So after months of working on it in a secret lab (you know, in-between teasing the internet with Half Life 3) the Big Screen Mode has finally arrived in beta form, ready to begin the transition of PC gaming to the living room. Now I normally prefer the mouse & keyboard for my gaming interactions, but seeing as BSM has been designed with a controller in mind, I decided to play ball, plug in my Xbox controller to see what Valve has been working on, and prove to myself that I was capable of doing things other than playing a certain MMO that came out recently.
After the initial rush of digitized bubbles from the intro screen, users are greeted with a selection of options, the three most obvious being the Store, Library, and Community buttons in the centre. Examples of items found in each section however to and fro in the background, providing a peripheral hint at what is to be found upon entering. My first thoughts were how similar, in presentation and in the sound design when you navigate the screen, the whole thing is to OnLive’s interface, and considering how much I liked the OnLive UI when I got my hands on the MicroConsole last year, I consider this comparison to be a good thing.
The transitions between menus are a slick and easy process, with the store’s familiar setup organised into a controller friendly environment. The latest highlights form the top of the screen with sub-categories below providing lists for Genres, Top Sellers, Specials, Coming Soon, and New Releases. Going into a specific title brings up the information Steam users are used to, but in a more orignised fashion. Trailers play automatically, pausing if the user moves onto a screenshot and resuming if they move back. Along with a fullscreen ability to see previews in their detailed glory, users are able to buy straight from these listings, see more details on the game in question, and even access the community aspects of said title. It’s a system that any console gamer will already be used to, and more importantly it works.
For the most part, anyway.
A few gremlins have snuck into the first release of BSM's beta. For instance, a search option is there within the store but I found the feature broken at the time. However this isn’t the biggest annoyance I found whilst exploring the store. The Back button (assigned to B) is not only missing from the list of instructions on the bottom of the screen, but it also takes the user back to the first screen of the store, making the casual browsing of a section a tedious task at best. Hopefully these will be among the first bugs to be squashed as the Beta continues.
Moving onto the Library section, users are greeted with a feature which has previously been relegated to the pop-up menu on the Windows Task Bar; a Recently Played list. Here the last twenty games the user has played will be listed in chronological order, with the option to view the entire owned library just below. Here a drop down menu allows users to view everything they own, their chosen favourites, list everything in order of when they were last played, or just list the games that are installed. Selecting a game brings up the usual options; if the game is installed you can select it to play instantly, otherwise you are given the option to install (which appeared unresponsive for a moment, but eventually did start downloading) which when completed displays a pop-up in the corner of the screen in case you decide to go browse something else whilst you wait.
Elsewhere, achievements can be found along with a list of your friends who also own that game, and a recent news tab to keep players up to date with the latest happenings. In most instances it transfers players to the web browser (which we will get onto shortly) but overall the experience beings up exactly the same information as the traditional Steam client that gamers have been using for years, only it is controller friendly.
The final of the main three tabs, Community, is perhaps the odd one out of the three in that it ends up being surplus to requirement. Selecting it brings up a list of the users friends, which upon selecting one brings up a list of options such as the ability to send a message, start voice chat, view profile and so on. What makes this a needless addition is that these options tend to lead to (and can also be found in) the Friends screen, which can be access by pressing the Right Trigger. Here, the friends list is again on display, along with any Groups joined, and users can chat with their friends directly within this section of the UI. I assume that eventually this will display a chronological timeline of user activity that the Community tab shows in the traditional PC interface, but for now it really doesn’t provide much use.
On the Left Trigger Button lies access to the Web Browser, which has been touted by Valve as the first FPS Browser on the internet. Here a centre reticule acts as the mouse pointer, allowing the user to navigate around the web page and go outside the page’s borders without snapping back into place like it would do on a smartphone. Selecting options is easy enough, with the A button acting as the left click, and while users may find the system disorientating for begin with, the browser itself is fully featured and even has the capability to play Flash games (should you need something more than your entire Steam library… for some reason.)
Of course, typing things in is rather key to the browser experience, so this is where Valve’s answer to that problem, the Daisywheel, comes into play. Using the Left analog stick along with the A/B/X/Y buttons, the interface provides users with a faster way to type over the previous method of moving a cursor over a keyboard. The process was rather bizarre to begin with as I had to think about which buttons to press, but along with everything else in BPM it feels like a more natural thing to do on a controller (although it is fairly reminiscent of Quick Time Events. Just sayin’.) Of course, if you have a keyboard and mouse you are able to use them, although I found the mouse didn’t quite agree with the web browser when I tried it out and ended up fighting against phantom scrolls.
So how does BPM work when in a game? Almost exactly as the old overlay system has done for years, only this time not only does the keyboard shortcut provide access to the overlay, but so does the Home button on the controller. Looking remarkably similar to the menu found when in the game library, users have access to the web browser and the Friends tab should they need it. Additionally, I found that pressing the home button and the right trigger captured a screenshot of whatever was on the screen, meaning users can continue to show off their greatest or funniest moments without having to reach for the Print Screen button.
Overall, Big Picture Mode achieves its goals at providing the same functions that the standard Steam experience has been doing for years in terms of content, but allowing controllers the same power as their keyboard and mouse brethren. It provide the same sort of relaxed experience you will find sat on a sofa using your console, only Valve have (in my opinion) outdone their rivals in terms of ease of use. I wouldn’t necessarily say it is a full time replacement interface by any means, but then again it was never meant to be. Likewise, it may not cause millions to ditch their consoles and place their computers next to the TV instead, but it does allow those already with the hardware the option of adding their Steam library to the living room and gives the Steam experience a much more casual feel. At the end of the day, it offers more choices on how to play, and that surely isn't a bad idea.
It’s only the first step mind, but we’re curious as to what Valve will do next. Perhaps if they were to make an independent Steam OS, and then put it in some sort of console. A Box, if you will…