Valve can do no wrong. Half-life, Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead, Portal, Counterstrike, DotA are all great game series developed and published by Valve Corporation. They’ve earned the trust of the video game community because they’ve arguably never put out a bad game. Hence the consensus regarding their infallibility but perhaps none of these are what they are best known for. That honour now lies with Steam.
Steam is a video game platform primarily on PC, initially serving as a central source for purchasing video games digitally which went on to become more. Steam evolved into a hub, supporting a vast community of gamers, friends, groups as well as offering reliable cloud-based saving and access to user generated content (mods) through Steam Workshop. Your game purchase and saved data are no longer linked to your local drive but to your Steam account, assuring security in the event of hardware failure. However all this is very PC centric, so Valve’s three announcements across the week of 23rd September 2013 focusing on bringing Steam to the living room is very intriguing. For those unaware, Valve on Monday announced Steam OS, on Wednesday a Hardware prototype and Friday a very special looking controller. All of this is part of their initiative to permanently establish their platform in the living room to presumably compete with Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo’s home consoles.
But who is this for? That is the biggest question at the moment. As IGN’s very own Justin Davis put it: “I don’t understand who Steam Machine’s appeal to“. it’s true. It’s very hard to appreciate the market a Steam Machine would be targeted at. The PC community won’t need it because they obviously have functioning PC’s. Console Gamers have their consoles and if they wanted to play PC games, why not just get a PC? However I believe there are a lot of people that need the existence of this box and can form a substantial consumer base. Their reasons may be different but essentially it boils down to the same thing – a simple access point to both gaming experiences in one place.
1. being a PC gamer generally means you have a costly Windows machine that can upgrade components independently. It does not necessarily mean you use that technology for anything outside of games. Stripping away all the additional parts of the desktop setup you do not need such as Windows OS, Microsoft Office, a display and peripherals is a substantial cut in cost. A linux based operating systems is also more powerful than other OS’s so lower performing tech can match the power on a windows machine for a proportion of the price. If all you want from a PC is the gaming aspect, instead of upgrading your rig it would make more sense to purchase a Steam Box instead as it is also upgradeable. It’s cheaper and directly streamlined for your desires. 1. You want a PC only to play PC games, so why buy a Desktop for more when you can buy a Steam Box for less?
2. Sharing a personal computer at home could mean you do not have access to it at all times. Here’s a potential scenario (my scenario). My dad, as a software engineer works 8 days a fortnight 8am-6pm from home. The vast majority of the day I do not have access to PC games. Instead of buying my own desktop setup, I could either purchase a low end steam machine and stream from his computer while he’s working or buy a higher value Steam machine and not be dependent on my fathers PC at all. All other functions I have access to with my cheap laptop or Ipad or even Iphone. It’s only the games, or more importantly Steam that I’m after. On top of this I get to play on a big TV instead of a smaller display. This situation can be extrapolated to siblings, couples or roommates. If one has other priorities outside of gaming that prevent the other from doing so, the Steam Machine is a perfect get around. 2. If you share a PC, instead of buying your own one, get a cheap Steam Box and stream directly.
3. Big Picture is a colossal argument against the purpose of Steam Machine. “Oh you want to buy a steam console? you got a PC? Then here you go: (hands over HDMI cable.)” Sure this point has been made over and over but there are some important aspects to big picture that prevent it from scratching the same itch. If your computer is upstairs and living room TV is downstairs, you’re going to need a damn long HDMI cable exposed across stairs and corridors in order to access big picture. Not only is that unsuitable, it’s down right dangerous. Even if the PC is in a study or another room, big picture is not accessible. There are a lot of gamers that also report issues with frame rate when using Steams big picture. A pop up or notification can bring you out of your game, needing you to get up and go to your PC to deal with it. Needless to say it’s not perfect. It’s just hassle a low priced Streaming box from Valve would avoid. 3. Gaming PC owners who simply cannot put their computer in the same room as their TV.
