Editorial: Opening the Valve

Just don't look at the prices.

Valve’s approach to consoles: different tiers to suit different consumers.

Valve have taken the next step towards living room domination this week with the announcement of specs and pricing details for their new Steam machines. The new hardware is designed to run the Linux-based SteamOS operating system, and will initially be manufactured by fourteen different hardware specialists. Each machine will also ship the Steam controller. In February last year, Gabe Newell announced that the new machines would come in three flavours: good, better, and best. Today I will be looking at each type of machine and their pricing.

GOOD

These low-end machines will do little of the actual processing work. They are designed to stream content from a more powerful PC in another room to the living room television. This is also their solution for any games that are not yet supported on a Linux-based operation system. If it is not supported, it is going to have to be streamed. Last year, the cost was estimated at around $100 for these models. Out of the range announced, the cheapest unit will set the consumer back $499. At this price, one can expect a machine to have a quad-core processor, eight gigabytes of RAM, and half a terabyte of storage.

It looks like a large router.

The CyberPower PC offering falls into the ‘good’ range.

At this price, the Steam machines also have to compete with the PS4 and Xbone. This will be a tough sell with both Sony and Microsoft already occupying living room space. Valve will need to do some good marketing to convince people to purchase their hardware. While there are 65 million Steam accounts, not all of those will be owned by people who are tech-savvy enough to setup two computers so that content can be streamed from one to another. Those that could may be able to build a custom machine for less than the price asked for the mass-produced models, then install the free OS on to them. One of the unknown variable is how much a controller is going to cost.

BETTER

This tier of hardware should have had a similar price range to the current generation of consoles, and therefore similar performance. In actuality, this tier will likely start at around $1090. For that sort of cash, the hardware will be upgradable on some machines, unlike the previous tier which are all self-contained devices. The parts will be similar to the ‘good’ machines, differentiating slightly on storage and graphics depending on the model. This tier also looks like a console, rather than the overly large routers that the last tier seemed to be based on.

Again, it will be hard to convince people to buy these over a custom machine running the same operating system. At these prices, even a couple of controllers could be purchased with a custom build as well. Better yet, I would save money and just buy a PlayStation 4.

And for that money, you get a machine that looks like a console.

The Prototype box falls into the ‘best’ range.

BEST

Okay, this is what PC owners dream of when they shop for parts for a new build. This is also the type of machine that Valve will send out to 300 lucky recipients later this year. At this level, prices will start at around $1499 and will skyrocket from there. Many of the specs are vague descriptions, but the minimum one could expect for this price are: a terabyte of solid state storage, sixteen gigabytes of RAM, an Intel i7 processor, and a GTX 780 graphics card. The exact components vary by manufacturer, but these will rival the best home computers.

These prices are in line with what Valve estimated they would be last year. Their prototype box itself is worth about $1850. The question is though, why would anyone need this sort of power for a living room machine? I know many families have their console in a family space, but children also have theirs setup in their own rooms. On the plus side, these machine would be able to play anything on max settings and would not need upgrading for a long time.

So those are Valves plans for a home invasion. It is also worth noting that Newell himself does not consider his machine as a competitor to the current consoles. Instead, he is more worried about whatever plans Apple could decide to make for gaming in the living room. In any event, they would both have a tough time breaking into a market that is already dominated by three well-established names.

Would you consider buying a Steam machine? Do you think the higher tiers can compete with the existing consoles? Let me know in the comments!

5 comments on “Editorial: Opening the Valve”

  1. I’m not a fan. I really do like using a controller for games over a mouse and keyboard. I have a 360 controller plugged into my pc for games that support it. If I’m playing something intensive like Civilization V, then sure I’m all about mouse and keyboard, but most of the time a controller is more comfortable and relaxing. I can sit back and be more chill using a controller. That being said, I’m not a huge fan of this, because I don’t primarily use my PC for gaming and I certainly don’t want a $1500 game console, I only finally broke down and bought a PS3 for $200 7 years after release. It also runs Linux which is currently only supported by a fraction of the games on Steam. Get the price down, bring in some unique functionality and get lots of games on it, and then you may have my interest.

  2. The Linux factor is a big thing. IF–and it is a big if–IF it pushes developers to develop for Linux, the Steam Box will become an attractive proposition. But that is very much a long-term solution, not something that is going to happen tomorrow. Also, the costs for a decent Steam Box are prohibitively high. It’s like buying a gaming right secondary to one’s own computer. Why do that?

  3. I have to wonder if Valve is once again playing the long game. Steam was ahead of its time, so perhaps this is too. The problem I see with that strategy in this context is that Steam didn’t have such a prohibitive price tag (If I recall, it came free with Half Life 2). Developers, it seems to me, are unlikely to be pushed to develop for a platform that no one owns.

  4. Good > Better > Best would have been just fine, but instead they have licensed almost a billion different SKUs…

    I don’t understand the point of supporting so many boxes when any PC product can access steam anyway. I thought they were trying to simplify hardware purchases?

  5. SN summed up a lot of my thoughts on the matter with these “Steam boxes”. Not only is it unclear which system is better or offers a better value, but it’s unclear to me who would want one.

    Above it all, and what is very clear to me, is who knows about this. PC gamers, for the most part. People who already have a solution for playing PC games. Most console-only gamers (not all), and especially those that I can see making the most of an easy-to-use PC, barely even know what Steam is (or Valve, for that matter). I’m sure these products will cater to some well-read and dedicated gamers who are just willing to pay a premium for a pre-built Steam machine, but how many of those people can there honestly be? Probably about as many who bought those high priced handhelds like the Nvidia Shield. That is to say, not so many.

    If these systems are going to stand a chance of being successful, then Valve is going to have to get the word out to the average console gamer about the value of Steam (let alone the function of it) and why owning a new system made by companies they don’t know and that lack console exclusives, but still cost as much if not more than consoles, is worth it. And frankly, I don’t think it is.

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