The Steam Box Is Real, and It’s Coming This Year — Along with Others in 2014

Yep, Valve's finally getting into the hardware business.

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World, meet Valve’s Godzilla-sized shoe numero two: the Steam Box — or Steam Machines, plural, if you want to get technical about it.

Valve revealed their existence at 1pm ET Wednesday afternoon, after a 48-hour countdown that followed Monday’s SteamOS unveiling.

The machines are depicted as flares erupting from the surface of Valve’s purple-tinged solar negative (now looking like the de-pupiled Eye of Sauron). Alas, not systems with detailed specifications, physical dimensions, CPU and GPU types, memory and storage and so forth.

Nope, just the promise of guidelines for systems due in 2014 alongside an enigmatic Valve-branded prototype to ship in beta to an extremely select audience yet this year. Guesses, including mine, that the brackets around the “O” signifying SteamOS were in fact a geometrically literal “box” (as in Steam Box) seem to have been right.

At one point I wondered whether Valve wouldn’t establish a framework for PC makers (or homebrew types) to build a Steam Box. At another, I wondered whether Valve wouldn’t just build and sell its own. (I suppose everyone did.)

“Well heck, why not do both?” Valve seems to be saying, giving third-party hardware vendors a shot at making and marketing their own systems, while Valve brands and sells its own vintage.

Let’s talk about the latter, or “Steam Machine prototype” as Valve refers to it. Valve’s planning to ship a scant 300, no charge, to eligible users for testing yet this year:

While these products are still in development, we need your help. As always, we believe the best way to ensure that the right products are getting made is to let people try them out and then make changes as we go. We have designed a high-performance prototype that’s optimized for gaming, for the living room, and for Steam. Of course, it’s also completely upgradable and open.

How do you lay hands on one? Valve’s holding a contest dubbed — ba-dum-tish! — Eligibility Quest:

Before October 25, log in to Steam and then visit your quest page to track your current status towards beta test eligibility

1. Join the Steam Universe community group

2. Agree to the Steam Hardware Beta Terms and Conditions

3. Make 10 Steam friends (if you haven’t already)

4. Create a public Steam Community profile (if you haven’t already)

5. Play a game using a gamepad in Big Picture mode

Valve says you can complete those steps in any order, after which you’ll receive a special account badge and membership in the pool from which beta testers will eventually be drawn. You have until October 25 to sign up, make some friends and lug your PC and gamepad into the living room. Valve says 30 of the selectees will be users with a history of community and beta participation, while the remaining 270 will be completely random-picked. And yes, to Valve’s credit, beta testers will be allowed to speak publicly about their experience.

Curiously, Valve refers to these Steam Machines as a “new category of gaming machines.” Really? New in what sense? Game consoles have long been PC-like, architecturally speaking. Does the company mean new in the sense that they’re based on open-source software and upgradeable? I’d call that the safe bet, though who knows — I keep hearing Valve CEO Gabe Newell saying “post-tablet world.”

As for the Steam Machines coming from third-party vendors, Valve says you’ll be able to choose from several offered by various manufacturers next year. Not that you’ll have to: The company assures us that existing PC Steam users should expect business as usual, rolling forward.

Why, Valve asks in its FAQ, would it opt to sell its own box when it’s dishing SteamOS to other hardware vendors? Because its versions will offer users “the most control possible over their hardware”:

We’re conducting a beta of the overall Steam living-room experience, so we needed to build prototype hardware on which to run tests. At Valve we always rely on real-world testing as part of our design process. The specific machine we’re testing is designed for users who want the most control possible over their hardware. Other boxes will optimize for size, price, quietness, or other factors.

It’s a little irritating that we know there’s a box but not what that box looks like, what’s inside, or how much it’ll cost. (Because no one else ever does that.) Valve’s explanation, which doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, is that we’re about to see a whole bunch of machines with specs all over the place — like PCs, in other words.

What, now that the angle everyone’s been talking about forever, could Valve possibly have planned for its final Friday reveal at 1pm ET? My guess — okay, my deep and abiding hope — is that the company’s going to reveal throngs of Linux-committed developers and publishers, whether for SteamOS game exclusives or Linux-native extensions of triple-A franchises (in other words, aiming squarely for Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo’s throats). If that happens and the list is strong, includes major publishers and development studios as well as respected indies, I’d rank it the most important announcement of all.

After all, without compelling, platform-focused software, an OS is just another OS, and a box is just a box.