Game Changer?

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Find out why Valve’s Steam Ma­chines could change gam­ing for­ever

HOW VALVE PLANS TO CON­QUER YOUR LIV­ING ROOM AND WHY IT JUST MIGHT WORK...

BY BRAN­DON DAVIS

When most people think of video games, con­soles tend to be the first things that spring to mind. The idea of sit­ting in front of your big screen liv­ing room TV en­joy­ing the lat­est triple-A game re­leases is one that’s be­come syn­ony­mous with the in­dus­try over the past decade or so, and as the stigma at­tached with gam­ing through­out the 80s and 90s fi­nally dis­si­pates, the in­dus­try is con­tin­u­ing to go from strength to strength.

In fact, re­cent years have seen sev­eral ma­jor game re­leases top even the big­gest movies in terms of global earn­ings, show­ing how far the in­dus­try has come from the days where it was seen as the do­main of spotty teenagers in their par­ents’ base­ments.

How­ever, none of this takes into ac­count the fact that PC gam­ing has been un­der­go­ing a sim­i­lar resur­gence of late, as an in­creas­ing num­ber of play­ers opt for the additional power and pre­cise con­trol of­fered by the plat­form when com­pared to even high-end con­soles like the PlayS­ta­tion 4 or Xbox One.

A key player in the rein­vig­o­rated growth of PC gam­ing is a com­pany by the name of Valve. Those of you who are gamers will un­doubt­edly be fa­mil­iar with Valve’s work on ti­tles like Half-Life, Counter Strike, DotA and Left4Dead, but the most rev­o­lu­tion­ary as­pect of the com­pany’s work in the past decade hasn’t been its gam­ing out­put. In­stead, Valve man­aged to com­pletely change the play­ing field by in­tro­duc­ing the first ma­jor dig­i­tal dis­tri­bu­tion net­work for gamers.

The Steam ser­vice launched in Septem­ber 2003, and has since grown to en­com­pass more than 70 per­cent of the over­all PC gam­ing mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to Forbes. At its core, Steam is an in­cred­i­bly el­e­gant ser­vice that al­lows play­ers to pur­chase the lat­est games from a stand­alone ap­pli­ca­tion or web­based in­ter­face, down­load the game to their com­put­ers and in­ter­act with a com­mu­nity of more than 75 mil­lion reg­is­tered users world­wide.

Thanks to the sim­plic­ity of the ser­vice, and the fact that the dig­i­tal dis­tri­bu­tion model has al­lowed pub­lish­ers and in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers to re­lease games with­out the additional ex­pense of disc print­ing, pack­ag­ing and ship­ping, re­duc­ing the cost of even the high­est pro­file games to well be­low that of their con­sole coun­ter­parts, Steam has built an es­sen­tial mo­nop­oly over the gam­ing mar­ket. Com­pa­nies like Elec­tronic Arts (Ori­gin) and Ubisoft (uPlay), as well as other on­line re­tail ser­vices like Direc­t2Drive, Gamer­sGate and Ama­zon have at­tempted to take on Valve’s might with mixed re­sults, but it’s Steam that re­mains the dom­i­nant power in the space.

The only is­sue with the ser­vice, if there is one, is that not ev­ery­one is will­ing to spend big bucks on a com­puter pow­er­ful enough to play the lat­est game re­leases with max­i­mum vis­ual fidelity. Those users in­stead opt for the per­ceived ease of use of­fered by all-in­one con­sole so­lu­tions, cit­ing the fact that in­sert­ing a disc or down­load­ing a game from PlayS­ta­tion Net­work of the Xbox Live

For those people, Valve is work­ing on some­thing that could well prove to be a defin­ing mo­ment for video games; Steam Ma­chines.

Steam Ma­chines are es­sen­tially com­pact com­put­ers built into rea­son­ably sized chas­sis’ and in­tended for use on the liv­ing room TV, just like tra­di­tional gam­ing con­soles. The key dif­fer­en­tia­tor here is that not only will these de­vices be ca­pa­ble of play­ing the lat­est games through Valve’s own op­er­at­ing sys­tem, SteamOS, but they can also run Win­dows or Linux op­er­at­ing sys­tems as part of a dual-boot setup, en­abling users to get the best of both worlds with­out hav­ing to re­sort to smaller PC mon­i­tors.

For those who know their tech, get­ting a Win­dows de­vice up and run­ning on a TV is hardly a ma­jor dif­fi­culty, but that’s only part of the at­trac­tion with Steam Ma­chines. The other is the re­duced cost of mod­ern PC games. Steam runs reg­u­lar sales on its ser­vice, greatly dis­count­ing games on a daily or weekly ba­sis, but it’s the ma­jor sales that grab the main head­lines in the gam­ing world. Dur­ing these, gamers can of­ten pick up dozens of games for the cost of a cou­ple of con­sole re­leases, and PC gamers are tra­di­tion­ally more will­ing to take chances on lesser known ti­tles, of­ten re­sult­ing in huge sales for in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers, and en­cour­ag­ing a level of cre­ativ­ity and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion that had been lack­ing in the con­sole mar­ket up un­til re­cently.

The po­ten­tial for Steam Ma­chines to even­tu­ally re­place tra­di­tional con­soles is huge, but it’ll rely on a num­ber of key things fall­ing into place for Valve. Firstly, the fact that lit­er­ally any­one can build and re­lease a Steam Ma­chine is a point of con­tention for many. At this year’s CES count­less Steam Ma­chines were un­veiled to the pub­lic, rang­ing from $500 units to ones cost­ing in ex­cess of $5,000 each. That cre­ates po­ten­tial con­fu­sion for con­sumers, and runs the risk of over sat­u­rat­ing the mar­ket be­fore it’s had time to find its feet.

The next ma­jor is­sue is longevity of sys­tems. PC hard­ware is a fast mov­ing in­dus­try, and the min­i­mum spec­i­fi­ca­tions needed to run the lat­est games in­creases all the time, un­like with con­soles where the con­sole hard­ware doesn’t change for any­where be­tween 4-8 years at a time. Pre­vi­ous con­sole own­ers may be wary of spend­ing up­wards of $500 on a ma­chine that could be ob­so­lete in a cou­ple of years, and which fea­tures limited up­grade po­ten­tial.

Orig­i­nally set to launch this year, but now pushed back to a likely 2015 date, Steam Ma­chines are cer­tainly an in­ter­est­ing propo­si­tion. On the one hand, there’s def­i­nitely the po­ten­tial for them to be dis­rup­tive to the gam­ing in­dus­try, and rev­o­lu­tion­ize the way we con­sume games again, but on the other, there re­mains much un­cer­tainty and a dis­tinct lack of fo­cus as to who ex­actly the hard­ware is go­ing to be aimed at.

Will they re­ally ap­peal to con­sole gamers? Are PC gam­ing en­thu­si­asts go­ing to shell out for what is es­sen­tially an­other PC to play their games on, when they’ve al­ready got one?

These are ques­tions that’ll be an­swered in the near fu­ture, but if any­one’s able to deliver the goods on this front, it’s Valve. Would you bet against them?

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