8 Reasons Valve’s Steam Machines Conquer the Living Room and 5 They Don’t

Is Valve going after Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo? Believe it.

  • Share
  • Read Later

If you’re eyeballing Valve’s SteamOS and Steam Machines announcements as some kind of weird, last ditch attempt to save PC gaming — a “can’t-beat-em-so-join-em” tactical capitulation to consoles — you need to think again, and more carefully.

This isn’t Valve sort-of-kind-of picking PC gaming up off the desktop and walking it over to your comfy plush chair and big screen TV. This is Valve spooling up a tactical nuke and painting a target on Microsoft’s, Sony’s and Nintendo’s backs.

But oh, the questions: What will Steam Machines be like? Will they look like they belong in the living room? Be small enough to slide into entertainment cabinet shelving? Come dressed in stylish cases both modular and thermally resilient while living up to their PC pedigree?

What about SteamOS? Will wireless games streamed from a Windows or Mac PC be effectively latency-free? What if you don’t want to have to purchase or own both a Windows or Mac PC and a Steam Machine? What’s Valve doing to ensure Linux becomes at least as principal an ecosystem as the proprietary ones living on the Wii U, Xbox One and PlayStation 4? Will future non-exclusive triple-A games be as likely to land on a Steam Machine as the console club? And if this really is Valve taking full measures, what are the odds Steam Machines conquer (or can at least be competitive in) the living room? Can Valve finally square the living room PC circle?

Let’s wade in. First, the arguments in favor:

Steam Machines will likely be upgradeable.

The most obvious perk: Valve hasn’t specified what its Steam Machines are going to look like or detailed what sort of hardware they’ll pack, but it’s safe to assume they’ll be PC-like, meaning you’ll probably be able to upgrade the CPU, GPU, storage, memory, and to connect or wirelessly link up with peripherals like cameras, motion capture sensors, tablets, smartphones, interfaces no one’s seen yet — you name it.

Save for storage upgrades, Nintendo’s Wii U, Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 are fixed points in time — architectures that, however much headroom guys like Albert Penello or Mark Cerny want to claim they’ve built in, will invariably lag behind customizable living room game machines as time goes by. And let’s not forget that we’re talking about game machines built around one of the most versatile operating architectures (Linux) on the planet.

Steam is one of the largest online gaming communities in the world.

Steam has over 50 million active users worldwide. I don’t know if that makes it the world’s largest gaming community or not (if you start counting social networks like Facebook or mobile networks like Apple’s Game Center…let’s just say there’s room for debate). But okay, 50 million, which is a huge number by any measure, and it’ll be instantly accessible to anyone picking up a Steam Machine. And we’re talking about a seasoned community, not something just rolling out of the gates, like Nintendo’s Miiverse.

Steam is free.

Xbox Live membership costs $60 a year. PlayStation Plus membership — pretty much required with the PS4 — runs $50 a year. That’s on top of whatever you’re already paying for services like Netflix or Hulu Plus. If you own an Xbox One or PS4 for five or six years, that’s an ongoing investment in the hundreds of dollars. Microsoft and Sony are going to argue you’re paying for cultivated features, but the fact remains: Steam costs nothing.

SteamOS is also 100% free.

With SteamOS, Valve’s taking Steam — already packing the sort of elemental gaming features we’ve come to expect, from multiplayer support to voice chat to in-game achievements — and folding in many of the “missing” features we’re accustomed to on game consoles: music, TV and movie playback, support for “many of the media services you know and love,” cloud storage and cross-platform support, and an innate future-proofing approach. SteamOS looks to be more like OS X, Windows, iOS or Android in that we’ll see incremental updates instead of radical console-style developmental shifts from hardware generation to hardware generation.

The latter point means developers should move faster when striving to harness this or that hardware bell or whistle. We’ve been hearing for decades how the most developmentally mature games tend to show up late in a console’s life cycle (hello, Grand Theft Auto V). Imagine if the hardware kept getting better, but that life cycle never ended, or simply evolved. (I know, hello entire-history-of-PC-gaming!)

