Steam’s Big Picture came out of beta today, after a few months in testing. It’s a technologically minor upgrade for the PC gaming app: a basic full-screen interface with Xbox controller support and a Web browser. (A few dozen popular games have also been updated with gamepad support.) The idea, for now, is that you can take your desktop computer — or more likely your laptop — plug it into your TV via HDMI, and play your PC games as if they were console titles.
Console competition has been a three-way race for two entire, long generations; the Xbox, Playstation, and Wii, while clearly distinguishable, have been fighting by a very familiar set of rules and under self-determined terms. But the new generation of consoles promises a completely different type of war: The next Xbox and PlayStation and Wii (which has been tepidly received) will be competing with nearly game-ready set-top boxes, like the Apple TV, with mobile devices, and now, with what’s left of PC gaming, via Steam.
There have long been rumors that Valve is going to make a Steam Box, which would likely be a cheap but reasonably well-powered small PC with Linux and an interface like Steam’s Big Picture. Another possibility is that Valve will partner with multiple companies that might make Steam-branded mini-PCs of their own, in the same way Microsoft licenses Windows.
Either way, the console war as we know it — the long-simmering, slow-moving battle between three massive and increasingly different companies — is over. The next one is going to be bigger, and much stranger. And Valve, with or without hardware, is going to be a part of it.