Subject: Displays, Shows and Expos | February 22, 2016 - 01:27 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: MWC, mwc 16, valve, htc, vive, Oculus
Valve and HTC announced that the Vive consumer edition will be available in April for $799 USD, with pre-orders beginning on February 29th. Leave it to Valve to launch a product on a date that doesn't always exist. The system comes with the headset, two VR controllers, and two sensors. The unit will have “full commercial availability” when it launches in April, but that means little if it sells out instantly. There's no way to predict that.
The announcement blog post drops a subtle jab at Oculus. “Vive will be delivered as a complete kit” seems to refer to the Oculus Touch controllers being delayed (and thus not in the hands of every user). This also makes me think about the price. The HTC Vive costs $200 more than the Oculus Rift. That said, it also has the touch controllers, which could shrink that gap. It also does not come with a standard gamepad, like Oculus does, although that's just wasted money if you already have one.
Unlike the Oculus, which has its own SDK, the Vive is powered by SteamVR. Most engines and middleware that support one seem to support both, so I'm not sure if this will matter. It could end up blocking content in an HD-DVD vs BluRay fashion. Hopefully Valve/HTC and Oculus/Facebook, or every software vendor on an individual basis, works through these interoperability concerns and create an open platform. Settling on a standard tends to commoditize industries, but that will eventually happen to VR at some point anyway. Hopefully, if it doesn't happen sooner, cross-compatibility at least happens then.
That Depends on Whether They Need One
Ars Technica UK published an editorial called, Hey Valve: What's the point of Steam OS? The article does not actually pose the question in it's text -- it mostly rants about technical problems with a Zotac review unit -- but the headline is interesting none-the-less.
Here's my view of the situation.
The Death of Media Center May Have Been...
There's two parts to this story, and both center around Windows 8. The first was addressed in an editorial that I wrote last May, titled The Death of Media Center & What Might Have Been. Microsoft wanted to expand the PC platform into the living room. Beyond the obvious support for movies, TV, and DVR, they also pushed PC gaming in a few subtle ways. The Games for Windows certification required games to be launchable by Media Center and support Xbox 360 peripherals, which pressures game developers to make PC games comfortable to play on a couch. They also created Tray and Play, which is an optional feature that allows PC games to be played from the disk while they installed in the background. Back in 2007, before Steam and other digital distribution services really took off, this eliminated install time, which was a major user experience problem with PC gaming (and a major hurdle for TV-connected PCs).
It also had a few nasty implications. Games for Windows Live tried to eliminate modding by requiring all content to be certified (or severely limiting the tools as seen in Halo 2 Vista). Microsoft was scared about the content that users could put into their games, especially since Hot Coffee (despite being locked, first-party content) occurred less than two years earlier. You could also argue that they were attempting to condition PC users to accept paid DLC.
Regardless of whether it would have been positive or negative for the PC industry, the Media Center initiative launched with Windows Vista, which is another way of saying “exploded on the launch pad, leaving no survivors.” Windows 7 cleared the wreckage with a new team, who aimed for the stars with Windows 8. They ignored the potential of the living room PC, preferring devices and services (ie: Xbox) over an ecosystem provided by various OEMs.
If you look at the goals of Steam OS, they align pretty well with the original, Vista-era ambitions. Valve hopes to create a platform that hardware vendors could compete on. Devices, big or small, expensive or cheap, could fill all of the various needs that users have in the living room. Unfortunately, unlike Microsoft, they cannot be (natively) compatible with the catalog of Windows software.
This may seem like Valve is running toward a cliff, but keep reading.
What If Steam OS Competed with Windows Store?
Windows 8 did more than just abandon the vision of Windows Media Center. Driven by the popularity of the iOS App Store, Microsoft saw a way to end the public perception that Windows is hopelessly insecure. With the Windows Store, all software needs to be reviewed and certified by Microsoft. Software based on the Win32 API, which is all software for Windows 7 and earlier, was only allowed within the “Desktop App,” which was a second-class citizen and could be removed at any point.
