Last night I played Assassin's Creed IV on a 2006 MacBook — the cheap, white plastic kind. It's a machine with a 1.83GHz processor and 4GB of RAM, and it might as well have no graphics card at all. It's a machine that was long ago relegated to backup status, good for word processing and Web surfing, and little else.
And yet I ran, swam, and sailed across the Caribbean on this ancient MacBook, as sunshine played over a tumbling ocean of physics models that stretched out to a horizon drawn as far as my eyes could see. Here was this ghost of a once-proud machine — the battery doesn't even charge anymore — running one of last year's most graphically intense games.
Not perfectly, mind you, but let's just talk about the small miracles that the Steam PC gaming service's nascent in-home streaming technology provides.
Valve's big bet
Steam's service, which is currently available in invitation-only beta form, is similar to earlier examples, like OnLive and Gaikai, that streamed games to any Internet-connected computer in Netflix-esque fashion, and let you play graphically demanding games on, say, a mainstream laptop. The laptop was actually just displaying a video of the game being played, while capturing your keystrokes and sending them to a faraway server, where the real heavy-duty computing was done.
It was the far, far away aspect that broke services like OnLive. Gaming requires low latency: When you push a button, the associated action needs to occur as close to immediately as possible. A fundamental amount of hardware and network lag could never be overcome with OnLive and its ilk, and most games were simply unplayable.
Valve's in-home streaming is more like running Apple TV or another home media center. In one room I have this incredible gaming PC I built. In the other room I have this less-powerful laptop. Both are connected on the same strong local network. So why not use that connection to stream games from one room to the other?
Setting the stage for SteamOS
The ability to stream games around the house would be cool in and of itself, but Valve's in-home streaming technology needs to succeed if the company wants its upstart SteamOS operating system and the associated ecosystem of Steam Machines to catch on in the living room. Because SteamOS is a Linux-based operating system, it falls victim to the age-old Linux gaming problem: There simply aren't many native Linux games.
While the prognosis for Linux gaming has gotten better in recent years, the fact remains that only the slightest fraction of Steam's vast PC gaming library runs on Linux. Developers target Windows, because if you're playing games on a computer there's about a 90% chance you're playing on Windows (according to Steam's own hardware survey). And nobody wants to give up a huge portion of their Steam library to try something like SteamOS.
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