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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

November 4, 2013 at 12:33 PM

A glimpse of Valve’s Steam Machine, controller design and hardware plans

Bellevue game company Valve didn’t particularly want to  overhaul the entertainment PC business.

But the big industry players were dropping the ball, from Valve’s perspective.

Valve image of prototype Steam Machine and Steam Controller

Valve image of prototype Steam Machine and Steam Controller

So in addition to building blockbuster games and running one of  the world’s leading gaming networks  and storefronts, Valve taught itself to build computers. And operating systems. And game controllers.

It’s an audacious effort to convince the vast and established PC industry that there’s another path to the living room besides the one blazed by Microsoft and Intel.

It’s also unclear how many of Valve’s 65 million customers — much less the rest of the world’s consumers — are interested in an entirely new game system competing against the Xbox, PlayStation and Wii platforms.

But it’s still exciting to see a relatively small company apply so much creativity and innovation to a market segment that desperately needs defibrillation.

Valve is about to release the first batch of prototype Steam Machine computers that it  designed, running an operating system the company developed in-house.

Valve's Steam Machine demo room.

Valve’s Steam Machine demo room.

These souped-up boxes work with an entirely new game controller that Valve  designed and built from scratch in workshops the  company cobbled together in Bellevue, partly with tools scavenged from co-founder Gabe Newell’s garage.

Apparently, Valve is a believer in the old saying, if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. Early on, it worked with design and prototyping vendors, but decided that it could learn more doing it all in-house.

Valve also is redefining the PC industry term “original equipment manufacturer,” or OEM.

Its offices in a downtown Bellevue high-rise now have 3-D printers whirring away printing PC components, right next to a room full of programmers intently peering into their big monitors.

There are also laser-cutting machines and other tools for designing, building and testing prototypes. The landlord said no to a full-blown factory, so the game controllers that Valve is providing to 300 testers this fall are being produced by  employees at a shop in Overlake.

If the platform takes off, Valve  eventually will contract for large-scale manufacturing of controllers.

Valve doesn’t plan to be the next Hewlett-Packard or Apple. It already has an incredibly profitable business building and distributing game software, which it’s done since Newell and co-founder Mike Harrington left Microsoft and started the company in 1996.

Instead, Valve is trying to encourage PC makers to build their own Steam Machines using the Steam OS, providing an open platform on which Valve can continue growing and offering gamers an alternative to consoles.

A variety of Steam Machines, and entertainment applications for the new platform,  are likely to be unveiled in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and go on sale by mid-2014. The company revealed its plans in September and last month, when it provided a glimpse into its workshops and a demonstration of its hardware.

During the tour, company designers explained that they’re trying to advance the stagnant PC hardware platform and provide an open platform on which other companies can innovate.

Microsoft used to fill this role, but it’s now making the Xbox its entertainment platform and, from Valve’s perspective, turning Windows into a more closed garden.

So now about 40 of Valve’s 330 employees are tinkering with hardware and trying to make the PC platform better for entertainment.

“We think the PC OEM space ought to have been doing this for quite some time,” Valve designer Greg Coomer said.

“Really, every year you could watch one PC OEM or another say, ‘We are going to build the entertainment PC for the living room’ and build something that lives under the TV,” Coomer continued. “They would often do pretty well at cooling or industrial design, but that was only a fraction of the problems they need to solve for customers to have a good entertainment experience in the living room.”

Heat and noise are a concern, so Valve developed a series of baffles to better handle cooling and airflow in its Steam Machine PCs.

photo (6)

photo 2 (4)

I removed the two 1 terabyte SSD drives on this Steam Machine at Valve’s offices before taking this picture, so the baffles would be more visible.

Operating systems designed more for work than play also limit the appeal of living-room PCs. So Valve built SteamOS, which runs on Linux but looks and feels like a polished, consumer-electronics system.

OS wraparound

The approach is similar to the way Amazon.com used a version of Android to build the operating system for its Kindle Fire tablets. Android is completely wrapped in the bright and simple Kindle interface, so it doesn’t feel like a computer.

Valve designer Eric Hope showing SteamOS running on a Steam Machine. Photo by Ken Lambert, Times staff photographer

Valve designer Eric Hope showing SteamOS running on a Steam Machine. Photo by Ken Lambert, Times staff photographer

Users who poke around the SteamOS can still get to Linux, though. They can also load Windows and productivity software onto a Steam Machine and use it for work as well as play.

But it’s not ideal to use a mouse and keyboard on the sofa, even though they’re required for most of the 3,000 PC games in Valve’s library. So the company designed a controller that can mimic mouse and keyboard commands.

“It isn’t until this coming year,” Coomer said, “when there are going to be enough of those pieces that all work together that we can say in a credible way to all of our customers — ‘Hey, if you’re one of the people who likes to play games in the living room, and we know there are a lot of you — now we have enough dots connected that we think you should try this.’ ”

A table of prototypes at Valve's Bellevue office shows the evolution of its controller design.

A table of prototypes at Valve’s Bellevue office shows the evolution of its controller design.

Design prototypes, perfect for dystopian zombie games. Valve seriously considered using a trackball but opted for clickable pads that offered more flexibility through software.

Design prototypes, perfect for dystopian zombie games. Valve seriously considered using a trackball but opted for clickable pads that offered more flexibility through software.

The Steam controller feels a bit like the new Sony PlayStation 4 controller, with distinctly  curved handles. Instead of joysticks for the thumbs, it uses clickable touch pads that sense the speed, direction and pressure of gestures.

The controllers provide all sorts of flexibility to work with new and old games, but there will be a learning curve for players used to Xbox-type controllers.Valve image of final controller design.

Start your racing games: The Steam Controller has F1-style paddles in back.

Start your racing games: The Steam Controller has F1-style paddles in back.

Game developers who have tried the hardware are intrigued.

“The fact that the input device is something you can pull apart and play with is fantastic — both for us as developers, but also as gamers and people who like to tinker,” Hannes Seifert,  head of Copenhagen studio IO Interactive, said via email.

“Bringing traditional PC gaming to the couch shows incredible ambition, but if anyone can pull off something like this, it’s probably Valve,” Seifert said.

Tommy Refenes, a Kirkland developer who co-created the hit “Super Meat Boy,” doesn’t expect the controller to change game development much.

“Overall, it’s just another controller,” he said.

Regardless of the new hardware, Refenes plans  to release his next game — “Mewgenics,” about a cat lady who breeds cats — on the Steam game service, since it accounted for 70 percent of “Super Meat Boy” sales.

Valve’s platform can  be used for more than entertainment. The company last year began selling nongaming software through Steam, suggesting that Steam Machines eventually could migrate from the living room to the office.

Even more exciting, though, are some of the gadgets the company is building and experimenting with in its dreamy new workshops overlooking downtown Bellevue.

Mobile devices are a possibility. The company also is  tinkering with wearable computing systems and headsets for augmented-reality and virtual-reality gaming that could emerge next year.

I guess when you’ve got toys like Valve’s at hand, it’s hard to stop playing.

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