Steam’s Big Picture Has Some Big Problems

When I first heard about Steam’s “Big Picture” mode, I was intrigued. I might have even been excited, and, as a fairly console-exclusive gamer, that’s no easy task for me when talking about PC games. Sure, the rock-bottom Steam sale prices have encouraged me to buy my share of low-cost digital entertainment every summer, but I grew up with my games on my TV. The PC was just for homework, stealing music, and porn. Could Big Picture finally change that?

It promises a lot: controller-based menu navigation and chat, Steam friends, and a huge screen enabling you to finally see what The Binding of Isaac looks like when he’s 42″ wide. After spending an afternoon with the beta, however, I’ve been left wanting. If anything, it’s proven to me that the stumbling blocks and hurdles that the average PC gamer has to endure just to get your game to work simply aren’t worth the hassle when the ready-to-go console gaming experience is just sitting there on the shelf, licking its lips and eye-humping me as it awaits my silky caress.

The first thing you’ll notice is that Big Picture is distinctly not a console, no matter how well the ads do at convincing you that it is basically the SteamBox. After plugging my HDMI cable into my TV, I then had to crawl through my display settings in Control Panel to get the TV to show something besides my desktop wallpaper. Then I had to figure out how to make my sound actually come out of the TV instead of the laptop sitting next to it. And then I had to manually find a resolution that didn’t put Steam in a window.

Whew. Okay. Smooth sailing now? Nope.

I used a wired Xbox 360 controller for Big Picture, which is pretty much the standard PC game controller. The menu navigation was fine, if a bit slower and blurrier than I was hoping (my HDTV is only 720p, and I figure that has something to do with it). None of the game info (e.g. “you’ve played X number of hours”) or chat text was readable. Good thing I don’t have any friends and that info isn’t too vital to my experience – could be a deal breaker.

Anyway. I look through my games for something that’ll work well with a controller and a TV. I fire up The Binding of Isaac. What could work better than a Roguelike Legend of Zelda-esque adventure? It pops up windowed. The blurry blue Big Picture graphics float innocuously behind my half-screen game. Sigh. I go into the settings to try and find a fullscreen mode. Well, I try to go into the settings – my controller isn’t being picked up. So I mouse over into the Options, set a smaller resolution, hit “Fullscreen Mode,” then use the Control Settings to map each button manually and individually to my 360 controller.

Okay, back to the Main Menu. Controller still not working. Game is still windowed. Nope.

Next game: And Yet It Moves. This one is fullscreen automatically, at least. Still doesn’t pick up my controller. I manually assign the buttons, but the main menu still doesn’t work with my controller, even though the options like “New Game” and “Continue” are presented in a simple vertical list. I eventually get it to work, but by this time I’m more frustrated than anything.

Bit.Trip Runner. Windowed. Controller problems.

Cave Story+. Works best. It picks up the controller and automatically fills my TV, although the sound is distorted.

I’ve had enough. Two hours of my life and ten minutes of And Yet It Moves playtime later, I give up.

I know Big Picture is only in beta, but it has a long way to go if they ever want it to be the console experience they’re trying to sell it as. The problem  is in the nature of PC vs. dedicated console gaming. On PS3/360/Wii, developers have a set group of technical parameters to code for. Besides the occasional firmware update, the core architecture of our favorite home consoles doesn’t change for a decade. PC development, on the other hand… you have to allow for all manner of configurations, hardware, software, even operating systems, so you let the end-user customize the experience however they want or need it.

The problem with customizability, however, is that it makes every single game its own little entity. There’s no standard setting for controllers, or resolution, or graphic quality. PC gaming is a million little worlds connected by one standard: the mouse and keyboard control scheme. If you take that away, you are left with nothing. Steam’s Big Picture proves to me that shoehorning a controller and a TV into a mouse/keyboard/monitor world can’t work yet, and – unless developers actively make their games with Big Picture in mind – it very likely never will.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Steam’s Big Picture Has Some Big Problems

  1. Gale

    Um. I’m not going to say that you’re wrong, exactly, but I’m kind of… OK, yes, great point that the problem with Big Picture mode is that it still relies on the games themselves being able to support that kind of setup. But I can’t shake the feeling that you were almost expecting Big Picture to somehow change the games themselves? I’m probably wrong, and it feels like I’m insulting you by reading it like this, but you do understand that Big Picture is basically just an alternate skin for Steam, right? You get that it can’t actually add controller support or resolution options to low budget indie games (for example, everything you mentioned trying) if they didn’t have such things in the first place?

    Big Picture mode is for games that were designed to be played on TVs. It’s for people who want to sit on their sofa and play Darksiders or Call of Duty or Borderlands and have basically the same experience as if they’d bought a console version of the same game. And for those kinds of games, I’ve heard it works pretty well. It’s definitely not for indie darlings that have to be poked and prodded to run in the best of circumstances, and it’s kind of weird that you seemed to treat the fact that Big Picture is not literally magic as a failing of its basic functionality, with no acknowledgement of what it’s even possible for a program like Steam to do, or what it’s actually good for in spite of those limitations. Yeah, it definitely falls short in some significant ways, but I didn’t really get the sense that you appreciated exactly how unreasonable it is to criticise Valve for not putting good controller support into The Binding of Isaac.

  2. Matt

    How was the size/readability of the text one you got into the games? That’s the biggest hurdle for me. Some games get a massive benefit from a big screen and sound system (Sword & Sworcery is amazing!) but most of the time a tv just gives a wider, not bigger, view. I would imagine the opposite would happen the other way. A console game over a monitor would probably feel really compressed with everything squished together.

  3. Matic0basle

    Steam big picture is still in beta and its not steams fault for your TV to mess up. You said that the sound was coming from your laptop. You just need a simple cable and conect it to the TV.

  4. Tse

    Isn’t it just a steam interface? Why and, more importantly, how could it change the way a piece of software (a game) behaves without braking it? The problems are with the games not offering controller support.

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