Editorial: A Steamy Box

Steam Console and Controller
The Prototype Steam Machine with its Controller

The Consumer Electronics Show was held this week and it was filled with the latest and greatest tech ideas, as usual. Valve used their time on the stage at CES to formally reveal something they had announced back in 2012, the Steam Machine. The Steam Machine, which will run off of the Linux-based SteamOS, will be Valve’s first dive into the home console market. Yesterday our resident Brit, Mr. Scott Mundy, published an excellent article describing the different tiers of hardware that will be offered under the Steam Machine name. Today I will take a look at some of the potential effects the Steam Machine could bring to the home console market.

At the most basic level of thinking, the Steam Machine is what Microsoft wanted the public to believe the Xbox One was, a powerful gaming console that rendered physical media unnecessary. Many may wonder why Valve has not seen the same amount of anger that Microsoft got after their Xbone reveal and the answer is simple, Valve has a track record of not abusing its customers. When Steam first launched a decade ago, it had many detractors and problems. Where Valve differs from other companies (I am looking at you, Microsoft) is that they make good products and services and then they listen to their customers and work hard to make improvements.

The Steam Machine may seem like a bit of a strange entry into this generation, but it seems that a perfect storm of events has played right into Valve’s hands. Back in 2006, the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 were top dogs in terms of computing power when compared to other consumer computers. This phenomenon was not repeated with the Xbone and PS4 as both consoles are only slightly more powerful than a mid-range gaming PC. This, combined with Sony and Microsoft deciding to use the familiar x86 architecture for their processors, likely blew the doors open for Valve. Now, Valve is not only able to keep pace with Sony and Microsoft even with affordable mid-range hardware, it can also do so knowing that the processing components of the Xbone and PS4 will scale along with the Steam Machine.

Valve’s biggest advantage over its rivals when the Steam Machine launches will be the Steam Market. As of now, over two hundred games work on SteamOS, and that number will likely keep climbing as the Steam Machine nears release. Although the number of games is impressive, Valve will have to work hard with game companies so that AAA releases are compatible with SteamOS. The Steam Market also has the benefit of its infamous sales. Steam’s sales are like PlayStation Network and Xbox Live sales on steroids, with discounts over sixty percent a common occurrence. Valve is able to cut prices like this because their games are sold purely in digital format, they are not competing with physical sales of the same games so they do not have to worry about undercutting brick-and-mortar stores.

Falcon Northwest Steambox
Falcon Northwest’s version of the Steam Machine is set firmly in the upper tier of price and performance.

The Steam Machine is entering the market with some stiff competition, but I think it is equipped to at least be competitive. The entry-level Steam Machines will depend upon developers updating past games to be compatible with SteamOS as well as hoping that the compatibility is built in with newer games. I think the SteamOS will prove to be the initial hurdle for Valve as people like me that own hundreds of games on Steam (325 to be exact) will not want to pay five hundred dollars to hope that their full game library will eventually be playable on the console. The higher-end Machines support dual-booting into Windows but the cost of these Steam Boxes means that they will probably only appeal to PC gamers in the market for a new rig.

Like the Steam Market that preceded it, the Steam Machine and its operating system will have their share of growing pains. Valve’s diligence morphed Steam from a pariah into the model of what gamers expect from digital distribution, and I expect that same diligence will help the Steam Machine survive the initial difficulties. However, I still feel that the Steam Machine will be unable to establish itself as a popular choice for gamers. There will be early adopters as well as people who decide that a Steam Machine is the perfect PC upgrade, but I do not think it will gain much traction outside of these crowds. I know that Gabe has said he is not looking to compete with Sony and Microsoft, but it is hard not to when his console will be playing ball in their turf. What are your thoughts on the Steam Machine? Will it shift the home console market or will it just end up being another option for the PC gaming crowd? Leave your opinions in the comments below!

2 comments

  1. I’d rather have the best Steambox as my computer rather than a ‘home console’ to be perfectly honest.

  2. I have to agree with you Dean. Back during the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox days, I would have gone for the pair of PS2 & Gamecube to handle my gaming needs, but console exclusives are far and few between these days.

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