This potential made the PC software industry collectively crap themselves. Mozilla was particularly freaked out, because Windows Store demanded (at the time) that all web browsers become reskins of Internet Explorer. This means that Firefox would not be able to implement any new Web standards on Windows, because it can only present what Internet Explorer (Trident) draws. Mozilla's mission is to develop a strong, standards-based web browser that forces all others to interoperate or die.
Remember: “This website is best viewed with Internet Explorer”?
Executives from several PC gaming companies, including Valve, Blizzard, and Mojang, spoke out against Windows 8 at the time (along with browser vendors and so forth). Steam OS could be viewed as a fire escape for Valve if Microsoft decided to try its luck and kill, or further deprecate, Win32 support. In the mean time, Windows PCs could stream to it until Linux gained a sufficient catalog of software.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
This is where Steam OS gets interesting. Its software library cannot compete against Windows with its full catalog of Win32 applications, at least not for a long time. On the other hand, if Microsoft continues to support Win32 as a first-class citizen, and they returned to the level of openness with software vendors that they had in the Windows XP era, then Valve doesn't really have a reason to care about Steam OS as anything more than a hobby anyway. Likewise, if doomsday happens and something like Windows RT ends up being the future of Windows, as many feared, then Steam OS wouldn't need to compete against Windows. Its only competition from Microsoft would be Windows Store apps and first-party software.
I would say that Valve might even have a better chance than Microsoft in that case.
Subject: General Tech | January 9, 2016 - 12:06 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: valve, half life 3
I won't blame them if they hide the silverware, however. I can be trusted with company secrets, but not with spoons. Never with spoons.
Marc Laidlaw is an author of science fiction, who wrote much of the story of Half-Life, its expansions, and Half-Life 2. Valve's flat corporate structure (at least at the time) makes it difficult to find out who did what. All employees are listed alphabetically in the credits. He hasn't been given a lot of public credit since Half-Life 2, though.
Whatever he's been working on, he has since retired from the company after eighteen years. On his way out, he emailed a Reddit user with opinions regarding his departure, because that's a Valve thing to do I guess. Gamasutra confirmed it's true. It's a relatively short, interview format letter. The Reddit user apparently initiated contact and didn't realize Marc had just retired.
He wouldn't go into too many details about why he left the company, except that he's “old” and he wants to start writing his own narratives. He published several novels before being hired at Valve Software, which he apparently shelved after The 37th Mandala at the short story Catamounts in 1996. He wrote a couple of short stories in the last 2000s, right after Half-Life 2: Episode 2 launched. He wishes to go back to doing that again, which should be a nice retirement pass-time.
What this means for future Half-Life titles? Who knows.
He says that everything's in Valve's hands at the moment, but he could very well have wrapped up involvement in a project just before he left. I mean, it's been five or six years since his last publicly credited work. That's plenty of time to finish an unannounced product. Again, who knows?
Subject: General Tech | January 6, 2016 - 03:03 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: valve, CS:GO, esports
About a year ago, Valve blocked several players from participating in their sponsored tournaments when the players were believed to be match fixing. This is the practice of arranging outcomes in events and tournaments. This is often accompanied by betting on the pre-arranged winners, but it could also be used to shift around positions in seed brackets by having one or more member intentionally lose winnable games. This is bad all-around, but can even be illegal (due to the implications of fraud and so forth).
Since then, the game developer has reviewed their earlier decision, and they decided to make it permanent. They did not state how many players were involved, although PC Gamer knows of 21. These individuals will never be allowed to compete at any Valve-sponsored tournaments, and other organizers will be able to extend those bans to their events, too.
A similar incident happened in the Korean StarCraft II scene. In that situation, a dozen individuals were arrested and detained by Korean law enforcement, charged for betting (or enabling third-parties to bet) on predetermined outcomes. This has been an ongoing problem.
Subject: General Tech | December 31, 2015 - 08:00 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: htc, valve, vive, vive vr
This bit of news is a little more pleasant for Valve. According to Engadget, the HTC Vive has passed FCC approval. HTC recently announced that the product would launch in April, slipping from its original launch date, Holiday 2015, by a few months. This was due to a “very, very big technological breakthrough” that was in no way elaborated on.