4. “I just want to turn my console on, grab my controller and start playing.” How many times have you heard this from a console gamer with regards to PC gaming. Heck that’s what I kept saying until this year. Well if the Steam Machine can provide that low entry-barrier, then it could potentially steal them away from Microsoft and Sony. Though it might seem improbable, I would argue that a well designed, simple to use console from Valve would get huge attention from console gamers. Steam sales, better specs, previously unavailable PC games all contribute to attracting the attention of a console gamer. You can buy AAA games cheaper, download and install that game after one purchase on any Steam Machine, there will be INSANE sales every day and even more insane sales every six months and this is a better device than both the Xbox and the PS4 that can be upgraded whenever you want. Add to that Steam Family Sharing, allowing you to access to 10 friends gaming libraries with no cost, this becomes a no-brainer when directly compared to the HD twins (or I guess triplets now). 4. Compared to other consoles, The Steam Box is just better. If it’s not complicated or too expensive, fanboy-ism aside why wouldn’t a gamer switch?
5. The Controller! Did you see that thing? If not, look down. Very few people have played with it yet but if what Valve is saying is true and it can function as effectively as a mouse and keyboard, then this is a huge factor to consider. Take me for example. Why do I play games on my dads PC? Three reasons. 1. Cheap, awesome Indie games. 2. Steam Sales and 3. Real Time strategies. One of my favourite gaming series of all time is the Total War’s. I would never buy a Total War game on my PS3 even if it were available because it would be the impotent, castrated version thanks to the dualshock. You need access to that many buttons, quick drag of the mouse and accuracy in pointing for it to be as compelling and fast paced as it is during the real time battles. Same thing applies to Starcraft, Company of Heroes and really every Real Time Strategy. Very few have been successful on consoles because of the limitations of the controller. If I could play these games on a console like Steam with a controller designed with this function in mind, I wouldn’t need a PC. I wouldn’t even look back. I prefer playing on the PlayStation for everything apart from RTS’s despite the drop in quality because I prefer that relaxed and easy setup. I believe there are a lot of console gamers and PC gamers that would migrate to the Steam Machine if it was a true midpoint between the two. Access to the entire console as well as PC library with a crazy hybrid controller could marry the previously independent worlds. It’s also very new. There hasn’t really been anything like it before and this will attract attention if only for the novelty of it. Then if it’s good the attention will stick. 5. If Valve’s crazy killer controller is as effective as they say it is, it will entice console gamers to play PC games on Steam Box. Also it’s cool and new.
Everybody is right. It is just a PC. But that’s what makes it great. It’s a computer for my TV that doesn’t need a desk and a desk chair and windows and a mouse and a keyboard and blah blah blah. No, this takes what makes PC gaming great and removes the limitations. If it is everything Valve is promising I see a future where the primary gaming experience is the Steam Box, then Microsoft and Sony are left to adopt the Nintendo approach of being the secondary console due to it’s first party games library. However Microsoft does not have an exclusive library large enough to sustain itself as a number two machine. Not to mention Steam’s OS will be capable of most multimedia streaming.
Playstation Network and Xbox live are not competitive at all with the value offered on Steam. The only thing keeping them going is the divide in gaming location, i.e PC-TV and exclusive games. A Steam Machine would officially remove that gap. Though it may be a slow grind, gamers are not stupid and will switch to the platform that is treating them better, treating developers better and not forcing your experience to match the vision of the console publisher. Valve is pushing how open everything will be. Linux is open source so Steam OS is open source, the hardware is hackable, the controller is hackable, Steam Workshop allows user generated mods to be played and put up. Everything is open to the benefit of the gamer. Going back to my starting point Valve has earned the trust of the community and up to this point has done no wrong.
So who is the Steam Box for? Essentially it will become for everyone. initially it will appeal to the enthusiasts that just want everything, then to console gamers who want PC games but not a PC, then to PC gamers who want to carry on playing PC games but do not want to continually update and maintain a more expensive, unessential setup. After that it has the potential to merge the two markets and be the central gaming experience for all gamers. That is who the Steam Box is for.
The next few years just got exponentially more interesting. Valve has officially thrown themselves into the ring. Three huge companies, all far larger than Valve are already fiercely competing with each other and just launched or are about to launch brand new consoles. They will likely do everything they can to keep another player from joining the match.
But hey, everybody loves an underdog.