The future is coming on May 21st. Are you ready? Gaming will be taking an exciting leap that will affect the industry for years. What is this quiet revolution? Valve is going to be releasing the Steam Link App for iphones and android phones and tablets. This app will allow games in a player’s Steam libraries to be streamed to their phone. Streaming your digital collection of games to mobile devices will quietly usher in a new age of portability and change the landscape of gaming. Dive in and we will examine how this addresses the barriers common to mobile gaming.
What is the Steam Link?
In 2015, Valve released a small device called the Steam Link. The idea was to be able to move past having a dedicated gaming computer and allow gamers to connect their TVs to the gaming service. The hardware connected to a TV’s HDMI port, internet, and contained three USB ports for controller support. The actual hardware did not load the games on the device but would stream games from a local computer, where the games were downloaded, to the device and thus the TV. The hardware was designed to work in conjunction with a steam machine (PC), which would house and stream the game to the link.
On May 21st, Valve will be releasing a mobile app that allows your PC to stream games to your phone. The phone serves as the TV and the Steam Link. The app will work with several controllers such as the Steam Controller.
The biggest limitation currently is the phone’s internet speed. Streaming will have to be done on a 5GHz Wi-Fi network or wired Ethernet connection. No, LTE will not work for streaming at this point.
Changing the Face of Gaming
As Valve looked to expand the scope of the Steam Link, they reached out to gamers for feedback. The biggest feedback they got was that people wanted to play while in the bathroom. No joke. Time to invest in some hemorrhoid doctor’s practices. Bazinga!
Gross humor aside, the feedback was clear that gamers want to be able to play their games in more places. The Switch’s success hammers home this point as gamers are re-buying games they own on other platforms just so they can play their favorite games on the go.
I did an article when we first started Last Boss Gaming, looking at the future of mobile gaming. In that article, I looked at three different barriers left to mobile gaming: storage space, controls, and battery life. Time to go back and review to see how the Steam Link App addresses these barriers.
“The first is the space. Games have become huge. Console games now do not even fit on the 60+ GB available on Blu-ray disks and require GBs of download and save space upon each console. No matter how you slice it, mobile platforms just do not have that amount of space. Even with a slot for a SD card there are huge limitations to achieving the space needed to produce an open world game like Last of Us. Other programs, downloads, and updates quickly fill up any space left.”
Storage cards are becoming easier to secure, but the space needed for a full size AAA title is too much for most devices to handle. Switch has addressed this by having small cartridges that can hold large titles like Zelda and Mario Odyssey. The challenge though is still having a large library with you when you want it. Steam link addresses this through streaming. Instead of having to have your game with you, it simply needs to be on the account and adapted for streaming. The game will be loaded onto your PC, but will save space on your mobile. Any supported mobile device can now stream the game and avoid having to store it on the limited smartphone memory.
“The second issue is controls. The biggest complaint I often hear from friends who are obsessed with mobile games is the control issue. PC gamers have often lauded the mouse and keyboard as the best setup for shooters and many other genres. Controllers leave the imprecise touchscreen behind. Many companies have tried to solve this issue by creating a controller that houses the mobile phone. The issue though is that this is a peripheral, and as most gamers know peripherals lack the level of adoption to usually garner the AAA large budget support.”
Touch controls are ok, but not for intense competitive gaming experiences. The Switch solved this issue by having the controllers not as a peripheral, but as core component of the console. Every game with the console would work with the joy-cons.
Steam link has also addressed this exact issue. The app allows for the steam controller (and a few others) to be paired up with your mobile device so that you can play on the road. While the steam controller is not perfect, it bests touch mechanics in so many ways. The only downside here is not being able to hold the controller and the system at the same time. Not a major issue, but it does make playing on the toilet (or subway…which is like a moving toilet) more challenging. Finding a stand, or way to prop up a phone or tablet is simple compared to getting a good controller. Consider this addressed also.
“The last pillar of issues for mobile gaming is the issue of battery life. Most successful games on mobile are quick play short games that realize a player is probably playing on a lunch break, or waiting at the bus. The longer more in-depth titles require longer stretches to play. That frequency and processing demands drain the battery for most phones like there is no tomorrow. A dead battery and being unable to make calls kills your gaming mojo fast.”
The final issue, battery life. This is almost like the holy grail of mobile gaming issues. Charging stations for phones are becoming commonplace in public spaces. Airports now have a plethora of charging stations at each gate. Hospitals, coffee shops, stadiums, offices, and even parks now have charging stations to help battery life. The barrier is slowly breaking down. Make no mistake it is still there and Steam Link App does nothing to help preserve battery life. Streaming with a bright screen and using blue tooth technology for a controller is going to zap batteries fast. The only positive is that if you have a strong enough signal to stream games, then you will likely be near someplace to charge your phone or tablet.
The Glass Half Empty and Half Full
Being able to stream games to our phones is very exciting. From the basic information and early announcements Valve has given on the Steam Link App, it is clear there will be limitations. As previously mentioned there will be no LTE streaming at this point. Controller support is also limited. Will controllers need to have a USB receiver to link with the phone? To top it all off, we will likely need a top of the line phone and good internet (at least at home) to make this possible. This narrows down the scope of what the Steam Link App will be able to accomplish. The current use seems to be limited to, well, playing games in the bathroom.
The exciting piece of this announcement though is the future possibilities. Valve has cracked open the door to solving the mobile gaming issues. The progress here feels like the dawn of a new day. Progress here is like the early Virtual Reality devices we have. The technology is slowly getting to the point where we could have one place for games and we stream them to any screen we desire.
Streaming games like Stardew Valley, Undertale, and Rocket League would likely not take as intense data usage. These would be perfect games to be able to play on the go and stream now. Streaming graphically intense and crucial framerate games like Destiny 2, seem to be a ways off. However, it now seems possible to have our games wherever we go and not have to lug them all with us in a case. I for one am excited for jumping into Stardew Valley on work breaks and any place I am stuck waiting.
Microsoft and Sony are surely taking diligent notes for future systems. Future generations of Xbox and Playstation will likely incorporate some form of portable/mobile to compete with the Switch. Streaming to phones would allow the companies to continue to make consoles and then use an app to get onto gamers phones and tablets.
Now to download King’s Quest so I can game from my throne. Dilly Dilly.