Getting a console gaming experience from a PC has never been easy.
In fact, it is most often downright horrible. Between long cables, confusing interfaces, and incompatible controllers the experience has always left much to be desired. It should come as no surprise, then, to find that the overwhelming majority of PC gamers still prefer to use a keyboard and mouse. But Bellevue gaming giant Valve wants to change that.
Three months back Valve unveiled the Steam Box, their solution to the problem of PC gaming in the living room. Accompanying it was Steam OS – the Linux-based operating system that offered users of the company’s “Steam” game distribution platform a controller-friendly way of interacting with their games. However, the third party Steam Box prototypes unveiled at CES all shared one unique feature: price tags in excess of $500. PC gamers responded inconsistently – while some where enthralled by the new living room options, many others were left unconvinced. For many of these gamers, who have often spent in excess of $1000 on their computers, the prospect of buying a whole second machine just to play in the living room seemed absurd. Why fix what isn’t broken?
Fast forward to two weeks ago, when Valve began sending out early beta invites for its “In-Home Streaming” beta program. Designed as a stop-gap program to bring the Steam Box experience to those who are unwilling to spend money on a dedicated console, the service allows Steam users to stream their games from their high-powered desktop PCs to lower-powered laptops and other computers. This is accomplished using any standard home wireless router, which sends the desktop machine’s video signal to the less powerful machine, allowing the user to play the game on a machine that might not otherwise have been able to take the processing load necessary to run the game.
Valve might just be on to something here. While excitement for the release of the wide array of Steam Box models (and the accompanying Steam Controller) is palapable, not all users are willing to commit hundreds of dollars toward a new console just yet. Despite that, a recent 2012 Nielsen Poll showed that 24% of gamer own and use at least two or more platforms. Obviously, the living room is a viable space for the expansion of Valve’s gaming empire.
But Valve is also running against some serious competition here. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all have years of experience in offering polished, high-quality gaming experiences for the living room. And in all honesty, Steam’s In-Home Streaming solution should be met with a lot of skepticism. After all, game streaming has long been considered a pipe dream for the industry – one which has never been fully achieved.
So, with a beta invite in hand, I set out to find out if Steam’s streaming solution was all it was hyped to be.
A Cautious Courtship
My setup for Streaming was relatively basic: my Acer ultrabook served as a streaming client, attached to my 720P Philips television, while my custom-built desktop processed and served the game itself (see below for more info). Initial setup was simple enough – after opting into the beta program I logged into the Steam client on my two separate machines, connected the laptop to the television via an HDMI cable, plugged in an Xbox 360 controller and sat down to give it a shot.
A few things streamlined the process for me: First, so long as the standard desktop Steam client is open on your client machine, hitting the “Xbox” button (or “Playstation” button, in the case of a Sony controller) will launch the full-screen “Big Picture” mode, which is designed specifically for controller navigation. While I did have to open the Steam program prior to connecting my laptop to the TV, it was minimal work. Nonetheless, however, it was more work than would be necessary when using a major console. The second feature that helped me substantially were the things that I didn’t see – menus, connection settings, etc. When I turned on Steam, it connected to the other computer almost immediately. I didn’t have to dig through layers and layers of settings to get things connected. It just worked, with a small bubble popping up in the lower left informing me that the connection had been forged.
Navigating the Big Picture interface is fairly intuitive and clear. The design is sleek and the color palette works well. Getting to the library is quick and easy, as is finding online friends and the Store tab. In the library, you can choose to sort games by numerous categories – “All,” “Installed,” and “Controller-Enabled” are clear category titles that sorted the view to only include games in each respective category. The system was smart enough to compile both games that I had locally installed and remotely (on the desktop) installed into the broad category of “Installed,” while the “Local” category sifted out only those installed onto the laptop directly.
Selecting a game opens an additional screen that contains relevant information and several play options. For remote games, the “Stream” button would appear, but I was also given the contextual option to hit “Y” for other options, including installing the game locally onto the client machine. Hitting the stream button initiates the service, and a loading animation appears as the connection is established. The initial performance was great – the picture was clear and appeared with artifacts or distortion. The beta program comes with a hard-coded framerate counter at the bottom of the screen, which conveniently kept me notified of my performance. The first game that I fired up was last year’s blockbuster hit Bioshock Infinite – a graphically intensive game that I would previously have had no hope of running on my meager laptop. The game performed admirably – the first menus navigated well and I noticed no discernible input lag. I maintained 30 frames per second (FPS) without fail. The great performance continued as I played through the first few minutes of the game. The rendering was strong, and the picture looked great. In combat the controller worked well, and I was able to get through the first few battles of the game without issue. Honestly, I almost forgot that I was playing over a stream.
Trouble on the Road
About thirty minutes in, however, problems arose. Still playing Bioshock Infinite, I found myself in the middle of a firefight . Suddenly, I noticed the game’s framerate beginning to stutter. At first it was small, almost imperceptible, but quickly lowered. I read the framerate display at 10 FPS.
The whole ordeal lasted less than 10 seconds, but I knew what I had just experience – a lag spike.
Gamers who play online will by and large be familiar with “lag” or “latency” spikes. Indicators of a slow network connection, lag spikes can cause games to briefly freeze or cause characters to briefly run in place. This is the problem that Valve comes up against in implementing their In-Home Streaming feature. On the whole I only tended to encounter lag spikes intermittently, perhaps every half an hour. I never had a situation where it necessarily made things unplayable, but it is one of those issues that, if properly timed, can be incredibly frustrating.
