Valve’s Steam Machines Are Just Boutique PCs, So What About the Games Already?

It's time to talk about Linux-native gaming.

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Remember when you cobbled together your own PC for the first time? How proud you felt? How you obsessed over every cord and connection? Scraped and leveled thermal paste across the CPU as if sculpting art? Routed and rerouted cabling until the insides of your case looked like an H.R. Giger painting? Spent hours, days, even weeks finessing settings in the BIOS, fiddling with clock speeds and running stress tests until every calculative facet hummed?

Welcome back to a future that looks a little more like PC gaming’s past, if Valve’s plan succeeds. The idea is to wrap an operating system around Linux and run it on predesigned or do-it-yourself PC hardware — these so-called Steam Machines — then drop that like an atom bomb on the living room console crowd.

What sort of predesigned hardware? Valve divulged the specs for its initial 300 prototype Steam Machines (nee Steam Boxes) last Friday:

GPU: some units with NVidia Titan, some GTX780, some GTX760, and some GTX660
CPU: some boxes with Intel i7-4770, some i5-4570, and some i3
RAM: 16GB DDR3-1600 (CPU), 3GB GDDR5 (GPU)
Storage: 1TB/8GB Hybrid SSHD
Power Supply: Internal 450w 80Plus Gold
Dimensions: approx. 12 x 12.4 x 2.9 in high

Some are calling those specs disappointing. Not because they’re inadequate — far from it — but because they’re so far ahead of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 that you’ll likely pay two to three times as much. Buy from Valve or build the same system from scratch, it doesn’t matter: Nvidia’s Titan goes for around $1,000, and an Intel Haswell-based i7-4770 starts at $300. If you want one of these Steam Machines, you’re basically building a high-end PC.

I hear you chuckling, PC gamers, because you know $300 for a high-end CPU isn’t half bad, and you’ve been dropping half a grand or more for bleeding-edge GPUs (sometimes two, sometimes four) for years. But Valve’s targeting the living room this time, and no way is a couch potato paying $1,500 to $2,000 for a promise (future SteamOS-native gaming) when they can have delivery with a PS4 or Xbox One or Wii U at a fraction of that cost.

Then again, that ignores some of what Valve wrote. Back up from the specs a few paragraphs and everything’s there in plain language — the part where Valve says that with these initial 300 prototype boxes, it’s “chosen to build something special.”

The prototype machine is a high-end, high-performance box, built out of off-the-shelf PC parts. It is also fully upgradable, allowing any user to swap out the GPU, hard drive, CPU, even the motherboard if you really want to. Apart from the custom enclosure, anyone can go and build exactly the same machine by shopping for components and assembling it themselves. And we expect that at least a few people will do just that. (We’ll also share the source CAD files for our enclosure, in case people want to replicate it as well.)

And to be clear, this design is not meant to serve the needs of all of the tens of millions of Steam users. It may, however, be the kind of machine that a significant percentage of Steam users would actually want to purchase – those who want plenty of performance in a high-end living room package. Many others would opt for machines that have been more carefully designed to cost less, or to be tiny, or super quiet, and there will be Steam Machines that fit those descriptions.

These aren’t the living room PCs that’ll square off with the PS4 or Xbox One, in other words. They’re unapologetically niche, designed to appeal to hardcore PC gamers. (The one wrinkle I find intriguing is the notion that you’d be able to squeeze a Titan, Haswell CPU and all the other trimmings into something roughly the size of a largish cigar box: 12-inch by 12-inch by 2.9-inch high, says Valve.) And what do hardcore gamers do when they’re not gaming? They colonize message boards and comment trees. They proselytize. I wonder if that’s not the point — the sexed-up hardware vanguard before the broader third-party spectrum drops.

If, on the other hand, you want a Steam Machine that lives in the $400 to $500 range and sits inside a box you wouldn’t be ashamed to display in your entertainment center, I’m sure you’ll be able to. But that brings us to the pachyderm in the room, the thing Valve’s Steam-related announcement trifecta skipped. In my view, it’s the most important thing of all — more important than the interface, the hardware specs, the aesthetic design, the price (subsidized or no), anything: developer support.

If every esteemed developer suddenly promised (mind you in some fantasy multiverse future) to build SteamOS-native versions of games for these Steam Machines, owning one would almost be a fait accompli. Imagine Nintendo-caliber games on a Steam box. Imagine big franchises like Zelda or Halo or Uncharted or Gears of War rising on SteamOS. Imagine an outfit like Rockstar making Linux the de facto launch platform for Grand Theft Auto 6.

That’s the fantasy. I fantasize to make the point that aside from MMOs, real-time strategy games and Civilization, PC gaming plays second fiddle. And most gamers ultimately want to play games, not admire the chrome on some vendor logo adorning some grille faceplate that lights up like a barroom beer sign, or bicker about variations in frame rates.

That’s Valve’s challenge, far more so than draping a custom GUI shell over a Linux kernel or wrapping your name around some custom-brew Linux PCs, or building a tweaked-out, gamepad-style controller. PC gamers have been playing with colossally powerful hardware that leaves anemic living room hardware in the dust for decades, and the majority of developers have been ignoring much about that hardware for just as long.

If Valve’s going to win ground — meaning do more than lure a segment of traditional desktop PC gamers into their living room comfy chairs and onto big screen TVs — it’s time to talk about stuff like SteamOS exclusives, and launch-day multi-platform Linux versions of whatever’s on tap for the PS4 and Xbox One, and for goodness sake, yes, Half-Life 3.

As a geek, I love the idea of Linux and the idea of SteamOS and the idea of Steam Machines. As a gamer, I couldn’t care less. I’m brand-loyal to no one — never have been, never will be. Ideas are fun, but results are the currency I’d like to think most of us trade in. Shows us the money, Valve. Shows us the games.