In late September, Valve made several announcements that could radically change the gaming landscape.
First it announced SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system for living-room game consoles. “In SteamOS, we have achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we’re now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level,” is how the company described its progress at the time. “Game developers are already taking advantage of these gains as they target SteamOS for their new releases.” Steam Cloud will store users’ preferences and deliver regular game updates.
Next it unveiled a prototype model of a “Steam Machine,” a console that runs SteamOS. Valve is working with multiple partners to bring the machines to market in 2014, although hardware specs remain an open question.
Every console needs a way to actually play the games, of course, and Valve next revealed a controller with two circular, clickable trackpads capable of delivering vibration and other effects. Valve promised to make this bit of hardware hackable.
Valve’s strategy with these releases seems pretty clear: create a platform based on openness, in contrast to the closed systems pushed by console rivals such as Sony and Microsoft. SteamOS could also help knock down the wall that’s long separated console and PC gaming.
But Valve might have yet another trick up its proverbial sleeve, a way of ensuring that its console ecosystem gets the buzz it deserves once the hardware begins hitting the market: Half-Life 3. Releasing the next chapter of the ultra-popular first-person shooter in conjunction with Steam Machines and SteamOS could perhaps have the same effect as Microsoft issuing a new Halo game alongside a new Xbox console: sales would spike, many blog postings and articles would be written, thousands of online debates would erupt—in short, Valve would create a whole lot of momentum for its new ecosystem.
Valve reportedly submitted a trademark application for Half-Life 3 with the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market, the European trademark authority. According to Polygon, there is no equivalent trademark submitted with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office—at least, not yet.
If Valve is working on Half-Life 3, it’s doing so under a thick veil of secrecy. Some concept art for the game has leaked over the years, along with a handful of mentions by Valve employees, but there’s been no official announcement that production is underway. Certainly the gaming landscape has changed quite a bit since Half-Life 2, and Valve will need to be particularly innovative with the next chapter of its saga if it wants to compete against other first-person shooters on the market.
But when it comes to creating blockbuster games—and their associated ecosystems—Valve has a solid track record. Soon after its 1996 founding, Valve made a name for itself with a series of popular games for PC and consoles, including the original Half-Life and Counter-Strike. In 2002 it announced Steam, a platform for downloading new patches, maps, and achievements for its games. A decade later, the Steam network had 50 million users and hundreds of games.
In a keynote address at this year’s LinuxCon North America, Valve co-founder and managing director Gabe Newell told the audience that end-users would eventually become more involved in the creation and enhancement of gaming ecosystems: “Games will becomes nodes in a linked economy, where the majority of digital goods and services are user-generated.” He even backed that up with an example: “The Team Fortress community creates 10 times the amount of content [that developers do].”
As a result, Valve is cautious to never position itself as a barrier between end-users and their desire to customize their favorite games. “The one entity we wouldn’t ever want to compete with is our own users; they’ve already outstripped us dramatically,” Newell added. “It’s not by a little bit; it’s an order of magnitude already.”
But if Valve moves forward with its ambitious plans for Steam, it’ll soon end up competing with a lot of very determined rivals.