That said, I’m quite impressed that Valve has been able to minimize lag as much as it has. What they have accomplished thus far is an achievement. As a worthwhile parallel example, when I stream local video from my desktop to my television (via Google’s Chromecast) I tend to encounter buffering with roughly the same regularity – once every half an hour. Keep in mind also that your mileage may vary – while I used a “Wireless G” standard router to connect my laptop, a faster or slower router may result in different performance. A completely wired-connection setup would certainly be ideal.
A Barrage of Tests
To really get a feel for how well In-Home Streaming is working, I chose several games to test. My hope was to cover a wide array of genres, each requiring different levels of detail, reaction time, etc. In no particular order, the games tested were:
- Bioshock Infinite
- Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition
- Super Meat Boy
- Batman: Arkham Origins
- Metro: Last Light
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
- Fallout: New Vegas
- Battlefield 4
- Left 4 Dead 2
- Super Hexagon
- Borderlands 2
You might notice something strange about one of the games listed above – namely, Battlefield 4. To my surprise, I was actually able to launch non-Steam games through In-Home Streaming. This feature really caught me off guard, and certainly spurred some ideas for implementations beyond playing Steam games. Hypothetically you could run any Windows application through the streaming configuration.
I was quite surprised how well the system did on twitch/fast reaction games. One of the first that I called up was Super Hexagon, Terry Cavanagh’s ruthlessly fast-paced game. Throughout my entire play test of the game I had a steady 60 FPS and noticed zero input lag – an important point to note, because Super Hexagon is a game where fractions of a second can mean the difference. Super Meat Boy and Super Street Fighter 4 also performed similarly well with minimal input lag, but came through at 30 FPS as opposed to 60. These all represented games in which input speed is very important, and for each the system did quite well.
In addition, I tested two graphically intensive games – Metro: Last Light, Batman: Arkham Origins and Bioshock Infinite. As mentioned above, I had a few lag issues with Bioshock, but nothing game-breaking. With Metro, however, I noticed a strange quirk – the game was incredibly dark. For those that have played the game, it is on the whole a very dark game (as in, there is little light). However, comparing my desktop’s picture to the television I was surprised at how difficult it was to see. With modification of the in-game brightness and contrast settings this was resolved, but it is worth noting that the settings on your desktop machine might not be well suited for your television (and vice-versa). As of yet there is no quick way to resolve this en masse, but instead needs to be adjusted game-by-game. Another issue noted while playing Batman: Arkham Origins was a significantly lower framerate – when I initially fired it up I was getting near 20 FPS – low enough to notice a visible stutter. Normally this game runs at 50 FPS on maximum settings on my PC, so I was rather confused as to why the performance had gone so far down hill. At first I believed it must have been the network. However, when I checked my computer (the game image is rendered simultaneously on the desktop’s screen) I noticed the same. My assumption is that In-Home Streaming requires some amount of the CPU load to be dedicated to encoding your video stream (think compression, making it smaller for transport) and as a result it effected the performance of the game. Much like the brightness settings, it was resolved by modifying the in-game settings.
I also tried several online games. First, I tried Left 4 Dead 2. Rather quickly I found an online game and jumped in. Performance was surprisingly good, and I noticed minimal lag. I was prepared for the worst, since there were now two potential network bottlenecks to deal with, but I was surprised to find that it worked very well. I was also happy to see that L4D2 maintained 60 FPS – one of the few graphically intensive games that did so. How much of that is owing to the fact that it is a Valve-produced game remains to be seen. In Borderlands 2 I entered a game with GPF’s own Jeremy Smith. Performance was good, and I used the Steam client’s chat wheel (one of the better features to come out of the “Big Picture” interface) to send a few quick messages using the controller. Once we had joined the same game, however, a problem arose. As Jeremy sent messages using the in-game chat, I searched through menus trying to find a way to active the in-game chat from my controller. Unable to find any solution, I was forced to write to him through Steam’s own chat, explaining that I couldn’t use the in-game chat function.
Therein, for me at least, lies the biggest potential pitfall for In-Home Streaming (and more broadly for Valve’s push to use controllers): some games have features that simply cannot be translated to a gamepad. This seems obvious for some games that necessitate a mouse and keyboard – games like Papers, Please or Civilizations 5. Heck, there were still a few that wouldn’t work for me (Bethesda’s Skyrim and Fallout – both games I expect will work before widespread release). But it isn’t those problems that bother me. It’s the more nefarious examples, games like Borderlands, where almost everything works that bring a real problem. It’s easy for users to write off the fact that certain games simply don’t work – that is fine, but nearly every game with an online multiplayer component has one essential feature that necessitates a keyboard – chat. The same feeling comes creeping every time there is a lag spike or I have to dig through menus to change my graphics settings. It is the feeling that things just aren’t working exactly right.
For PC gamers these kinds of concerns are par for the course, and I don’t expect them to be surprised by any of this. Anyone who has played games on PC for any reasonable amount of time has had to spend half an hour tweaking some asinine settings. But the living room audience isn’t necessarily the PC enthusiast audience. What Valve is striving for here is a kind of mass appeal, and each small problem chips away at the feeling of polish so absolutely necessary for a console-like gaming experience. These aren’t the biggest problem in the world, and certainly doesn’t stop you from playing, but it has that feeling of incompleteness and lack of polish that Valve is so desperately trying to kick.
But then again: it is free, after all.