The linked FCC report calls the device the “HTC Base station.” This likely refers to the Lighthouse laser tracking system that are monitored by light sensors on the headset and controllers. The public notice includes the FCC warning label, which mentions that the device is a Class 1 laser system. There are five classifications of lasers, from Class 1 through Class 4 (with Class 3 split into Class 3a and Class 3b). Class 1 means that the laser is completely incapable of producing harmful radiation. Class 4 can cause fires. Since HTC's device is Class 1, this means that either the laser's intensity is too low to cause damage, even with sustained viewing, or the laser never produces a harmful amount of radiation in a way that could be viewed under normal operation. For instance, a laser printer is a “Class 1” laser, because everything occurs within the device. Laser pointers, on the other hand, are typically Class 2.
This raises an interesting question about how the lasers are used. They are clearly emitted into open space, because the sensors are on the visor. This suggests that the lasers are either very low power, or the beam is manipulated in such a way that it cannot be pointed into someone's eye for a meaningful amount of time. How? No idea.
HTC and Valve are expected to fully unveil the product at CES. PC Perspective will be at the event, and we'll probably have more information at that time.
Subject: General Tech | December 31, 2015 - 04:48 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: valve, steam, security, Privacy
On Christmas Day, Valve had a few hours of problems. Their servers were being overloaded by malicious traffic. The best analogy that I could provide would be a bad organization who sent a thousand people to Walmart, to do nothing but stand in the check-out line and ask the cashier about the time. This clogs up the infrastructure, preventing legitimate customers from making their transactions. This was often done after demanding a ransom. Don't pay? Your servers get clogged at the worst time.
A little too much sharing...
There are two ways to counter-act a DDoS attack: add hardware or make your site more efficient.
When a website is requested, the server generates the page and sends it to the customer. This process is typically slow, especially for complicated sites that pull data from one or more database(s). It then feeds this data to partners to send to customers. Some pages, like the Steam Store's front page, are mostly the same for anyone who views it (from the same geographic region). Some pages, like your order confirmation page, are individual. You can save server performance by generating the pages only when they change, and giving them to relevant users from the closest delivery server.
Someone, during a 20-fold spike in traffic relative to the typical Steam Sale volume, accidentally started saving (caching) pages with private information and delivering them to random users. This includes things like order confirmation and contact information pages for whatever logged-in account generated them. This is pretty terrible for privacy. Again, it does not allow users to interact with the profiles of other users, just see the results that other users generated.
But this is still quite bad.
Users complained, especially on Twitter, that Valve should have shut down their website immediately. From my position, I agree, especially since attempting to make a purchase tells the web server to pull the most sensitive information (billing address, etc.) from the database. I don't particularly know why Valve didn't, but I cannot see that from the outside.
But again, I don't work there. I don't know the details.
Subject: General Tech | December 18, 2015 - 09:26 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: valve, htc, vive, vive vr
A grain of salt is needed for this one. Users on Reddit claim to have found a pair of renders, one of the headset and one of the controllers, for the HTC Vive VR system. They also have a screenshot of the page, although the first words you see are “This Is Real,” which are the most sketchy, ironic, and unfortunate words to be greeted with in a product leak.
The current HTC Vive prototype looks like a rough version of this. There are some significant differences, though. My major concern is at the front of the headset. You can clearly see a front-facing camera as well as two nubs below it, one to the bottom-left, and one to the bottom-right. If those two nubs are also cameras, then that makes a bit more sense.
If those two nubs are not cameras, then Valve would have downgraded from a two-camera system, in the original prototype, to a single camera. Valve has already claimed that the Vive will have front-facing cameras, plural, to track objects (like pets) for safety reasons. I can see them adding an extra camera, but I doubt that they would use just a single one. Two cameras allow more accurate depth tracking at low distances, which is when you risk... interacting... with the user. That sounds unlikely.
If it's three cameras? That makes sense.
Kyle Orland of Ars Technica is using the original prototype during GDC 2015.