You can share Steam games with family and friends.

Announced a few weeks ago, this is Valve’s plan to let you invite up to 10 friends and family members (you pick), each of whom can access a game you’ve paid for, earn their own achievements and save their own games. Yep, Microsoft was planning something similar for the Xbox One, but wound up yanking it when it dumped Xbox Live’s always-online requirement; when (or whether) it’ll resurface is anyone’s guess.

We could see the rise of native Linux gaming.

Linux has been with us for over two decades (it arrived back in 1991). It is, in my geeky open-source worldview, one of the coolest things to happen in the history of computing. If Valve’s hat trick — SteamOS, Steam Machines and whatever’s coming tomorrow — somehow galvanizes Linux game development, well…imagine. With Valve’s full faith and credit, picture that open Linux core as the nexus of a cosmology of SteamOS-compatible devices, ranging from these living room Steam Machines to tablets, smartphones and whatever else Valve has up its sleeves.

Valve is tapping the Steam community off the block.

Valve says it’ll hand 300 of its Steam Machine prototypes away, gratis, to eligible Steam members this year. Thirty of those selectees will be users with a history of community and beta participation, while the remaining 270 will be random-picked. And beta testers will be allowed to speak publicly about their experience. Community experience and leadership plus public transparency equals answers to a slew of outstanding questions before the year’s up.

The price could be right.

Give me the power of a high-end, fully-upgradeable PC for $300 and wham, mushroom cloud. Heck, an entry-level iPad’s going to run you $500, as will Microsoft’s Xbox One. If Valve can deliver something as powerful as the PS4 or Xbox One at or under $500 with plenty of upgrade headroom, sign me up.

And now the list of arguments against:

The very thing that benefits PC gaming — unlocked hardware and upgradeability — is what also hurts PC games.

The argument for consoles is that developers can predict exactly what sort of experience players are going to have. If one player experiences a bug, every player experiences that bug, making bugs easier to squash. The average frame rate for one player is the average frame rate for every player. Fixed architectures give developers more control to optimize the experience and improve that experience over time. One studio’s hardware driver is every studio’s hardware driver. You don’t have to worst-case your game in a static framework, planning for innumerable potential hardware configurations and extensive post-release support.

We could see a potentially confusing array of third-party Steam Machine vendors.

An extension of the last point: which Steam Machine is best for you? Fastest? Most stylish? Most reliable? Most upgradeable? Best supported? Welcome back to the paralyzing world of choices, where the experience you have on one Steam Machine may vary from the experience you’ll have on another.

There’s a lack of native Linux gaming.

I count around 100 games on Valve’s Steam games for Linux page. Most of these are lesser known titles or legacy ports. Let’s not mince words: Gaming on Linux has improved over the years, but it’s downright spectral compared to anything else. Valve’s biggest challenge in my view isn’t selling SteamOS or coming up with a genius hardware build, it’s getting developers to build native and exclusive Linux games as well as commit to SteamOS versions of whatever’s in the offing, non-exclusively, for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Wii U.

The price could be wrong.

Ouya costs $100. GameStick is going to sell for less still. Nvidia’s Shield is going to cost $300. The Xbox One runs $500, the PlayStation 4 costs $400 and the deluxe model Nintendo Wii U recently dropped to $300. I’m pretty sure Valve doesn’t see Ouya or GameStick as direct competitors, but if these Steam Machines price out north of $500 — especially if up front you’re paying for a promise in terms of native Linux gaming – I start to worry about their impulse appeal.

Valve’s announcements so far have been awfully vague.

What does SteamOS look like? How malleable will it be? How malleable should it be? How about the Steam Machines? Why announce all of this stuff now if you’re not prepared to talk turkey, hardware-wise? To scare potential next-gen console buyers off a purchase in a few months? The chief criticism leveled at Valve’s announcement trifecta this week has been the company’s odd reticence. These aren’t even paper launches, they’re just product outlines wrapped in rhetorical noblesse inside sunny promises. Valve’s promised to dish out specifics “soon.” We can hope.

