Bellevue game developer Valve just launched its assault on the living room, going live with its “Big Picture” service, which brings its hugely successful Steam game network to the TV.
Steam is the largest online store and network for core PC games, with 50 million users and a library of thousands of titles, including Valve hits such as the “Portal” and “Left 4 Dead” franchises. Valve now is calling Steam “the ultimate entertainment platform,” challenging Sony’s PlayStation, Microsoft’s Xbox, Nintendo’s Wii, Google TV, TiVo, Roku and other connected-TV platforms.
Big Picture brings the free service to TV sets with a new interface and a full Web browser that’s designed for use with either a keyboard or a game controller.
This gives Valve a foothold in the living room where game hardware companies are turning their consoles into online media hubs, connecting users to friends and web content as well as games.
It could also position Valve to partner with big consumer-electronics companies wanting to add game channels to their Web-connected TVs and set-top boxes.
Valve has been publicly testing Big Picture since the summer, prompting all sorts of speculation about the direction the company is heading. Valve has been a phenomenal success since it was started in 1996 by Microsoft veterans Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington and remains privately held.
While developing Big Picture, Valve simultaneously broadened the mix of products offered through Steam, adding productivity software. It hasn’t partnered with a music and movie distributor but that kind of content is available through the browser.
There are still complications setting up Big Picture, though. It requires you to connect a TV to a PC with an HDMI cable, something that geeky TV consumers have done for years to display games and online content on their big screens.
Microsoft used to encourage consumers to connect PCs to their TVs, but they’ve backed off that effort in recent years, perhaps because they’d rather have you buy both a PC and an Xbox.
TV makers are also now offering sets that connect directly to the Web, though they aren’t yet including processors as powerful as those used in modern PCs and game consoles. Perhaps the next generation of “smart TVs” will have enough brains to run Steam games directly.
Valve is emphasizing the use of traditional game controllers with Big Picture and designed an unusual “Daisywheel” text entry system (shown above) to make it easier to navigate the software and the Web with a controller’s buttons.
But so far only a fraction of the games in Steam’s catalog fully support wireless controller. Most still require a keyboard, at least some of the time.
As of this morning, the list of games fully supporting controllers had 41 titles, including “Left 4 Dead 2” and “Portal 2” plus “Transformers: Fall of Cybertron” and “Lego Harry Potter” and “Lego Batman 2 DC Super Heroes.”
Valve suggests using one of the Xbox controllers designed for Windows or the Logitech Wireless Gamepad F710. The PC should be fairly powerful with at least a 3 gigahertz, dual-core P4 or newer processor or AMD64X2, plus at least 256 megabytes of graphics memory (512 MB or more is recommended). Windows Vista, 7 and 8 are supported, along with Mac OS X 10.7 or newer.
Here’s Valve’s promo video: