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Valve's Big Picture mode enters Beta as the idea of a Steam Box comes closer to reality

Yesterday, Valve's Big Picture mode for Steam went into Beta, available to all users. It introduces an interface for the Steam distribution and networking service designed for a controller, on a large screen. It provides a console-like experience for a previously PC-centric service. It even further develops the “living room gaming experience” by introducing elements such as the “Daisywheel” keyboard replacement that allows for a controller to type at modest speeds with a radial menu.

The new mode further materializes the notion of the long rumored "Steam Box," a mythical future console built on Steam's expansive digitally-distributed library. Last week, they posted a job opening for an Industrial Designer, citing in the description a frustration with the lack of innovation in computer hardware. Kotaku reports that Valve is not content with the closed nature of the 360 and PS3, where hardware innovation is limited, and patching requires certification.

Greg Coomer, head of the Big Picture team, stated in the aforementioned article:

"What we really want is to ship [Big Picture mode] and then learn," Coomer said. "So we want to find out what people value about that. How they make use of it. When they make use of it. Whether it's even a good idea for the broadest set of customers or not. And then decide what to do next.”

"So it could be that the thing that really makes sense is to build the box that you're describing. But we really don't have a road map. And we think we're going to learn a tremendous amount through this first release."

A competitor for the consoles

Big Picture mode's timing is uncanny. The console world is in the middle of an overhaul, and the critical "first adopter" demographic is eagerly looking for the next best thing. Nintendo is expected to announce the Wii U's price and release date this Thursday, while Sony and Microsoft have had their next big things in the pipeline for awhile. By the time the full "official" release of Big Picture is ready, the next consoles will hardly be out the door, if at all. For consumers already moving towards PCs as the consoles grow older, Big Picture presents itself as a unique solution to the "I want to be in the living room" problem.

For $700, one could get a small PC with dedicated graphics from Dell capable of playing most of the Steam library decently, or build a nearly as capable one for under $500. The Playstation 3's launch SKUs were priced at $500 and $600; the Xbox 360's were $300 and $400. For comparison’s sake, Apple's most gaming-capable Mac mini sells for $800 (less, depending on your definition of capable).

At these kinds of prices, there’s not much stopping a computer manufacturer like Dell from selling its own “Steam Box”: a home theater PC that acknowledges Steam’s new mode in concert with media center applications like XBMC. Any computer manufacturer could become a direct competitor to the new consoles without the need for a closed environment that restricts performance and games.

Steam guarantees continuity of its gaming library across hardware generations - the oldest games on Steam are still playable today. Its library is not limited to any individual operating system or device, as we see with its expansion to Mac and sort-of expansion to Linux. Console makers are burdened by the task of making their machines into universal entertainment devices, getting contracts and other deals to provide a fuller living room experience. But, any PC with Steam already has access to countless services at your own whim. Steam as a gaming platform doesn’t need to burden itself with movie or music rentals, or ESPN deals. Steam is also far more open to new games and game updates than any console. Especially now with Greenlight, we’re far more likely to see unique, new games appear on Steam than on a console.

Sony and Nintendo are best positioned to stand against this kind of competition with their wide and respected library of exclusive games. Nintendo’s Wii U offers a unique controller to set itself apart from the “core” gaming machines. That’s the kind of innovation that’s going to stand out in the coming console generation. Microsoft is going to need a little more than its few exclusive franchises to keep up.

I've been interested in Valve's Big Picture mode since we first reported on it a few weeks ago, when we shared a dream for the perfect TV gaming device. I’m delighted this software is finally here. As soon as there's a way to boot into this and XBMC without picking up a mouse, life will become quite pleasant in my living room.