20 comments
ilya.crols
ilya.crols

I count 154 linux games ... in my library!

(and 26 confirmed as being ported)


And 263 in the Steam Store.

returnstrike
returnstrike

SteamOS - where u will should to buy or craft your wallpapers? Okay

Kernelcoffee
Kernelcoffee

I believe Valve has a set of hardware requierements for the label "Steam Machine" to be applied on a third-party box. If so then it solves issue number 2, where the target is the minimum requirement, if the box is more powerfull then it can automatically increase the settings.

Something similar to Nvidia Experience thing.

kylelebar
kylelebar

You can install any OS you want on the steam machines, so i'm not to worried about the OS. Its not a console its just a pre-built pc made specifically for steam and gaming. Cant wait for PS4 and the steam machines :P

madhi19
madhi19

100 games you sure? Because at last check 5 seconds ago it was 186 and that not counting any beta or game that have released and did not update their page yet. 

BearMcDiRT
BearMcDiRT

Come launch, Valve will market Steam Machines with their most (THE MOST) anticipated sequel, Half-Life 3. Because Valve main business is Steam now, they can afford to alienate the massive xbox and playstation audiences and make it PC/Steam Machine exclusive. 

JT1
JT1

I'm really not sure how this could be profitable for those companies making the SteamBox, after the initial purchase.  If people keep upgrading the innards of these boxes, then there's no compelling reason to purchase a new one.

Or, for the end user, why would he/she run about and spend another few hundred dollars on a cpu, or gpu upgrade?  That starts to get pretty expensive, especially considering most people will still need a desktop or laptop computer for day to day tasks and the associated budget for that.

What you're proposing is not inexpensive at all, for either the consumer or manufacturers.  They'd be taking a huge loss and what do they receiver in return?  A percentage of Steam game sales? I don't think Valve would be interested in sharing their wealth, nor do I think manufacturers would be willing to make you a beefy miniature computer system for under $500.  Just doesn't make sense.  The R&D alone, in concordance with Intel/Amd/Nvidia would cost billions to miniaturize everything and create a stable environment that doesn't melt the SteamBox into a ball of plastic.   

So Valve is going through a trial phase with a few hundred boxes? Well, good luck to them. 

Anyway, nice idea on paper but I don't see the economies of scale.  Except from companies like Sony, or Microsoft or Nintendo, who...by the way, also receive continued revenue from their own game sales.    Thereby it can't happen.  Not unless the hardware quality from multiple manufacturers is going to be sub-par and thus unreliable for you or I.    In my opinion, the only way to be profitable in the console arena is to make closed systems, however unappealing that may be to PC gamers. 

majordomo
majordomo

And as far as the price point argument goes, I think Valve already addressed it.  They said that there will be a whole array of different choices.  One may see that as a paralyzing world of choices, but I see that as a good thing that I get choices.  Some people may already have a $5000 water-cooled rig , so they don't need a powerful machine in the living room.  Those people will probably have an option of getting a stripped down box, like a Roku that will stream only.  Others may want a beefy box in the living room.  I'm sure there will be an option for them as well.  

 

cfin2987
cfin2987

Terrible article. PS plus is not required to use netflix and hulu and an entry level Ipad is not $500 it is $320. I didn't even read the whole thing and I found 2 major mess ups. Fix it please.

scott.tustison
scott.tustison

I keep seeing the lack of Linux games as a strike against SteamOS. However, it seems that Valve is trying to sell us a console that can be customized, that happens to run on Linux. I'd like to point out that there aren't many games for Xbox One or PS4 either (none, in fact). Yet, no one is debating whether or not games will be built for these platforms. Why would we doubt that Valve will be any less successful? 

The interesting part of Valve's strategy is that you don't NEED their hardware to have a "Steam Box". Where you absolutely need to have an Xbox One or PS4 in order to have either of those platforms or access the software built for that platform. It will be neat to see how all of this plays out.

