MIT Technology Review

Friday, February 01, 2013

Defending the Living Room from Apple

The biggest threat to smart gaming, says Valve’s Gabe Newell, is for Apple to seize the living room.

I don’t often have occasion to embed a video from the LBJ School of Public Affairs on Technology Review. But when the enigmatic and brilliant Gabe Newell--CEO of the gaming company Valve and one of the smartest people in tech today--gives a talk at the University of Texas school, then it’s worth your attention.

I’ve written a bit before about Newell’s recent forays into the world of hardware (see “Is Valve Making a Console?” and “Can Valve Innovate Gaming Hardware?”). Generally, Newell--whose company is behind both some of the greatest gaming franchises in history (“Half Life,” “Portal”) and a novel indie game distribution platform called Steam--has emerged as a voice in favor of openness in a gaming ecosystem that is increasingly closed. Valve has been said to be interested in making a gaming console of its own, a yet-to-be-released “Steam Box” whose specs are still nebulous, but is likely to have more in common with a traditional PC than with an Xbox or PlayStation. (The best place to get a sense of what the Steam Box is and isn’t is in this Verge interview from January.)

One comment of his in particular during his LBJ talk is attracting a lot of note. One would think that the natural competition for a new console would be the legacy players in the console business. Not so, says Newell:

"The threat right now is that Apple has gained a huge amount of market share, and has a relatively obvious pathway towards entering the living room with their platform... I think that there's a scenario where we see sort of a dumbed down living room platform emerging — I think Apple rolls the console guys really easily. The question is can we make enough progress in the PC space to establish ourselves there, and also figure out better ways of addressing mobile before Apple takes over the living room?"

I’m a gamer, though something of an unusual one, in two senses. My tastes run towards the highfalutin. I’d rather play one amazing, ambitious game every year or two years than a dozen mindless games a month (though I did get addicted to Harbor Master for a couple hours the other night, if I’m being honest). “Portal 2” was the last console game I played through in its entirety; I wouldn’t be surprised if “Portal 3” were the next, so rarely does a game come around that seizes me like a great TV show or novel.

All of which is to say that my tastes may not be a good indication of what markets actually wants. But I do worry about an era in which the sorts of games I see people play on their iPhones or iPads become the dominant form of gaming in the living room, as well. I think that gaming wields considerable cultural influence, and that our culture will be richer if it has more “Portals” than “Angry Birds.” We are already becoming a nation of zombies, glued to our various screens; we should at least be semi-cultured zombies, if we can (see “The Rise of Social Mobile Games.”)

Then again, “The Last Express,” one of the most daring and brainy games of all time, has found a second lease on life through iOS. Does Apple and its closed ecosystem necessarily shunt us into “dumbed down” gaming, as Newell suggests? Will the living room, with its larger screen, its inherent non-mobility (unless you live in an RV!), always be a welcome venue for smart games, no matter what operating system or console they run on?

In fact, the Apple rant was only a small part of Newell’s much longer and thought-provoking talk, which is about the economics of gaming, his hiring philosophy, and much else (like the idea of opening up Steam even more radically, Android-style). Like most of Newell’s pronouncements, it merits a listen, at least: