For years now, Valve’s Steam service has dominated PC gaming. Not every title is on its store, and markets like GoG and Itch.io have carved out their own niche. But it’s still probably the best-known way to find and play games on any computer — whether you’ve got a Windows, Mac, or Linux machine. And in the next few months, it could take over yet another category: the virtual reality headset.
In the VR world, Valve is mostly known for co-developing the HTC Vive, a powerful but bulky headset that seems predominantly destined for arcades and businesses. But its SteamVR software also supports the Vive’s main competitor, the Oculus Rift. So far, this hasn’t been incredibly useful, because there isn’t a lot for Rift users to do there. The best Vive titles rely on motion controls, while the Rift is limited to a remote or Xbox gamepad. You can filter for Rift games, but since the best controller-based games launched exclusively on the Oculus Store, Steam’s catalog still feels as Vive-specific as HTC’s own Viveport app. In a couple of weeks, though, that’s going to change.
One of the first things Touch owners will do is go see what they’ve been missing
On December 6th, Oculus will release its Touch motion controllers, bringing the Rift to rough feature parity with the Vive. Like the Rift itself, Touch will come with a slate of new, Oculus-exclusive games, many of which look quite good. But where the Rift was appearing in an almost empty market, the Vive got a significant head start on motion controls, and SteamVR added official support for Touch controllers back in June. After they’ve taken Oculus’ first-party experiences out for a spin, the first thing many Touch owners are going to do is boot up Steam and see what they’ve been missing.
So far, Oculus’ biggest selling point has been its high-quality exclusive titles. But these won’t necessarily last forever — the first big Rift exclusive, EVE Valkyrie, launched on Vive earlier this month. Despite some burned bridges earlier this year, developers still have an incentive to get their games on Oculus Home as well as Steam, especially because Home is a lot less crowded right now. For customers, though, Steam is about to become the nearly-one-stop shop that it already is outside VR. It’s even pulling in smaller headset ecosystems like the open-source OSVR platform, which announced Steam support today.
This doesn’t mean Steam will be the source of all desktop VR software, especially non-gaming material, or that Steam will give you the best user experience. SteamVR’s interface can be downright clumsy, and if developers don’t do any work to adapt their games, the Vive controls might not map to Touch in the most intuitive way either. Many Vive experiences aren’t really “room-scale” VR, but to play ones that do take up a lot of space, Rift owners would need to separately buy an extra tracking camera. And even if old exclusives expire, Oculus seems committed to pushing out new ones on a regular basis.
If Steam approaches the kind of ubiquity it already has outside VR, though, this complicates the Vive versus Oculus platform war that’s been percolating for the last several months — probably in a good way. Oculus Home is still a decent check on Steam’s monopoly potential, and breaking the direct link between VR hardware and software could actually open up space for third-party headset makers and independent catalogs like Itch.io’s VR collection. And whatever headset you favor, that’s a worthy goal to aim for.