Image Credit: Ars Technica
The controllers are also interesting, but mostly from an aesthetic standpoint. The hexagonal plates, which apparently functioned as sensors, seem to have been changed into circular rings (if the hole goes all the way through). They retain their thumb trackpads, triggers, and a couple of buttons. It's unclear whether each controller is identical, or if there's a difference between the intended-left and intended-right models. Being a lefty, I hope not.
At roughly the same time, Cher Wang, the CEO of HTC, announced that the HTC Vive will be unveiled at CES (in January). It won't be available until around April, but we should know basically all there is to know about the system at next month's trade show. Given this timing, and that multiple users have been posting the leak seemingly independently, it sounds valid. The camera configuration, on the other hand, takes a bit away from that.
Subject: General Tech | December 11, 2015 - 01:37 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: valve, Steam Controller
Valve updated the Steam Controller software, driven mostly by community feedback, statistics, and direct enhancements from lead users. This update allows users to bind media key inputs to the desktop so that the controller can adjust volume, play, pause, and skip when it is not being used to game. They also added context menus for hotkeys, so they can be accessible from the controller without each action taking up a whole button. It sounds like an analogy for the Q command rose in games like Battlefield, just in your input device drivers (and customizable).
There were two other features that caught my eye. First, controller profiles will soon be sharable for non-Steam games (if you add them to your Steam library). This may or may not be useful for titles from Blizzard or Riot Games. Would sharing profiles really help these games be playable with a controller? Either way, there are certainly some titles that will benefit from this, especially those purchased on GoG. The other addition is “Controller HUD.” Basically, when enabled, it shows the pressed inputs on screen. It sounds like Valve intended this to be a debug mechanism for creating profiles, but it could be very useful for video streamers (especially speedrunners).
Lastly, and this is purely for entertainment value, Valve published a video of their factory. Someone decided that it would be hilarious to stick Aperture Laboratories on various machines. It's pure promotional fluff... but cool fluff.
Subject: General Tech | December 6, 2015 - 12:35 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: valve, pc gaming, half-life 2
Today I learned that there was originally supposed to be multiple follow-ups to Half-Life 2: Episode Two. I wasn't really into Valve games at that point. At some point after Valve released Episode Three, which obviously never happened, two spin-offs were planned by two different studios. One unnamed title was supposed to be spearhead by Warren Spector and Junction Point Studios. The deal collapsed when Disney committed to Epic Mickey and the studio dropped Valve.
The other canceled title was supposed to come from Arkane Studios, which went on to create Dishonored. This one is sometimes called “Half-Life 2: Episode Four,” and “Return to Ravenholm” at others. The narrative takes place before Half-Life 2: Episode Two and is said to star a new, unannounced protagonist.
I bring this up because Valve Time has recently published a post and video that collects a bunch of screenshots from the portfolio of Robert Wilinski. The video goes through the theory of what the game was supposed to be, and how these screenshots fit in with previous leaks and rumors.
Keep in mind that the content is almost a decade old at this point, as Robert dated this folder of his portfolio between 2006 and 2008. This is older than Left 4 Dead.
Subject: General Tech | November 5, 2015 - 12:01 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: valve, steam, Rust
Team Fortress 2 switched from a paid game, first seen in The Orange Box bundle, to a free-to-play title. Financially, you could say that it was supported by tips... ... tips of the hat. Some responded with a wag of their finger, but others with a swipe of their credit card. Where was I going with this? Oh right. This game put Valve on the path of microtransactions, which fuels games like DOTA 2 that aren't supported in any other way.
Each of these item payments are done in game however, even Valve games, except for one. Rust has been chosen to introduce Item Stores on Steam. If you go to Rust's store page, you will see a category called “Items available for this game”. Clicking on it brings you to “Rust Item Store”, where you can buy in-game clothing, weapons, and sleeping bags with real money. This feature is not even available on Team Fortress 2 or DOTA 2.
While there has been some parallels drawn between this and the backtracked paid mods initiative, I don't see it. This is not attempting to take third-party content, some of which was plagiarized from free, existing mods, and sell it. This is an attempt to provide a platform for in-game purchases that already exist. If there's a story, I'd say it's how the initiative launched with a third-party game, and not one of Valve's two, popular, free-to-play titles.