Steam’s Big Picture: encouraging social PC gaming
In early December Steam launched their new Big Picture mode. Designed to be controller-friendly, Big Picture can ostensibly be used on any monitor but its true purpose is to bring PC gaming into the living room and onto your television. Valve has announced their intention to eventually release a “Steam Box” hardware companion to Big Picture, which could be amazing, but in the meantime the new mode’s users are probably early adopters with a closet full of old computer hardware. Clearly, I needed to get in on this.
Installation and Setup
My homemade “Steam Box” is made of hardware from three years ago, but it’s good enough to run everything except the most cutting edge titles. Starting Big Picture itself couldn’t be easier — just make sure your controller is plugged in, install and run Steam, and click the “Big Picture” icon in the top right corner.
The UI is modern and easily navigated with a controller. Big Picture includes a browser and a controller-friendly daisy wheel system of typing, but while it’s easier than hunting and pecking on a virtual keyboard you still won’t want to use it.
Even if you skip the browser completely, don’t put away that keyboard and mouse just yet. Remember our old friend repeated DirectX installations? Just like with regular Steam, whenever you launch a game for the first time you’ll have to go through the DirectX process and that means needing a mouse. (I doubt there’s a good way to fix this, but it does really mess with the otherwise smooth user experience of Big Picture.)
Time to Play
The main appeal of Big Picture for us Steam sale victims, of course, is our existing huge game library. Steam does a good job of sorting out the controller-friendly titles, and in fact seems to err on the side of conservative labelling rather than incorrectly marking a title. (The Walking Dead, for example, is listed as having “Partial Controller Support” although I never once had to pull out the keyboard, while some games like Jet Set Radio don’t list any controller support but work fine with the system.)
I find that precise shooting games suffer from a lack of accuracy with thumbsticks, and that still holds true here. Fortunately, there are a slew of other games in my collection and Big Picture seems particularly kind to platformers and adventure titles.
Making PC Gaming More Social
I initially set up Big Picture in my living room because after a long day of sitting at a desk at work, sometimes I just want to chill out on the couch. I grew up playing consoles, and yet until now I honestly didn’t notice how insulated PC gaming usually is despite the increased use of online multiplayer.
On Christmas Day a few friends were sitting around having some drinks, and I booted up The Walking Dead. (Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like brutally bleak moral choices!) I was more planning on playing it in the background as an alternative to having the TV going, but it quickly wound up being the main attraction. My guests cried out during jump scares and suggested actions when I got stuck. They debated the story choices I made well after I made them, and shouted out the quick time event buttons during the action bits. The Walking Dead is a great game, but I can report that it’s even better as part of a social experience.
Of course TWD is also a pretty cinematic game, but the same sort of thing occured a few days later when I played Hotline Miami on Big Picture. My playing companions were drawn to the television by the bright colors and weird noises, and even without directly participating or even watching it for longer than 10 minutes at a time it was still a more social experience than your average MMO LFG dungeon run.
Playing Big Picture really highlighted to me the holes in the current PC gaming marketplace. There are pitifully few “couch co-op” games, particularly in triple AAA titles. Sure you can grab two controllers and play, say Borderlands 2 with a friend in-person on your XBox, but it’s not natively possible in the PC version. Collections of group mini-games like Mario Party are also quite obviously missing. Assuming Big Picture catches on, I’m hoping some titles appear to help fill in those gaps.
Conclusion: Big Picture is Awesome
There are a number of factors that will affect the success of Big Picture, the most immediate one being the quality and presentation of the hypothetical future official Steam Box. For us folks who either already have or can easily build a living room PC, though, I found the Big Picture service to be easy to use, to have a wide array of controller-friendly games, and most of all to bring an element of social gaming back into the PC genre.