds that unfortunately summed up the feelings of a lot of users. Steam was rubbish. About the only thing you could do was play Counter-Strike 1.6.
When Valve announced that you would be able to download Half-Life 2 instead of buying a physical copy I wondered why anyone would want to spend several days downloading a game when you could just nip to the shops.
The Linux user experience can often suck. Few ordinary gamers use it and few developers release games for it. But these are solvable problems.
Valve’s plan for Linux is not for now, it’s for the future. But it starts now.