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?