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.