The Puzzle of Valve’s Steam Machine

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On September 27th, after weeks of teasing big announcements, PC game developer and digital distribution pioneers Valve formally announced their long-rumored Steam Machine platform. The timing definitely seems right, what with the robust growth of the downloadable games market and both the upcoming X-Box One and PS4 putting so much stock in digital distribution.

Valve is positioning the Steam Machines as a living room HD gaming alternative, complete with a streamlined, entertainment-centric OS, and a new controller design that is as innovative as it is baffling. So Valve has officially brought the fight to Microsoft and Sony’s turf, right?

Maybe not.

The Steam Machine is a strange beast, which makes it difficult to really figure out whether it is simply a Valve-branded line of PCs or a bona-fide entry in the upcoming console war. Note that I’m referring to it as a ‘line’. Valve is not getting into the manufacturing business. Instead they’re licensing Steam OS to PC hardware builders, who will manufacture and distribute Steam OS HDMI-ready boxes with wireless controllers.

It’s an odd strategy. While it insulates Valve from the expenses (and losses) inherent in console hardware manufacturing, it has the side effect of taking pricing, distribution and quality control out of Valve’s hands. It’s been tried before, back in the 90’s by Phillips and the 3DO corporation. The strategy was unsuccessful for both companies, and while we can blame the software, confused consumers probably didn’t help matters.

But let’s assume that today’s gamers are a savvier bunch. Even then, the hardware is going to be an issue. Valve’s plans for the Steam Machine involve variable configurations at different price-points. What’s more, components can be swapped out and upgraded by users. Doing so, in Newell’s way of thinking, effectively renders hardware generations moot.

In allowing for this level of PC-style flexibility, Valve has ignored the one big strength of traditional gaming consoles. Consoles are usually underpowered compared PCs, but they have had the distinct advantage of having configurations.

What this means that developers have had only one target platform (at most, three, for multiplatform releases), and inevitably have learned to optimize their game engines to squeeze out every drop of power. In every console generation, launch titles have paled in comparison to games released near the end.

PC game developers, on the other hand, nearly always have more raw power at their disposal, but have to account for a myriad of configurations – meaning that a game engine has to support higher and lower spec machines while remaining relatively stable.

If Steam Machines stuck to the Valve-dictated configurations, hardware variances may have been less of an issue – since at least developers would have had set specs they could target. By allowing for user modifications, the Steam Machines do nothing to minimize PC-style fragmentation. What’s worse, it leads to PC-style spec creep, as new games require more and more powerful hardware under the hood, requiring gamers to frequently purchase new components.

At first glance, this would make the Steam Machine seem essentially like a small form-factor-gaming PC with a wireless controller and HDMI output. However, there are two key differences between Steam Machines and your run of the mill gaming rig: the operating system and the controller. While Valve is touting both of these as revolutionary features, there is some concern that what makes the Steam Machine different is what may ultimately make them less able to compete in the market.

Steam OS, which is the cornerstone of Valve’s Steam Machines strategy, is Linux-based. This seems like a smart move on Valve’s part since Linux is generally much leaner and less processor-intensive than Windows 8. This could also translate to higher framerates, the holy grail of PC gaming. Additionally, Microsoft has hamstrung Windows 8 with a frustrating, touchscreen-centric interface, drastically reduced customizability, and a very short tether to their digital download App store (which directly competes with Valve’s Steam platform).

Unfortunately, most PC games are created to run on Windows (with a smattering on Mac OS and Linux-compatible games coming in third). Even allowing for Windows 8’s missteps, the fact remains that most games are tailored to a Windows 7 environment, and 7 is still very much widely in use. So while Steam – the service – plays host to digital iterations of nearly every game in existence, Steam Machines wouldn’t necessarily be able to play them. Alternately, Valve will allow users to install other operating systems that means that users would essentially end up with a small PC hooked up to their TV that lacks Steam OS’s gaming-centric features.

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As for the question of the controls, Valve’s new controller, which relies on unproven touchpad tech, may or may not work. The Steam Machine controller eschews the traditional controller configuration of two analog sticks, a crosspad, and a smattering of buttons (a setup that has evolved from the NES, though the Super NES, to the Playstation One and been endlessly copied and iterated upon). Instead the Steam Controller uses two trackpads (similar to what you’d have on your laptop, but with a haptic feedback system) and a touchscreen. Traditional buttons are relegated to an odd position on either side of the central touchscreen. While the trackpads allow for greater input fidelity than a thumbstick, early reports indicate that the lack of tactile feedback presents an issue. Additionally, as we’ve seen with smartphones and the Nintendo DS, touchscreen interfaces can be nice, but they also tend to lack the all-important tactile component.

Further, it’s definitely not a keyboard and mouse. PC gamers are extremely attached to their keyboard and mouse configuration, no the least of which because there are gaming genres, such as strategy games and first-person-shooters, that simply do not work as well on controllers. Traditional PC gamers have been up in arms this console generation, as more developers have tailored their gaming experience to console-style gamepads (in order to better support cross-platform development). PC gamers have, therefore, been the lamenting the lack of precision and flexibility of controllers and the ‘dumbing down’ of PC games as a result. And the Steam Controller is, per Valve’s own statements, only ‘almost’ as precise as a mouse. Which is really not going to be good enough for high level play on some PC games. But Valve says that the controller is optional and that keyboard and mouse is A-OK, even in the living room. Which defeats the purpose of having the controller in the first place.

So what are the Steam Machines? Are they consoles? Are they PCs? Or are they they unholy spawn of both?

Based on what we know so far, they lack consoles’ unified configurations and take away developers’ ability to optimize for the platform. On the other hand, they can only be considered PCs if one ignores the features that make the Steam Machines unique and special. While they most resemble PCs, they are neither square pegs, nor round ones, and so may have difficulty finding a place to fit in the market.

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