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The dream for a perfect console-like device

Last week, the indie console Ouya’s Kickstarter campaign ended with 63,416 backers contributing $8,596,475. Double Fine’s famously successful Kickstarter made $3,336,372 with 87,142. Both projects exceeded their funding goals by more than 800%. Their consumers’ voices have been heard, loudly, and the demand for these products is certain.

I want Ouya, and I don’t. I’ve backed it twice, withdrawing my support hours later each time. It hints at a variety of functions that appeal to me, but it doesn’t deliver the full package.

Valve just announced a new big-picture mode that allows you to operate Steam without a keyboard or mouse — basically it’s Steam for the home theater PC (HTPC).

I have a dream device. It’s a Steam-based console, built small, cheaply, with enough power to handle modern games, and includes a TV-friendly interface. It also plays movies. It uses a controller. It’s a gaming HTPC. Valve would likely never release such a device, but with the new mode, there is some hope for the dream...

But it’s very difficult to build this device at home. The balance of size against performance is one challenge. Price is another. UI would have been a major issue if it weren’t for this new mode.

In the past few weeks since the Ouya's announcement, we've seen a plethora of exciting news surrounding the Android-based console. Exclusive games, OnLive support, high profile publisher support, and home theater interface software XBMC support. In spite of it all, there remains a key problem — Ouya is trying to build a new library of games, bringing in new purchases (though everything will be free to try), new downloads, and a new community.

Ouya delivers on size and price, and possibly even interface. It’s likely to support Netflix and other similar services, even. But what about the performance, and the availability of a wide game library? The few games we already know it will have are not exactly top-shelf, nor are they necessarily better on a console. Minecraft, for example, is supported first and best on PC. Final Fantasy 3’s best version was on DS. Any existing Android games are more likely to have been designed for a touch-based handset. Of course, there are some decent entries out there capable of finding their way to Ouya, but nothing on the scale of what Steam currently offers.

Meanwhile Gabe Newell's mention of wanting to bring full Steam support to Linux just excites my imagination all the more. Currently, any build using Linux is in essentially the same boat as Ouya. Costs may be lower, but the ability to play games is also low. If Steam were made fully available there, the cost of Windows could be eliminated from any build, and UI can be more easily customized for the sake of TV usage. XBMC is supported across all platforms, and remains the prime option for home theater interfaces. Incorporating that interface into the rest of the OS is the challenge, though Ouya and maybe Windows 8 shouldn’t have much trouble.

An HTPC (home theater PC) and a workstation PC have very different functions. As the Ouya creators posit, some games are really meant for TV. TVs are meant for entertainment. Some games are meant for the keyboard, as one might argue for FPS or heavily tactical games like the PC version of Dragon Age: Origins. Those PCs hide under desks, or next to monitors. The HTPC lives in the living room, with the TV, where it can’t intrude too heavily upon the space. It can’t be too noisy, or too large. Accessing it should be quick, booting up in the time it takes to sit down and get comfy. Control inputs should be minimized, and the thing you want to do should be quickly accessible.

I current have a desktop PC hooked up to my TV, mostly because I don’t have a desk in my new apartment yet. I use 4 different input devices to play games there: mouse, keyboard, controller, and TV remote. It takes about five minutes of prep-time to get anything done. It’s an eyesore in the living room, and it’s noisy while it runs. Thanks to Steam sales, the majority of my games are there, sitting on my massive hard drive, ready to play once it gets going.

Before Valve produces a magical box of their own, I’ll likely end up with some sort of intermediary device. Maybe a flat case that fits on a TV stand shelf, big enough to handle a nice video card, but small enough to look pretty. Windows 8 may solve some interface issues, and XBMC is always available. Steam will be there. I’ll spend too much money.