Valve, Steam and You
If you’re a PC gamer in 2020 then chances are you use Steam as one of your platforms of choice to purchase PC games. You might not know that Valve, the people behind Steam and many beloved game series such as Half Life, Portal, Left 4 Dead, Counter Strike, and more, have been taking a 30% cut off of every game sold on their platform for a little over a decade.
This is what I like to call EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEZ money.
What they’ve been able to do with all that cash is channel a fraction of it into building technology surrounding the video games themselves. On one hand, as I’ll discuss below, these technologies and tools are great for players once they’re made aware of them. On the other hand, Valve has been strengthening their hold on the PC video game market over years and there are no other platforms on PC that offer the depth and breadth of features offered by Steam.
The technology exists so let’s take a look at some Steam features that can improve your gaming life.
Play PC games anywhere ¶
Imagine a world where you could use your computer to play games in your living room, at your desk, in your basement and, most importantly, in your bathroom. One computer and, you’re gaming anywhere and everywhere.
Say hello to the magic that is Steam Link.
If you own a recent (past four years) Samsung TV then you’ve already got the hardware you need, download the Steam Link app and you’ll be ready to go. Otherwise, you can buy an Nvidia Shield or you can find a used Steam Link box (discontinued and doesn’t support 4k) then you’ll be ready to live in the future with the rest of us.
I’ve used a Steam Link box in the past but currently I’m using the Steam Link app on my TV. I haven’t used the Nvidia Shield myself but I’ve heard that it works great.
By connecting a little box, or a smart TV, and your computer to your home network through Ethernet cables, ideally, Steam Link can “link” them together. Steam Link allows your computer to run a Steam (or DRM free) game, sending the video feed to your TV with the Steam Link device (box or TV) receiving and displaying the video feed while sending your controller inputs back to the computer allowing you to game anywhere in your house effectively.
The level of latency is very low if you’re wired at both ends. The latency hovers around 3ms for me which should be completely fine for you unless you’re a crazy person or the best fighting game player on the planet.
If you can’t be wired at both ends, then at least plugging your computer to your network should give you manageable latency for most games. I don’t recommend going wireless at both ends BUT if you’re looking to play very slow games like card games, visual novels or turn-based strategy games then the latency might be OK for you.
I hope you enjoy playing games anywhere and everywhere in your house. You’re welcome.
Play keyboard and mouse PC games using a controller ¶
If you’re playing games on your couch then you’re going to want to be comfortable, and that means playing with a controller. The good news is that most games these days are built with controllers in mind because they need to be playable on consoles.
But, not all PC games can be played with a controller. Some games like Crusader Kings III, which I love, do not support play with controllers of any kind out of the box.
If you haven’t heard of the Steam Controller, now’s as good a time as any to learn about it.
Actually… That’s a blatant lie… The Steam Controller is also discontinued. Are you noticing a pattern with Valve hardware devices? BUUUUUUTTT if you can get your hands on one, you won’t regret it.
The Steam Controller is a controller that you can use to play games originally intended to be played on a keyboard and mouse. How? Well, it has a little more to it than a “regular” controller including: touchpads, paddles, in addition to the joysticks and buttons that you expect.
All of these bits and bobs can be extensively configured through Steam on a per-game basis. Players can build controller layouts for games and share them with the community.
So, when you decide to play a game like Crusader Kings III using the Steam Controller, you can choose a popular controller layout from the community as a jumping off point and start playing your favorite keyboard and mouse PC games on your couch.
Play any PC game using any controller any way you like ¶
Steam Big Picture is a Steam feature that can be used to turn your computer, temporarily, into a sort of console with full controller support. Meaning, you can use an Xbox 360 controller, an Xbox One controller, a PS4 controller or a Nintendo Switch Pro controller (perhaps even the newer controllers from the most recent generation of consoles) to navigate through your library of games and to play any game on Steam that natively supports Xbox 360 controllers (most games that support controllers support the ubiquitous Xbox 360 controller).
Also, using Steam Big Picture, you have full control over what each button on your controller does in-game. It’s not just one to one remappings either. For example, you can press a button and have it perform a sequence of button presses. You can make a button that each time you press it, it toggles its state. You can use a controller gyroscope to aim, if you’re into that kind of thing. And, that’s just scratching the surface.
If you’ve ever complained about a game not having rebindable mappings for controllers, well for the past couple of years every single game on Steam has had this feature, you just might not have known about it.
Next time you’re frustrated about a game’s control scheme, change it! Game developers try to think of everything ahead of time, I can attest to that, and they try their best to please as many people as possible with the controls but it’s an impossible task.
Using Steam, you have the power to take matters into your own hands when it comes to controlling any game any way you want. Don’t let that opportunity go to waste!
Play games locally but with your friends through the internet ¶
If you’ve ever wanted to recreate your childhood experiences of playing games with friends and family and passing the controller around, you can do that in 2020 through the magic of the internet.
Using software like Parsec, or Steam Remote Play, you can run a game locally on your computer, have the video be streamed with low latency to one or more of your friends and have them control the game with their own controllers. This allows for both passing a “single” controller around and also allows you to play local multiplayer video games over the internet easily.
I haven’t used these technologies as much because I tend to favor video games built from the ground up for online play but they’re free so it can’t hurt to try them.
The End ¶
Valve are the kings of gaming related software of all kinds. I’ve only discussed their technologies that you can use yourself as a player to improve your gaming experience but they’ve done a lot more. They’re behind many amazing technologies that you may have heard of.
OpenVR is a tool that helps developers make VR games that support multiple headsets. Proton is a tool that allows for players to easily run a large number of Windows games on their Linux machines. The Steam Workshop allows for game developers to support mods for their games by making it as easy as possible for mod developers to distribute their mods to other players.
But, they’ve had middling success with hardware over the years. We’ve had to welcome the Steam Controller, Steam Link (not the app but the physical box) and Steam Machines into the world only to have to say goodbye to them… For now at least, I hope we get a Steam Controller 2.0 one day. I can dream right?
Like many decades-old tech companies with a lot of cash to throw around, Valve have gained a seemingly insurmountable technological advantage over their would-be competitors (of which they’re none that come close to offering equivalent features in their own ecosystem, just look at the Epic Games Launcher).
We’re seeing this phenomenon everywhere we look in the dystopian cyberpunk present we all live in. Google is decades ahead of anyone else in the “Maps” game and no one is ever catching up to them; nobody is going to try and compete with YouTube anytime soon. Facebook is kicking everyone’s ass in the VR space but, more importantly, controls almost all of the social media platforms. Microsoft is in everyone’s home, no one’s really happy about it but that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change.
Alas. We can’t do much about it.
Kick back, relax on your couch while escaping, with moderation, into video game worlds that aren’t as suck filled as our own. Unless you’re playing Cyberpunk 2077 that is.
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