Unpacking the Machine: SteamOS Deconstructed


Beloved game developer Valve have gone and done the craziest thing you can do in 2014: release an operating system. Well, almost an operating system. A re-skinned, slightly tweaked version of Debian Linux, designed with one major application taking centre stage: Steam.

So what is Steam?

Steam—for those who don’t already know—is an online gaming distribution platform and community. Its original conception was a way to automatically patch games and provide better anti-piracy.

Little known fact: it was originally pitched by Valve to the likes of Microsoft and Yahoo, but was never taken up. Instead, in early 2002 at the Games Developers Conference (GDC), Valve debuted Steam as a broadband delivery platform, citing its advantages over the then predominantly retail box-based PC gaming market.

Their key differences? Faster load times, flexible billing tiers, simple version control (with enforced patch installs) and embedded anti-piracy technology. pic_thebigpicture Originally demoed with then-Microsoft published title “Impossible Creatures”, the beta of Valve’s Counter-Strike 1.6 later became the first Steam required title in January of 2003. It brought the service to a grinding halt. Their problem was demand.

At the time, they were running off a (at the time) large network bandwidth of 500 megabits — large, but not nearly enough to serve the overwhelming demand for Counter-Strike. It left an extremely foul taste in gamer’s mouths and Valve spent the rest of the year placating their masses by releasing a more traditional installer. People were left wondering if perhaps this was Valve’s next big failure, only to be proven wrong as publishers began to sign on to the increasingly-popular service.

Along with the expected improvements to infrastructure, it became the gaming mecca it is today. Currently, it touts over 75 million active accounts and over 3000 titles available in the Steam store.

As it stands today, Steam still offers that same distribution platform complete with auto patch management, DRM and store front for indie and large corporations alike. However, it has also grown to include new functionality such as cloud saves, multi-computer install management, voice chat and community features. It’s reach has also grown; expanding from its Windows roots to include OS X and (what’s likely to be the most important addition), Linux in 2013.

And now for the “Big Picture”… mode

Back in 2012 Valve released a beta of Steam that contained a new feature called “Big Picture”. It was a mode or re-skinned interface of the Steam application that essentially made it easier to navigate using a controller and changed the UI to appear in a way that was easily read/viewed on a high definition television sitting a metre or two away. Valve co-founder Gabe Newell described it as “…a step towards a dedicated Steam entertainment hardware unit”. Steam_Big_Picture_Logo1 Big Picture was a means for the PC gaming market to push its way into the heavily console dominated kingdom of the living room. It was a move planned at precisely the right time. Consoles were reaching the end of what was the longest cycle they’ve ever endured. The PC began to showcase increasingly superior technology. In doing so, it slowly began to claw back some of that lost marketshare.

Technologically, console gaming was consistently being blown out of the water by PCs. Steam was also now easily accessible via “Big Picture” mode, so you could get all of that from the comfort of your couch. The only downside? You had a PC sitting there next to your TV with a noisy fan whirring. For many this may have not been a huge issue, but try and get a beige PC monster past your significant-non-gaming-other and things weren’t always so smooth.

“Linux and open source are the future of gaming”

Enter SteamOS

The stage is set. Big Picture mode is working well, publishers have adapted to the idea of incorporating console controls into their PC title and the Steam client is now available for Linux. This was also backed by Gabe himself: at LinuxCon 2013 he emphatically stated that “Linux and open source are the future of gaming.”

Valve had begun drawing the lines for what everyone believed to be their entry into the console hardware market with a “Steam Machine” running Steam in Big Picture mode. Then in September of last year, Valve announced that in order to provide the best experience to gamers in the living room they had constructed an entire operating system around Steam itself.

The Steam OS is built on top of a Linux core, the same open platform system that Newell had been backing for quite some time now. A great deal of emphasis was placed on the fact that it would remain an open system, meaning that users could alter or replace any part of the software they please.

Hardware-wise SteamOS can be run on any moderately configured (4GB RAM, 500GB HDD, NVIDIA/AMD/Intel graphics card) PC out there. However, Steam were producing their own controller and have begun partnering with hardware manufactures. Several of whom have started to show their wares at the recent 2014 CES.

SteamOS’s announcement and immediate beta availability has been met with what you’d describe as moderate trepidation. Indie developers like Minecraft‘s Notch heralded the announcement, singing its praises as “amazing news.” Bigger fish such as DICE (creators of Battlefield) are pledging Linux (and thus SteamOS support) in the future without committing to any timelines, details or titles. Finally, the wait-and-see studios: Gearbox Software CEO Randy Pitchford has stated that without that unique application driving developers, he “expects the industry at large will watch curiously, but remain largely unaffected”.

Linux is the key

As it stands, the driving platform behind Steam was and still remains Windows.

With the introduction of clients for Mac OS X and Linux, a small number of titles have made a tiny dent in the greater wall. Valve have been the champion of this cause; doing their part in ensuring some of their mainstream catalogue (like Portal 2, Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2) immediately found their way to Linux. Until others follow suit, it’s hard to see a reason for choosing to develop on Linux and consider Windows the after-thought-port.


In the future, NVIDIA may be a part of that reason. They’ve partnered with Valve, with the promise to work with them to create a new library called “GameWorks.” This library will incorporate the PhysX, OptiX, VisualFX and other NVIDIA-proprietary engines in an effort to persuade developers. It also has the benefit of singling out NVIDIA as the preferred graphics supplier to any potential hardware down the track in the process.

Time will tell

Since the announcement, Valve have continued to build on their initial reveal.

The controller has already seen a revision. Those lucky enough to receive one of two thousand official Valve Steam Machine dev kits will be getting that new toy to play with this month.

New features for “Steam” have also been announced in the months following the SteamOS introduction. A new integrated music player was revealed just this week, as well as an In-Home Streaming beta. This streaming technology will allow you to stream from a central core gaming-rig to another (potentially underpowered) PC in your living room. However, they’re features to be eventually made native to all the Steam clients on every platform, not specifically SteamOS.

Do I want it?

Probably not is the answer right now. There’s not really a huge selling point unless you’re a Linux-kinda guy or very curious.

Even with curiousity, there’s plenty of screenshots and casts out there that will show you the features of SteamOS right now, but honestly? It’s not too different to just running Steam itself.

The internet is swirling with rumours that perhaps with the official release of SteamOS we might see a Linux-only version of Half-Life 3, to serve as the potential “driving force” for Steam Machines. Are Valve really crazy enough to take that leap of faith?

Well, they just might have to be, if this thing is going to have any legs.