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Half Life’ creatormakes its own bid for the living room with ‘SteamOS’

Valve on Monday announced the latest entry into the war for the living room, only this one isn't even a piece of hardware.
Valve on Monday announced the latest entry into the war for the living room, only this one isn't even a piece of hardware.

Just when gamers thought that the competition for the living room couldn't get any more intense, Valve, the perennial king of PC gaming software, announced it is seeking a spot on the couch. But it won't necessarily be using new hardware.

Valve said it is creating an operating system, "SteamOS," named after Steam, its popular PC gaming distribution platform.

"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," Valve wrote on the new SteamOS Web page. "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."

How exactly this will work out in practice remains to be seen, but the company said that today's news is the first of three announcements it plans to make this week, with the next coming Wednesday.

Today's announcement surprised many gamers and industry watchers who had been expecting more news from the hardware side of Valve's new venture into living room gaming — an ecosystem it had long appeared uninterested in, seeing as it spent the last decade establishing its dominance in the PC gaming market with its Steam software even as more and more of its competitors shifted away from the desktop PC to focus on consoles or mobile devices.

Valve turned many heads last January during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas when co-founder and CEO Gabe Newell said in an interview that the company was testing out various prototypes for a new piece of gaming hardware dubbed the "Steam Box."

Newell was careful not to simply position whatever products Valve was tinkering with as direct competitors to Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft's gaming consoles, however. Shortly after his appearance at CES, he said during a lecture at the University of Texas that he thought Apple could "easily" beat out entrenched competitors by offering "a sort of a dumbed down living room platform."

Presumably, Valve is hoping to establish itself — either with its SteamOS software, the Steam Box hardware, or some combination of the two — as a new platform that's more accessible and user-friendly than those offered by the current console makers, without dumbing it down in the process.

To start, Valve said it has a handful of gaming and all-purpose entertainment features for the new operating system, which it said "will be available soon as a free download for users and as a freely licensable operating system for manufacturers." The service will allow Steam users to stream any of the games they own or have activated through its PC gaming service, complete with family sharing and age-restriction features for family-friendly access.

Without going into much detail, Valve said that it is "working with many of the media services you know and love," such as Netflix and music streaming, to flesh out the service's media offerings as well.

Seeing as the gaming world has become replete with up-and-coming players like the Ouya that hope to dethrone the kings of console gaming, gamers will undoubtedly be skeptical of the SteamOS and Steam Box. But seeing as Valve has repeatedly set the gaming world ablaze with hits like "Half Life," "Portal" and "Team Fortress," they also have a good reason to be excited as well. 

Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.