There's not much innovation in Steam's new Big Picture mode. But there are plenty of elegant answers here to questions few are asking about the future of selling games.
A lot had already been written about Big Picture mode yesterday before it even went live in beta late last night. All of it pretty much true.
Big Picture is just one of many experiments the billionaire business is working on (the others are wearable computing goggles that to be honest sound as ridiculous as the possibility of Half-Life 3 being finished next year).
This being a Valve product, all of those contrary statements can exist in unison.
I think the most important thing about Big Picture is this:it turns the home TV into the most easy-to-use digital shop, and it just so happens to be one for 'proper' games.
I don't know if Big Picture foreshadows new console hardware, but I think this has the chance to change how digital games content is presented for sale in the living room.
A SOFTWARE REVOLUTION, NOT A HARDWARE ONE
From a technical point of view, there are a number of barriers around Big Picture being any sort of serious step-change for getting more or alternative games hardware into the living room.
There are just too many practical issues around lugging a gaming rig from one room to another for it to make total sense right now. I'm stating the obvious, but most good PC gaming rigs are already connected into set-ups which have a decent monitor and comfortable desk already. People may start building PCs just for this purpose, or consider long-term rejigs of their games/PC set ups, or Valve might even release 'Steam Box' - but that's a medium-to-long term transition ultimately.
One answer to that is that Big Picture will be a catalyst for disrupting the console model by driving demand for smaller, discrete PCs. (Indeed, for my test I booted Big Picture up on a Zotac mini PC.) But this isn't ideal if you're after powerful and/or upgradable devices to run Steam on.
So really all the talk about hardware and Big Picture is really a red herring right now, which is exemplified when you get it loaded yourself. In my test I used the afore mentioned Zbox Plus, but setting it up isn't like just plugging in a console, you have to boot Windows, Steam itself, opt-in to the beta. Sure, just a little bit of basic fiddling, but this isn't necessarily just pressing a 360 or PS3 on and away it goes.
However when you have all three (PC with Big Picture, 360 and PS3) all booted up at once, and you switch between them, the difference is stark.
Valve's digital storefront for living rooms feels elegant in an age of over-thought console frontends
The clarity of Valve's UI is striking, showing the console interfaces up as messy, over-thought mechanisms that try to do so much and achieve very little.
It's all thanks to some simple display design, admittedly. But it's here where Valve is going to teach the console market a thing or two.
A TRUE DIGITAL RETAILER
Compare how Steam represents its service in the Big Picture form to see the contrast here.
The PlayStation Store has always looked great to me, and on PS3 its UI and screens are rammed with important data - but when you use it feels like it was designed for a mouse, not a joypad. Meanwhile, the actual hardware's XMB has always been about the physical device you have in your possession, not the content you own or might want. (It's only on Vita, this year, where the Store's intricate buttons and panels have felt at home and the dashboard presents your content clearly - all thanks to a touchscreen.)
On Xbox, it's an opposite problem to PS3 - dumbed down to the point of dementia, with the latest dashboard being a mashed together marketplace and marketing showcase, obsessed with telling you about how great the Xbox is as a gateway, but very little of it pointing to stuff you have or want. Its kitchen sink philosophy means design by committee demanded Kinect, Bing, apps and paid-for ad spots are promoted, while a much-written-about decision was made to push games (on a games console!) down the pecking order. On Xbox 'entertainment' has become the overriding concern, forgetting that it's a meaningless word without context.
(I'll spare Nintendo some blushes here. Its experiments with digital content stores are just that, given its historical reluctance to engage in any major digital play, plus the future Wii U store elements are currently unseen and untested.)
When you switch from those now-cumbersome displays to Big Picture you see a fairly clear, direct and streamlined service that's based on games you can buy, games you own, and people you know.
Navigate deeper, and you're straight into the same content you find in the normal Steam client or at Steampowered.com - but it's not obnoxious or difficult or stubborn like its rivals.
Most importantly, it pushes the store to be the centre of the console experience but gracefully so. It's almost overly subtle, making the platform itself irrelevant; this is about games, and no other distractions. Ultimately, it's a breath of fresh air in comparison to other digital storefronts.
Don't get me wrong. Every bad thing that's been said about discovery problems and curation curiosity and Steam's impenetrable silo of content is still true...
- The featured games on Steam are the newest games from the biggest publishers or the trendiest indies. That doesn't change just because it's reformatted for TV.
- Steam is still a walled garden in its own right, even if it was born of an open platform like PC as many people point out.
- And if you want to look beyond the featured spotlights and newest games for back catalogue and classics - which really should be something any digital distributor, with infinite shelf space, should champion - you have to do a manual search (and in our test the search was actually a bit slow - this is still a Beta release, mind).
But regardless, the fact is that this is one of the better digital storefronts for games now out there, even if user uptake will be modest at first.
Big Picture offers the usual Steam functions and catalogue, plus a web browser (above right)
In the wider world, the rate at which new games devices are appearing doesn't seem to be slowing - this fortnight alone seems to be ground zero, with the Kindle Fire HD and Nokia's new Lumia last week, and this week news expected on iPhone 5 and Wii U, plus extra announcements from Toys R US and GameSpot about their own tablets.
Amidst all that the pressure is on manufacturers and content firms, all of them asking what the best way to sell content to digital consumers is. Big Picture is Valve's answer for what that means in the living room.
The actual gimmickry and novelty value of playing PC games on a TV will eventually wear off, I think. It will be the retail element that will be more influential. It's too simple to use, too easy to buy games, for the other format holders to ignore.Big Picture strips away layers between the games you own and playing them - and removes the barriers between the games you don't own and buying them.
On that basis alone, it's a winning move. Microsoft and Sony and maybe Nintendo will likely watch this closely - but we will all know who made this happen first.