[UPDATE 3:23PM EST] — Valve has released specs for their Steam Machine prototype (300 of which will be beta-tested by current Steam users). The goal of the devices is reportedly to, “combine high-end power with a living-room-friendly form factor.” Specs include:
- GPU: some units with Nvidia Titan, some GTX780, some GTX760 and some GTX660
- CPU: some boxes with Intel i7-4770, some i5-4570 and some i3
- RAM: 16 GB DDR3-1600 (CPU), 3 GB DDR5 (GPU)
- Storage: 1TB/8GB hybrid SSHD
- Power supply: internal 450 W 80 Plus Gold
- Dimensions: approx. 12 inches x 12.4 inches x 2.9 inches high
The key though will be to see how much Valve is able to leverage advantages in licensing costs and its SteamOS in order to undercut the price tag of a comparable Windows-based PC.
[Original Post] — With three announcements in one week (some more “major” than others), Valve pulled the curtain back, at least slightly, on precisely where it’s headed in the future. Not only will the company continue to make and distribute video games, it will also begin producing its own operating system and hardware as well.
Beginning as a game developer, responsible for acclaimed games like Half-Life and Portal, the company founded by Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington has since moved into other segments of the market. Now that Steam, its digital games distribution service originally launched in 2002, has become a dominate force in the PC gaming space, Valve is looking to a new horizon: your living room.
With the rollout of SteamOS and Steam Machines, Valve hopes to make PC gaming simpler and more accessible. At the same time, the company maintains that it will continue to offer its users as many options as possible, and that SteamOS will remain an open system built on a malleable platform (Linux). A week later after the dust has had some time to settle, here are some things to consider about Valve’s new project.
Show me the support
Jared Newman raises an important question at Time’s Techland blog: how much OEM support does it actually have? “The announcement of Steam Machines–that is, devices that ship with SteamOS–might’ve had more impact had it included some supporting statements from device makers,” he writes. “Instead, all we have to go on is Valve’s word that it is ‘working with multiple partners to bring a variety of Steam gaming machines to market during 2014.'”
Newman goes on to wonder how well Valve’s new proprietary controller will be supported as well. If it’s not required, how many developers will go out of their way to design around it? And if they don’t, will that start a cyclical effect in which lack of support begets lack of support, with consumers deciding to hold off on purchasing the controller until more developers go out on a limb to support it?
Out of control
On the topic of the controller, the responses have been less than flattering. A round-up of reactions at Kotaku demonstrates that a lot of people have already written it off as joke.
USgamer’s Mike Williams wasn’t entirely dismissive, but still has reservations, explaining, “The big problem I’m seeing is the comfortability curve.” On this point I tend to agree. With so many controllers converging on a particular, well-worn design, is the Steam controller forward thinking or merely an overzealous misstep? As Chris Kohler points out, “the most successful innovations in game controllers tend to simplify the experience,” and Valve’s new device seems to do everything but that.
Tommy Refenes of Team Meat on the other hand was quite impressed. He called it a “great Start” that nevertheless “needs some improvements.” While writing that he still prefers the Xbox 360 controller, he also remarked that, “if tomorrow all game controllers were wiped off the earth and the only option was the Steam Controller, I don’t think this would be a bad thing. In fact, I don’t think gaming would miss a beat.”
Breaking into the crowd
Erik Kain notes that Valve is attempting to carve out a spot for itself in an increasingly cramped space. An array of streaming devices, dedicated and mobile handhelds, as well as traditional consoles abound in the living room and beyond. While the Internet is, in theory, a much larger marketplace, the competition on PCs is less fierce if only because it is so dispersed and involves much less risk. With low overhead costs and the relative simplicity of operating Internet storefronts, it’s much easier to take a “me too” approach to online digital game retail.
But introducing hardware into the mix brings with it that many new ways to fail. This isn’t just armchair inside-ball analysis either, when it comes to whether a new customer should invest in a new platform, it matters how well the company in question has seized up the market and planned accordingly. So far it doesn’t seem like Valve has done that, and if they have they certainly aren’t making the case to early adopters.
A bridge to nowhere
Mike Futter at Game Informer, like me, is less than bullish on Valve’s new gaming initiative. He still don’t see who the target audience is for the new products, and to illustrate his point, imagines the following two scenarios.
In the first, two average game consumers are wondering what next-generation console to buy. Presented with the Steam Machine option they recoil, intimidated by the different models and operating parameters into going with the simpler choice of a PS4 or Xbox One. In the second, a PC gamer who already buys most of their content purchases a Steam Machine to augment his gaming setup, allowing him to stream high-end games to his living room with ease, while also having the option of playing some mid to low-end indie games natively on it.
The problem for Valve is that in the first instance they’ve scared away a new potential user while in the second case having gained nothing new, since he or she was already buying Steam content on a regular basis.
Go big or go home
What about exclusive titles? Hardly any new hardware launches without trying to sport a must-have game to encourage early adoption. Xbox had Halo, Sony has cultivated franchises like Uncharted, and even the Ouya had TowerFall (at least for a little bit), but what about Steam?
Gearbox’s Randy Pitchfork told Games Industry International that to really lock-in an install base for its new hardware, Valve will need a killer-app, like a new Half-Life possibly. But this raises another question: will exclusive software really help sell Steam Machines if the games are still available to play on traditional, Windows-based PCs?
Facilitating the growth and eventual prosperity of a new platform takes time–just look at how far Steam has come since the early 2000s when it was nothing more than a target for ridicule and abuse by the PC gaming community. It also takes vision and commitment. Having both of those things is no guarantee of success, but lacking either one makes failure almost inevitable.