Steam's Big Picture Mode - Analysis, Impression, and Possible Improvements
So I like many people yesterday took to Steam, and tried out the new Big Picture Mode available. This program was a long time coming, and is designed to make PC gaming a bit more flexible and fun for gamers in the living room.
My experience with Big Picture Mode has been far more enjoyable, and interesting that I thought it would be. Mainly because while it does leave a few things out that I would like, it works far better than I thought it would. Like so good, if this mode was installed on a console, I would flat out prefer its interface over PS3 and 360's, and using Microsoft's own controller. Why am I excited?
The Welcome Screen
Well the main thing that you'll immediately notice is how well organized, and compact the UI is. It's fairly minimal like the PS3 XMB, yet utilizes alot of large to small horizontal buttons like the 360 dashboard, and importantly just runs faster than both. The most core features you'll use, being the store, game library, and community stuff are centered in the screen with huge buttons. Your web browser and friends list are treated like tabs you shift to, since they do require your whole screen to work well, and you'll want to quickly flip between them and the other 3 main features often. Then all that's left is your personal Steam ID at the top left, and on the top right you have symbols that load your settings or close it down. It is all pretty minimal, with all the concise sections you'd want.
Overall I like the look of the store, but it has a few cracks that show's this is indeed an unfinished product. The UI organization is again fantastic, with the new advertised games at the top in a big horizontal list, and all the main sections to break up releases like genres, specials, and new releases below. The first crack is that the search function for me is absolutely broken, and won't actually look up anything I type in. Another crack is that when I click on a game, I'm greeted to videos that half the time don't ever load up.
However, screenshots work well, and the basic details and info of the game is there, with an equal sized button dedicated linking it to community features. One last minor crack that I noticed was the lack of pre-order rewards, or any pre-order goodies info. So overall it's a solid setup, with the cracks being something easy to fix, and you can use the web browser within Big Picture Mode to navigate the vanilla Steam store.
First I love how highlighting the library button, will showcase your recently played games. Then launching the library will first showcase your recently played games, which makes complete sense since the majority of the time we open our system, is to keep playing our most current content. Then your only other option is to load up your whole library, which defaults wisely to 3 rows of your games in alphabetical order, and you can easily just hit up to change the sorting options. I do wish there were more sorting options for my 120+ games (a problem with either version of Steam), and the lack of game names under your titles means non-steam games are mystery until you highlight them. So hopefully there will be some feature to just upload a photo of non-steam games, because I want Guild Wars 2 to look sexy.
Like the Store, all the basic information loading up a game is listed in easy horizontal squares, with the "play" button defaulted with your total play time and last played date, and the closest tabs to see friends that also own it, along with your achievements. Then when you boot up a game, you soon learn something brilliant, the 360 home button now activates your Steam Big Picture Mode overlay, and gives you basic web and chat functions. The working web browser alone I think will benefit controller users, so they can look up guides, info/DLC about the game, or just brows the internet to take a break from the game.
Ok now the last main button, and don't worry this section will be short. It looks like the section waiting to be completed, because it is essentially just a horizontal friends list, where you can load into chat, or lookup basic info on friends that loads up the web browser of vanilla Steam. All of the new community features Steam has bragged about are completely missing from this. It's easily the weakest part of the Big Picture Mode Experience, but it's safe to assume Valve will address this.
If I somewhat depressed you now reader don't worry, the friend's list totally makes up for this. How does it do this? Well now you can actually SEE! Steam chat text at a distance, and the fonts just look sleek and nice. You can vertically scroll through friends, which are organized with those online at the top, and their current status. With a flick of "RB" button, or a mouse click on groups, you then can see your groups setup. At the bottom of the screen you have the nice functions you want, the "A" button to engage text chat with your selected friend, the "Start" button for voice chat, and the "Y" button to add new friends.
Then if you choose to type something with your controller, prepare yourself to use the most intuitive word input interface yet. You're greeted to a flower shaped ring, with each petal being sectioned to 4 letters that match up to the 4 face buttons on the 360 controller. To type simply move the analog stick in the direction of the petal with the appropriate letters, and press the button that matches the letter's location. It's a little awkward at first, but very quickly becomes so much faster than PS3 or 360 console typing. My only nitpick is that I'd prefer the apostrophe to be in the default list, and not in the numbers section...since I tend to use a lot of contractions.
****NOTE: Those who are still stalwart mouse/keyboard users, which I include myself in, have no fear!!! Big Picture Mode is not only entirely compatible with your mouse/keyboard, but like certain PC games, will automatically detect which input device you're touching, and switch the UI appropriately.*****
Well first off I'll state that my biggest negative is that occassionally the web browser will freeze when going through websites. Outside that, it is the best controller navigating web browser I've seen so far. I haven't tested out stuff like flash support, but you can view basic sites without problems. Video streaming is still sketchy like the videos in the store for games, but the navigation is so nice. It does use a nice first-person shooter reticle, giving it a nice little context to Steam and Valve, and it's actually pretty precise.
The main great thing is that it actually runs fast, where as the PS3 web browser is slow and pretty crap, and what little I've heard about the 360 web browser makes me doubt it will compete. You can also load the Steam website, which gives you access to vanilla Steam, giving you access to certain things the Big Picture Mode doesn't include. Honestly, I can't think of another web browser on your TV with a controller, that works as nice.
Overall I think the few negatives of the service don't at all hurt how great this is for PC gamers, and the negatives will likely be fixed, or the super small ones don't really matter. I'm a PC gamer that has already set up my computer to work in the living room with my 46inch LED. Pre-Big Picture Mode I've done the wireless keyboard/mouse with lapdesk setup on the couch, but this mode lets me actually see things a good distance away, and make Steam text chat worth doing.
What surprised me was that the keyboard/mouse still work with the new interface, so my current setup is only improved. Those that favor controllers now just need to use the mouse to launch Steam, and then not use anything else. The rumors Valve might wanna try making a split-screen feature work with multiple steam accounts on one TV, only excites me more, and if that happens could 1-up consoles in their own domain. I totally wouldn't mind consoles copying features and UI from this too!
9/12/12 Addition: I found out that you can just launch Big Picture Mode anytime when pressing the home button on your 360 controller. That's kind of a nice feature because if you have Steam boot at your startup, and only have one Windows account that logins automatically...you could just boot up your computer, and go into your Steam games on the couch without ever needing a mouse and keyboard.
So fellow Polynauts! What are your impressions of Big Picture Mode? Do you see things I didn't mention that you want improved/changed/fixed? Are there new wish fulfillment features you wanted added into Steam? What kind of effect do you think this will have on PC gaming? I'm interested to see some discussion around this.