When Steam announced Big Picture mode I wasn't that phased; my gaming PC is located two floors above my living room and the prospect of lugging it down all those stairs and plugging it into my TV seemed more trouble that it could ever be worth. That was before I installed Windows on my MacBook Pro using Bootcamp however, and for the small price of a Mini Display port to HDMI adapter the possibility of having a functional solution for my Big Picture aspirations. I installed a few games, connected my laptop and an Xbox 360 controller and I was ready for the next generation of living room gaming.
That's right folks, Valve are sitting on the architecture that I believe will ultimately become the next generation of living room gaming. In it's current state that claim may seem questionable, but with some imagination its easy to see that Steam's Big Picture mode really is the future.
It was a Friday night and some friends were coming around. Usually we'll sit down in the living room with a few beers, talk about our working weeks, play a little Xbox 360 and watch some movies. It's a predictable yet fun cycle, it's just what we do to unwind. Trials Evolution is fun with four controllers, but on so many occasions I'd much rather play a hectic game of A Virus Named Tom instead.
So that's what we did, and that's how Steam Big Picture changed my night.
Before my friends came over I installed a small selection of indie games that I thought would suit the mood. Super Meat Boy was a definite, A Virus Named TOM with four controllers was high on my list of priorities, MacGuffin's Curse and Braid were there just for my own pleasure and I finally added Dustforce into the mix, simply because I have a love affair with that game that I simply cannot explain. I had the beers on ice, the controllers hooked up, I was ready to test this out.
The interface is clean and easy to use, exhibiting a level of polish that I wish was present in the standard use of Steam. Accessing the store on the fly and seeing which games were actually installed on my machine was a breeze, and the inclusion of a fully functional web browser was certainly welcome. However we are hear to talk about the games, so let's get to it.
"What the hell is A Virus Named TOM?" one of my friends exclaimed, a pained expression on his face. This is the type of guy who has played Mario, BioShock and Call of Duty over the past five years, the idea of an indie gaming scene is absurd in his mind. "Trust me," is said, navigating through my installed library which was full of bright and colourful feature art, much in the way Xbox Live presents titles in their store.
With the intention of playing for thirty minutes before watching a movie, the four of us were blasting our way through the utter chaos that AVNT presents for close to three hours, drinking back the beers, laughing, yelling and almost crying at one point.
That's when it clicked, this is the next generation of gaming. An always connected store that presents the very best in AAA and indie gaming, all at cheap prices and readily available. Achievements and a social network are right there at your fingertips, with a simple press of the Xbox Guide button providing a gateway to the Steam overlay which has also been re-created for the TV. Did I mention that the text input is perhaps the smartest I've ever seen from any console type experience?
But how many people are going to get a connector for their laptops and connect it to their TV? You, me and perhaps a dozen other hardcore enthusiasts would go to so much trouble. As it stands right now Steam's Big Picture is not a threat to the major console companies. Constant hardware upgrades, compatibility issues, these are all headaches for the average user who simply wants to plug and play.
But what if Valve released an affordable, closed system that was truly plug and play?
The Steambox - rumoured and shot down, but after seeing Steam Big Picture in action it's blatantly obvious that Valve are more than open to the idea. Even during this early beta phase, Big Picture offers an experience that is ten times better than XBLA and PSN combined.
If you have any capacity to check it out for yourself I urge you to. Take a glimpse at the future my fellow gamers.
By Stephen Heller