Steam's Big Picture mode has finally gone from rumour to beta and is kicking a fair amount of posterior despite a few teething troubles. Carl has already delivered our extensively detailed hands-on impressions (though you can opt into the beta update and try it out for yourself), exploring the new interface in all of its convenient, slickly-designed glory. Steam is now thoroughly intuitive to browse with a controller on a widescreen television, putting mainstream console UIs to shame, but Big Picture is also causing some suitably Big Questions to start circulating around the PC community.
Is Valve making a power play for PC living room dominance? Could Big Picture actually be a threat to home consoles?
The short answer is no.
The long answer is also a short one, but infinitely more interesting. Not yet.
We've been able to connect our PCs to TVs since forever, and many of us already do so. For us, Big Picture mode is a fantastic service that really helps to make the Steam client work while lounging around after a long day- whether it's in the lounge or bedroom. It may have a couple of crinkles to iron out, but so far, so utterly delightful.
It's tempting, then, to suggest that Big Picture Mode could allow Steam - and the PC by extension - to compete directly with home consoles on their home turf. After all, the OS is vastly superior to the XMB or the advert-infested Metro dashboard. For every massive console exclusive, Steam offers up dozens upon dozens of unique and innovative titles of its own, everything from shooters to strategy games and delicious indie morsels. Weekly console sales pale in comparison to the almighty Steam sales. On paper, it's an easy sell.
But Big Picture Mode isn't really about muscling in anywhere. It's about providing the established community with a more convenient user experience, a fun and functional little update that makes our lives slightly easier. While it might convince a few PC owners who've been sitting on the fence to finally invest in an HDMI/DVI/DisplayPort cable and get involved, challenging the console market is another thing entirely. Big Picture Mode would have to convince console owners to ditch their long-engrained habits, buy a rig and jump onto a totally new platform. This would require an enormous amount of momentum, and so far, the cons currently outweigh the pros for mainstream console gamers.
Convenience is the key. Unless you happen to own a decent gaming laptop or compact form factor PC like the Alienware X51, the transition from bedroom/study to living room isn't an easy one. You'd either have to invest in huge amounts of cabling, pricey wireless solutions or simply lug your tower up and down the stairs; unplugging it from your speakers, monitor, mouse and keyboard every time. Compared to just moving an Xbox or PS3 around every now and again, this isn't exactly an attractive option for the vast majority of people who game to unwind.
This relative lack of convenience also factors into the overall PC user experience. Yes, Big Picture Mode is slick. But to access it, you'll need to boot up your PC and browse over to the client using the mouse (unless you use Xpadder or somesuch). Content delivery may be fast and simple, but you've then got to install the game, mess about with graphics options and play the always-amusing 'will it need a whole bunch of patches to run on my hardware configuration and do I have to install new drivers' minigame. Plus, not every game supports controller inputs anyway. Us PC owners don't (and absolutely shouldn't) care about this, but most console players just want to get involved as fast and painlessly as possible. For the record, I still play on consoles and handhelds an awful lot, and this is by far my favourite aspect of owning them.
Price is also an issue. Yes, I know that you can buy a decent rig for less than a grand. You can definitely build a mid-spec gaming PC for less if you're willing to get your hands dirty - and I daresay that some of our community will explain how if you ask them nicely, cap in hand. But current-gen consoles are cheap as chips, and though the cost will add up with all sorts of hidden extras, you generally don't have to shell out for everything in one go.
These are all moot points, of course. As previously stated, Big Picture Mode isn't even trying to somehow unseat Sony and Microsoft from prime position in the lounge, it's just succeeding in making Steam available in every room, wherever you want it. Consoles don't have anything to worry abo... erm, hang about, that's not entirely true.
The OUYA just took a bit of a knock. If you install Steam on a half-decent laptop, you'll be able to conveniently play a truly massive range of cheap, free and graphically comparable games on hardware you already own, months before the Kickstarted console even comes out. Oops.
Right, where was I? As Carl suggested in our earlier article, Big Picture Mode is a stepping stone. Valve has demonstrated that they can design a UI that's better than anything else out there even in beta, making it the perfect foundation for a set top box. Combining PC functionality with set top box convenience could well be the optimal middle-ground if the price is right. Looking ahead several years, perhaps tablet clients could also leverage a similar UI, making Steam effortless to browse on a mobile platform and stream wirelessly to your television. It may not be a killer blow, but it's a statement of intent, and one that Sony and Microsoft should certainly not dismiss without due concern.
Ultimately, though, we've got to mention a massive elephant in the room that we're all going to have to discuss with an open mind sooner or later. Big Picture Mode isn't going to somehow make PC gaming supplant consoles. Console manufacturers will.
We're excited to see what the next generation of consoles can do, but if Sony and Microsoft remain stuck in their historical cycle of closing off their platforms, bombarding us with adverts, providing inflexible RRPs and online passes, removing functionality and making things progressively more inconvenient for the end user, Valve's willingness to do the exact opposite could completely tip the balance. Big Picture Mode is just part of a flexible, fierce and evolving PC gaming market, a sector that's already gunning for consoles and will continue to do so over the next few years.
What was once deemed to be a platform in decline has quietly yet firmly proved itself to be the strongest contender out there: providing the most games. The best games. The widest variety of games, from blockbusters to MMOs to F2P to one-man indie efforts, on the most open network of distributors, platforms and marketplaces. Hell, even the cheapest games and the most exciting new pricing models. It's just convenience and price acting as a hurdle to most players... and the gap is narrowing all the time from both ends.
If consoles continue to lose their convenience, initiatives like Big Picture Mode are primed and ready to go for the jugular, and console manufacturers will only have themselves to blame.
Either way, I'm off to mess about with the virtual keyboard. Fun.