DarthDudicle
DarthDudicle

I will be buying regardless of many issues i see just to support them. The big question on the tech worlds mind is "Are developers going to put forth the extra effort to port these games to open gl or will valve bite the bullet and somehow work out a deal with Microsoft for Direct X?" .  As of now, most AAA titles are all using MS's Direct X and developer porting seems to be limited to game console. If there was ever a time however, i think it is now. With all the buzz about ps4 in the developer arena, I predict more and more developers developing using open gl. Steam box would just promote this transition even further. Hardcore techies like myself and my coworkers have been waiting for this transition for a long time. "DOWN WITH DIRECT X!!!!"

BearMcDiRT
BearMcDiRT

@JT1 The main revenue source is Steam itself and will always be for Valve. They're the Amazon of digital game distribution. The profit margins they produce with Steam are ridiculous. This is merely a tool to further their platform so people buy more game on Steam. 

CatAstrophy
CatAstrophy

@cfin2987 PS4 PS+ is pretty much required. Not PS3. So the article is fine there. Also he's talking about current gen entry-level ipad not old ass iPads. You might as well compare a PS3 to an old iPad.

DarthDudicle
DarthDudicle

@scott.tustison I believe the issue is that publishers make their money on licensing and if system sales are bad then there is no need in their eyes to devote the time and money to make a "good" port on another platform. The only reason ports are such a pain in the ass is that most developers use MS licensed environment as it is easy to take a PC game and port it to an xbox or vise versa (plus it is a well developed suite).  If developers moved to open gl than most of these porting issues would not exist and it would be cheap. This is why ps3 ports are generally sub par and linux ports are almost non existent. Your reference to "Hardware" is small fires in the bigger picture. Porting game to run on other hardware is not hard. To take a game developed in one environment and port it to another environment is a absolute pain in the ass. Thank you Valve for paving the way to a future of easy porting and cross platform support. 

majordomo
majordomo

@scott.tustison I agree.  It will be interesting how it plays out.   I'm sure Valve will come up with something to encourage new games to be Linux capable.  Or maybe they'll announce some application layer, so that future games will be written once, but can run on Win, Mac or Linux.  That would be cool.  

And maybe a free copy of HL3 with each SteamBiox would be a good incentive as well.  I'm looking forward to 2014!

kylelebar
kylelebar

@CatAstrophy @cfin2987 Not really, its only required to play select multi-player games. you can still have trophys, friends, netflix, so on and so forth.  You can still play the f2p multi-player as well.  Its up to the developers whether it requires PS+ or not.... :P

scott.tustison
scott.tustison

@DarthDudicle @scott.tustison I would fully expect Valve to release a development environment for SteamOS that rivals the Microsoft equivalent. Linux ports are non-existent because there is no installed base, not because of the difficulty. SteamOS looks to change this landscape by saying, "Look, here is a console platform to develop on, where your installed base can almost instantly be 50mil+ users."

Think about it like this. Imagine how excited you would be if Microsoft/Sony said, "You can buy our console for $500 or if you don't have the cash and have an extra PC around that hits minimum requirements, just install out OS on it for free and run the games for our platform." That is a pretty huge deal!

DarthDudicle
DarthDudicle

@scott.tustison @DarthDudicle  I hear you. Steam is becoming more and more popular and if anyone has the ability to make an Awesome development suite it would be VALVE.  As far as having an installed base, i agree. Its hard for publishers to spend money without real numbers. I think sony and valve together can make life really happy for each other.  I am glad they have a good working relationship. At this time our biggest enemy is closed source rendering engines. I can almost guarantee valve would be going with a open gl based suite and this would be good for everyone except MS. I do think you overlook the difficulty of making a perfect port from one environment to another.  Its not about the hardware. If you took a sony developed ps4 game and port it to pc it would be relatively easy so long as you went from one open gl environment to another.  Look at ps3 ports of windows games vs. windows to xbox ports. There is a difference despite the ps3's beefier hardware. IF VALVE and sony take the lead in sales then 3rd party developers may change their tune and stop using direct x to appeal to a larger installed base.