Since last October, Valve had been the catalyst for a lot of speculative banter surrounding the future of the console industry. The reason: the announcement of their official entry into the living room’s gaming ecosystem via the Steam Box, a sort of hybrid PC-console that will let you play Steam titles all Xboxstation U style (copyright, patent pending). It was an idea that hung in the air for a long time; a lot of experts saw it as Valve’s next logical step. When Valve enabled PSN users to create Steam accounts seamlessly in Portal 2, people raised eyebrows about their intentions. When Big Picture Mode was rolled out a year later, the path was rather clear.
The fact that they want to be in your living room might have been the only thing that’s clear, though. Why even bother? That seems a better question for the world’s premier digital game distributor. Why not just release on box with a closed, tight licensing scheme like everyone else? What the hell is that controller? What does it all mean? The last three months have been a big blob of nebulous questions with no solid answers. CES may have shed light on this darkness, but what it revealed may have only left more that needs justification.
The easiest place to start is why. Why a Steam Box? You’re the world’s most mysterious and innovative game developer/marketplace, and have a dominating presence in your industry. You exist in a world where you don’t ever have to make Half-Life 3 to make money, because you don’t need to take the risk; your license to print money involves other people making games. You’re also one of the biggest supporters of indie development in the industry, allowing the people to help choose what the next big breakout indie hit will be, as selling creation tools at decent prices. As the glowing PR prince, why even sully yourself with this console nonsense?
The only right answer is to bring Steam to those who don’t have it already. Microsoft would never allow a non-XBL game vendor to share it’s console, and Sony only played with the idea of cross promotion once, and that was before it revamped and re-committed to PSN. Nintendo has barely scratched the surface of real digital marketing – Steam is like a “what-would-you-do-if-you-won-the-lottery?” sort of pipedream for them. So, if you can’t get into anyone else’s box, you gotta make your own right?
Making your own comes with its own freedom. As a PC service, you know the kinds of specs your clients require to play these games. You have the ability to make a powerful machine without the constraints of being a multi-divisional mega corporation who has a board of directors and investors to please. Most importantly, though, you can make sure that every single box runs Steam and only Steam as its operating system. If over half of the country has consoles in their homes, it proves rather fruitful to expand into this untapped market. Yes, about 3/4s of the country own a computer of some sort, but how many of them really play games on them? Without real concrete evidence, it’s probably safe to say that fewer people who own computers use them for dedicated gaming than people with home gaming consoles. Even when you pin internet browsers on them, gaming consoles have far less uses than computers.
A PC-centric service making hardware for the console world can do plenty of good things for both Valve and the industry at large. Most games are multiplatform, but the console versions were always a step behind the PC versions as far as visual fidelity is concerned. Some games, like Skyrim, also enjoy a rich after-market mod scene that console folks completely miss out on. In reality, since it’s super simple to buy a plug-and-play controller for any sort of computer, the PC is the ultimate gaming system. But knowing what’s going on under the hood is a big barrier to entry for today’s modern gamer. I dont need to know what my graphics card is when I buy Call of Duty for the Xbox One. A Steam Box, though, can provide those same people who’d rather not be bothered with the nuts and bolts with all of those things they have been missing.
Besides, doesn’t the console market need some good competition? When’s the last time a home console challenged the Big Three? OnLive? The potential of a fourth big brand is one that everyone should be sort of excited about. But it isn’t that simple (of course).
Valve may have stepped into the console arena, but unlike their peers, they were wide open with their licenses from the gate, partnering up with many a hardware manufacturers to create a veritable army of Steam Boxes, 13 by the time CES ended. These devices run a wide range of technical combinations, resembling some of the most daunting and isolating parts of the PC market.
How do I know which box is right for me? How will the games I’m playing know which box I’m streaming them to? Why should I pay more than the price of a console for what is essentially just a console? Why don’t I just buy a PC? It might be safe to say that the only competition Valve is offering with this strategy, is to itself.
That doesn’t even include the fact that the question of “can I play my Windows games on the SteamOS?” has yet to really be answered. Depending on which corner of the internet you stumble into, your answer will be yes, no, or somewhere inbetween. Entering a market where you never have to wonder if your system plays your games with this sort of philosophy is damning.
If any other company decided it was going take their very first steps into the hardware side of gaming the way Valve has decided to, they would be dead on arrival. But in this case, even if this plan goes belly up, Valve comes out smelling like roses. They have absolutely no hardware stake in this; the initiative at large is completely a third party undertaking. The real people losing anything significant would be hardware companies like Alienware or iBuyPower, companies who had to spend money licensing Valve’s IP, develop hardware with it, and be left alone to compete amongst the many other third party manufacturers, and Valve themselves. At the end of the day, if this Steam Box fails, Valve is still left with Steam (that will more than likely be a brand expanded), while everyone else is left with pricier Ouyas.
No optimist really wants to see this fail, though, so how does it avoid doom? Well, you have to convince people to trade their consoles for Steam Boxes. Maybe entice them with the idea that their consoles don’t have the same power as most of these devices out of the box, and that the lack of a disk drive is an act of emancipation from physical media, not a lack of functionality. Having some really good exclusive games wouldn’t hurt, but in a market where the console barons have done their best to lock up their AAA studios to exclusivity, and opened their arms wide to the indie game designer, there may not be an easy road to find the SteamOS “killer app.” The hardest audience to sway may be the PC user, whose investments in their rigs alone may be the only argument they need to steer clear of this new console. That, and any PC player knows that a PC can do anything a console can do, better, should you put your mind to it.
Even despite these paltry attempts to answer some of the big questions left in the big Steam Machine announcement, the future of this new takeover is unclear, and as mysterious as ever. Valve may have just single-handedly made the console industry better, or ruined it for everyone. Hopefully, it won’t take too long for real answers to surface.