We’ve known for a while that Valve, maker of the mega-hit video game series “Half-Life” and “Portal” and operator of Steam, a very popular online distribution service for computer games (think along the lines of iTunes, but for PC games), had been planning to make a major foray into consumers’ living rooms. Speculating online about the so-called “Steam Box” — a device that would allow Steam gamers to easily play titles on their TVs from their couches, rather than sitting at their computers — has been a favorite pastime for fans of the company.
Now the picture is getting clearer. Over the last couple of weeks, Valve has made key official announcements about its Steam Box, which will be officially known as Steam Machines (plural for a reason, which I’ll get to shortly), stirring up a heated discussion about the future of video gaming. What’s most interesting about the device is how it mixes elements of console and PC gaming. And the biggest question is whether it can successfully walk that line.
So, the basics: Steam Machines will be small consoles (specs aren’t available yet) that can be plugged into televisions, much like a PlayStation or Xbox system, allowing gamers access to the vast Steam library of games. The devices, Valve also just announced, will run on SteamOS, a version of the operating system Linux designed specifically with Steam and big-screen TVs in mind. And there won’t just be one version of the Steam Machine: Valve has announced that there will be different models built by different companies and that tech-savvy consumers can even build their own out of PC components. Steam Machines will be able to be upgraded and customized, similar to desktops (and, to a lesser extent, some laptops).
The controller, which was introduced in a separate announcement, has also received a lot of attention. One of the major reasons those who are primarily PC gamers (this columnist included) prefer the PC as a gaming platform is that a mouse and keyboard offer far more precision than console controllers. First-person shooters, for example, feel clumsy using a PlayStation 3 controller. Valve claims to have kept this issue in mind and has designed a controller that looks unlike anything else on the console market: Instead of sticks, which most controllers have, Valve’s controller features two small circular trackpads that the company claims will allow for finer control.
So why does this all add up to more than another nerdy device announcement? Partly because PC gaming has long stood apart as a different, somewhat more insular culture. At the risk of some stereotyping — and acknowledging that plenty of people engage in both PC and console gaming — PC gamers have tended to be a bit more tech-savvy, a bit more into complex, deeply involving games. And as a rule, Valve and Steam are hugely popular among them. So for Valve to extend itself this way — to devote such resources toward bringing its already successful games and distribution platform to living rooms and big-screen TVs — suggests that it thinks it can draw console gamers to Valve, preexisting Valve customers to TV screens, or both. In short, Valve doesn’t think the already weakening gap between PC gamers and console gamers matters all that much at all.
The biggest question, of course, is whether Valve’s product will be new and cool and helpful enough to attract gamers awash in options. Given that PC gamers can already play games on their TVs with just a bit of technical know-how, will Valve be offering enough to entice them to buy new hardware? Will making this transition easier be enough to get a PC gamer to buy an entirely new device?
For what it’s worth — and I say this as someone who uses Steam all the time and is a big fan of all of the “Half-Life” and “Portal” games — I’m so used to the experience of gaming at a PC, of being able to shift between my game and Gmail and Spotify and everything else, of using that oh-so-easy mouse and keyboard combo, that it would be an uphill battle getting me to make the switch. Yes, it’s understandable why console gamers relish the experience of playing on massive HD displays, but there’s a reason many PC gamers have stuck it out as TV screens have gotten larger and cheaper. It is a deeply ingrained routine, an experience with its own comforts.
That’s not to say there are any overbearing technical reasons
Valve knows this about its customers, though, so I wouldn’t necessarily bet against the company and its Steam Machines.