Sony and Microsoft are betting big on their first console launches in seven and eight years, respectively. But it's no longer just their show.

Valve—the company behind Steam, the hit digital-games distribution service—has a wrench to toss into the living-room works. The company has just announced SteamOS, a wide-open operating system that helps PC games make the hop to the TV. 

Breaking Down Barriers

Gamers have been watching Steam for a while now in anticipation of the fabled Steam Box, a Valve-built console that's still in the works. Before the hardware hits, though, we're getting software: SteamOS, built with Linux, will extend Valve's distribution service to the living room. 

Prior to the rise of Steam, PC gaming was idling in a dark age, largely in the hands of Microsoft. Steam is fiercely loved among its users for offering gamers an operating-system agnostic platform to connect with other gamers and manage a collection of games which are synced to Steam's servers.

Here's what Steam wrote:

As we’ve been working on bringing Steam to the living room, we’ve come to the conclusion that the environment best suited to delivering value to customers is an operating system built around Steam itself.
SteamOS combines the rock-solid architecture of Linux with a gaming experience built for the big screen. It will be available soon as a free stand-alone operating system for living room machines.

Between SteamOS and the Ouya, an Android-based gaming console, the living room is more open than ever. Consumers have an infinite array of combinations for living room entertainment, and Valve will be getting involved in the hardware game soon too. SteamOS offers what it calls "in-home streaming" that lets users stream Steam games from a Windows or Mac machine to a system running SteamOS.

The remaining question: What system will run SteamOS? Presumably the Steam Box, which Valve may announce as soon as this week—though recent layoffs have caused some to call the project into question. (Valve head Gabe Newell's dismisses that possibility.)

Steam also says it's working on bringing video and music to SteamOS boxes, though nothing's been confirmed yet.

Whether Valve makes the box that runs SteamOS or third-party manufacturers pick it up, the entry of Steam has made the console market more interesting.

The Contenders, Compared

SteamOS:

  • No hardware yet, free software that works with any Steam-compatible PC
  • Built on Linux and other open-source software
  • Streams gameplay from a Windows or Mac PC to the TV
  • Library of over 2,000 games, both major and indie titles (Dota 2, Skyrim, Civilization V, to give a decent cross-section of the selection) 
  • Indie gamer and developer-friendly (Valve takes roughly a 30% cut)
  • Games all digitally distributed (no discs)
  • Enables mods and hacks not possible or more difficult on major consoles (like putting monocles on crabs in Skyrim—because why not?!)
  • Free to join Steam, no subscription fees

Ouya:

  • $99 online or through retail partners (Gamestop, Best Buy, etc.)
  • Runs a modified version of Android, the mobile operating system
  • Mod-friendly, easy-open hardware; all systems are built to work as developer's kits
  • All Ouya games must meet a "free to play" requirement (trial modes, free and premium tiers)
  • Games all digitally distributed
  • 435 games available in the Ouya library—not impressive, but growing
  • Streaming video and non-gaming apps can be side-loaded onto the Ouya, native apps not yet available

Xbox One:

  • Microsoft gaming console, will retail for $499 on November 22
  • $60/year Xbox Live membership required for online play and multimedia like Netflix and Hulu Plus
  • Digital game downloads available over the Xbox Live network
  • Launch exclusives: Halo 5, Titanfall, Dead Rising 3, Ryse, Below and (many) more

PlayStation 4:

  • Sony's gaming console, will retail for $399 on November 15
  • $50/year PlayStation Plus subscription required for online gaming, but not for streaming media like Netflix and Hulu
  • Digital game downloads available over the PlayStation Plus network
  • Launch exclusives: The Order: 1886; Infamous: Second Son; Knack and more

When it comes to flashy, big-name gaming titles, indie upstarts like the Ouya and Steam can't compete—but that's not really what they're about, anyway. Once Steam's living-room hardware gets up to speed, Valve's gaming platform will likely remain complementary to the major consoles where big titles live. But for dedicated PC gamers looking for a fresh, big-screen experience, SteamOS might just open up a whole new world of gaming—once it finds a hardware home, that is.