Is Valve Really Getting into the Hardware Biz?

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By all accounts — most conspicuously its own — Valve, the PC-centric games developer that brought us games like Half-Life and Portal as well as distribution service Steam, has finally admitted it’s leaping into the PC hardware business.

When I say leaping, I really mean “jumping,” which is the actual word Valve’s used to lay out its ambitions. And when I say “articulate,” I mean both un-spun and unambiguous — not part of a formal press release backed by an aggressive marketing push, but tacit, by way of an otherwise unassuming listing for an “Industrial Designer” on the company’s job openings page.

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Here’s the salient paragraph from that listing (my emphasis):

Valve is traditionally a software company. Open platforms like the PC and Mac are important to us, as they enable us and our partners to have a robust and direct relationship with customers. We’re frustrated by the lack of innovation in the computer hardware space though, so we’re jumping in. Even basic input, the keyboard and mouse, haven’t really changed in any meaningful way over the years. There’s a real void in the marketplace, and opportunities to create compelling user experiences are being overlooked.

Rumors that Valve might expand its bailiwick to include gaming-related hardware have been swirling for years. The Verge added to the scuttlebutt last March, citing “sources” that claimed Valve was working on a “Steam Box” game console, Android-like in its approach to open standards, to square off with the likes of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo.

But Valve’s marketing poobah Doug Lombardi quashed that rumor, denying the company was making a games console “in the near future.” Of course if you factor his followup to a clarification question about hypotheticals, Lombardi calls a statement that Valve might at some point make hardware “accurate,” though Kotaku (the questioner) seems to have misinterpreted this as an admission by Valve that the company could still be working on a games console specifically, when the word used was “hardware.” Assuming Lombardi was being shrewd in his response, that could refer to anything from input devices to a Valve-branded CPU-cooler or tricked-out computer case.

In any event, Valve’s unwillingness to deny it might someday release a games console (in, as Griff the alien might put it, “the possible future”) is just the company dodging press manacles. Insert “flying cars,” “self-making beds” or “liquid cooling using fragrant water” for “hardware” and you’d probably get the same response from any entrepreneurial outfit.

And remember that Valve’s head honcho, Gabe Newell, was already pretty plain about this back in February, telling Penny Arcade the company would sell hardware if it had to, but only if it had to.

Well, if we have to sell hardware we will. We have no reason to believe we’re any good at it, it’s more we think that we need to continue to have innovation and if the only way to get these kind of projects started is by us going and developing and selling the hardware directly then that’s what we’ll do. It’s definitely not the first thought that crosses our mind; we’d rather hardware people that are good at manufacturing and distributing hardware do that. We think it’s important enough that if that’s what we end up having to do then that’s what we end up having to do.

So this job listing for someone with “expertise in product design and manufacturing, ergonomics, usability, aesthetics, and surfacing” isn’t a surprise, and in accord with what we’ve long known. Valve made no secret about its concerns for the future of the platform it depends on to make its bones. And don’t assume the hardware in question is a discrete platform like a set-top console or even a Valve-branded PC. We could be talking souped-up keyboards and mice, we could be talking haptic devices, we could be talking something else no one’s considered yet, and if R&D leads nowhere, we could be talking nothing at all.

But say we are talking a console or PC: Would Valve be a positive influence on the gaming hardware biz if it got in on that side? It’s a much more complex question, obviously. The company likes to portray itself as the champion of open standards and indie developers. And yet its core revenue stream — its Steam distribution service — is one of the more restrictive DRM interfaces on the market, to say nothing of its potential weakness as a single point of failure (access to anything you’ve ever purchased through the service), say someone managed to take the service down hard, or Valve itself ever descended into insolvency. I like Steam when it works, which is clearly most of the time, but I’ve had my share of troubles with the service, too: inexplicable hanging, or the time it shut me out for almost a month (while changing ISPs in the U.K. back in 2010) because I couldn’t get online to authenticate my PC.

These things have a kind of inevitability, of course, as companies grow larger and more bureaucratic, where the demand to upscale overwhelms everything, including “innovation.” I’d honestly love to see Valve figure out how to do what no one else in this industry has: craft a games platform that can grow exponentially without gradually closing off developer flexibility and consumer choice.

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