Valve’s Steam Machine Prototype Looks a Little Like an Xbox

Though what it looks like doesn't really matter.

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The Seattle Times managed to snap a shot of Valve’s new self-designed Steam Machine, or at least one of the prototypes. It doesn’t look like much: a black box that shares DNA with an Xbox (which shares most of its DNA with old-school computer desktops). If you squint just so at that circular whatzit on the faceplate, it looks a little like someone cut an orthogonal swathe out of the Death Star.

It’s not small, nor does it appear to be large. It reminds me of what some of the thin client shells looked like back when I was playing with them in the late 1990s — desktop-like, but slender; sleek but prizing function over form.¬†You wouldn’t mistake it for an objet d’art (it doesn’t appear to live at Steve Jobs’ favorite intersection). You might, on the other hand, mistake it for a giant cable modem (my Comcast box is only a little smaller).

But then given it’s prototype status, I wouldn’t assume this is how it’ll look in the months to come. Either way, the obsession with technology you’ll rarely touch — that’ll sit on a shelf, out of the way, rarely observed — is kind of silly anyway.

The three most important things Valve has to get right in its attempt to crack the Steam-verse wide open are: interface, software and price. The rest is academic. That box could be bigger or smaller, more powerful or less powerful, but beyond the customary vocal minority of enthusiasts, no one cares. The hypothetical specs are more than powerful enough to tackle whatever Sony or Microsoft have cooking, next-gen-wise, and these boxes are upgradeable, so while the PS4 and Xbox One languish in 2013 tech, Steam Machines will keep marching forward, enabling new experiences without gaping half-decade-or-more intervals.

Well, make that if, and I repeat if, Valve has its software bases covered. Valve has the interface angle well in hand, pun half-intended. It’s stick-less controller is the most interesting thing I’ve seen in haptic consumer tech in at least a decade — much more so than Nintendo’s Wii. If it works as well as it seems to in demonstration videos, offering mouse-like fidelity with a gamepad, well, dream with me a little and imagine playing games you wouldn’t dare to without a mouse, without a mouse.

What’s missing, at this point, is Valve detailing its software plans. It’s not enough to forklift the Steam catalogue over and call it a day. Yes, Steam has 65 million members (how many of those are active and in what capacity is unclear), but speaking as one of them — one who’s barely active on the network because so many of the games I’m interested in arrive for consoles first — Valve won’t electrify anything until it addresses how things are going to vector rolling forward, software-wise. Are we going to see Steam exclusives? Timed or otherwise?

If not, which is just fine with me, can we at least count on multi-platform games (like “Grand Theft Auto Next”) to arrive in tandem?