What’s Valve Really Up To?

August 6, 2012 in Editorial

Over the past few months, some of the most disruptive news in gaming has been from Valve. The company seems to be making a baffling sharp left-turn into completely new territory. On the surface it shows a few basic components of its master plan, leaving us to only speculate on what the rest might be. The most ambitious of these revelations, is the announcement that they are planning to try and get the entire catalogue of 2500 games on Steam ported to Linux.

Before I launch myself at Valve like a Heavy on a suicide mission, let me point at a recent keynote speech by id Software co-founder John Carmack. He spoke about developing for Linux, and how it’s not worth it for them. He says they’ve been there and it does not pay the bills. “It creates goodwill among the Linux crowd, but that’s about it.” I have to wonder what he bases his statements on though. id Software provided downloads of Linux clients for all their titles (bar Rage), but you still had to purchase the Windows version to play it. And these downloads were often available from alternative sources, making its measurability questionable. When he says that Linux did not give them positive results, does he mean it was a total failure, or does he mean it only made them 2% additional revenue? For argument’s sake I will give him the benefit of the doubt though.

Contrast this to Valve. Gabe Newell understands the value of goodwill. The entire Steam platform’s success is built on nurturing customer loyalty. But this, and his distaste for the business plan that Windows 8 brings along with it, can not be the only reasons for investing so much of their resources into pursuing the Linux platform. He has referred to it as a hedging strategy, but how is this new platform any safer, considering his grim predictions of the possible collapse of some OEMs?

This leads into another oft-quoted general idea. The “desktop” is dying, industry people are saying. It’s hard to see plausibility in such a claim, and it seems more like wishful thinking to the likes of Microsoft, who would rather people throw out those pesky PCs that they aren’t earning continuous revenue on, and replace it with locked down devices like Microsoft Surface. Electronic Arts have reported that PC gaming has shown growth, but also reported that it’s mostly in the casual and browser games – things that would still thrive in a post-PCasweknowit world. In John Carmack’s earlier mentioned speech, he also alluded to this post-PC world, saying that it’s becoming less of a focus for them.

So, let’s assume all this paranoia is true, or at least that Gabe and John (and Paul and Ringo) all believe it – what then?

Gabe Newell was at E3 this year demoing some tech to Valve’s partners. Two of these things were Steam ‘s new Big Picture UI,  Steam for Linux and also to tell them why he is supporting Linux.

Linux (excluding Android) has a small market share. This is an undeniable truth, despite Humble Indie Bundle sales often showing up to 25% of sales by Linux users. How can Gabe Newell be so confident he can talk developers of 2500 games to all port to Linux?

I’m going to go with wild speculation here. The rumoured “Steam Box” might be more than just a myth. Linux is the perfect operating system for it. It comes with a loyal user base built in, and if the Steam platform were to also run on custom hardware, even non Linux fans become likely customers, especially if their entire Steam catalogue will work on it. If Steam and the games on it is destined to have a shortened life span on the PC as we know it, then why the heck not make your own platform for it to live on? Microsoft would not allow such a thing to run on their OS under any less than the strict business regime they are planning for it.

To further support this speculation, consider this patent filed by Valve. It’s for a controller with interchangeable parts. Interchangeable parts that include, among others, mouse and keyboard – the weapons of choice for the serious PC gamer.

Whatever the complete picture is, I suspect we will know soon.


P.S. Who the heck’s going to update all those horrendously out-of-date Linux id clients for games that happen to reside on the Steam platform?