Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why Steam Box is much more than you think

Since Gabe Newell first opened his mouth about the possibility of Valve hardware, the internet has been aflutter with debates, speculation, and skepticism. I’ll admit, the idea does sound strange. Moving your PC games from your computer desk to your living room is a rather large leap, even if they're in the same general space. The two gaming realms have classically been separated, dividing the community with them. The Steam Box now promises to blur that line. Will it be all PC gamers want, or will it be as useful as WebTV?


If you’re new to the idea of a Steam Box, imagine having dedicated hardware in your living room that was produced by Valve and runs Steam in Big Picture Mode on a Linux OS. Sound enticing?

Let’s examine what we know. In an exclusive interview with The Verge, Gabe Newell gave more information on the Steam Box than ever before. He talked of the Steam Box hardware, the user inputs, the ecosystem, and what they plan to do with the living room. If you think it all stopped with Valve releasing a small computer for your TV, you’re dead wrong.

Steam Box Prototype
Valve hardware prototype from and employee's Twitter last year

Steam Box is a strange, hybrid creature, one that becomes more and more appealing as details about it emerge. Though it’s true Valve is building its own, proprietary hardware, it is allowing and even pushing other hardware manufacturers to come up with competing designs. Gabe’s philosophy of “good, better, best” allows room for a multitude of devices.

“Good” would see a local, high speed streaming device, a bit like OnLive without the internet, or the NVidia’s Shield and be lower cost, Newell’s measures around $99. “Better” boxes would have a dedicated CPU and GPU so things are done locally and would cost about $300. And “best” is whatever the consumer would pay for that OEMs deem marketable (water cooling, bigger hard drive space, optical drives, smoke machines, etc.). One such “best” product seems to be the Piston from Xi3, featuring a speculated $999 price tag. Gizmodo has a nice 360 degree interactive photo of the device as well.

Xi3 Piston Steam Box
Image of the Piston from Xi3. Photo by Polygon
This hardware-agnostic software platform idea is thoroughly in the wheelhouse of the PC and mobile space. The idea with Steam Box is similar to Windows 8 in that Microsoft released the Surface to try and fail at convincing people to give their software a try and hardware manufacturers something to base sales projections, hardware designs, and risk models on. Valve’s Steam Box will focus on what it thinks the public wants, while simultaneously providing hardware designers with an argument for why a mini-gaming rig in the family room is worth the multi-million dollar manufacturing investment.

This openness is starkly different from what we see today in the console space. Single-party hardware and operating systems dominate our TV-centric gaming space with no open source solutions. This means strict quality control, unified hardware and peripherals, and that quality is kept about even for every game. If I play Skyrim on my PS3, take it out, and play it on someone else’s PS3, I’ll see identical quality. That may not be true with Steam Box, as hardware may differ. Though this will no doubt prove to be a confusing and frustrating mess if Steam Box takes off, the free market should dictate that the products the consumer deems the best will rise to the top and MadCatz’s lame attempt at a PC controller will fall.

MadCatz PS2 Controller

So is Steam Box even competing with consoles? Will it factor in to gamers’ decisions when they pick which next gen console they want? Will it detract from PC gaming sales? The answer to these questions is yes. Steam Box is the bridge between consoles and PCs, and will no doubt compete with both. The historical data does not side with Valve. No hybrid device has ever really made it in the gaming sector. Half phone, half console, the Nokia N-Gage and Sony’s PSP phone both failed. Mobile gaming device with streaming, Sony’s PSP Go failed. Internet gaming streamed to your TV, OnLive failed. So should we even have faith that Valve can pull a rabbit out of their hat?

Yes. Here’s why.

The console market has stagnated. The last big innovations included online multiplayer, high definition graphics, cloud saves, and motion waggle. I can almost guarantee that at this year’s E3, Microsoft and Sony will announce their next gen consoles and they’ll feature better graphics, higher resolutions, more support, online capabilities, and some form of motion input. And that’s absolutely fine, but it’s more of the same. Steam Box offers something that none of these platforms seem to see the potential in — user generated content and configurability. Not just levels in Little Big Planet or choosing your console color. I’m talking mods, differing controllers, hardware choices, and ecosystems players can thrive on. Did you know some people make a triple digit income based off of selling in-game items on Steam? Yes, one days, hats can buy you this too:

Gabe McDuck

Did you know Valve loves that idea and values those community members? Hell, toward his interview, Gabe even mentioned trying to find a way to reward players for being better and creating a better gaming experience by simply being pleasant. They’re practically begging for your input.

Speaking of input, Valve is also looking at different controller options. Motion, Gabe thinks, is a moot point and one that cannot be pushed much further. Biometrics is something he has talked about consistently for the past few years and it seems they’re getting closer to figuring out how to incorporate your unconscious body signals, the way your hands grip, your heartbeat, where you’re holding the controller, all of that into the gameplay. Of course it would be up to developers to add support for that stuff in, but simply having the option is a great idea.

One final, killer feature is the potential for multiple screens. Gabe mentions potentially eight monitors, eight different controllers, and a consistent, great experience to all players. That’s incredible. Imagine having one Steam Box set up at a LAN, everyone brings their controllers and monitors, and games without having to step over cords or buy card tables and hubs at Walmart. And that much hot air being blown into a room full of competitive gamers does not for a fragrant abode make. Even just having the option of taking your game from your living room TV to your bedroom TV without having to stop the game would be excellent.

LAN Party

Let’s take a step back. This article has rambled on for over one thousand characters about how great Steam Box could be. All of this hubbub is assuming Valve meets their commitments and the public deems the product a worthy one. Though these ideas are great, implementation could kill them. Newell mentioned $99 “good” consoles and $300 “better” consoles, but would gamers want that? Will a PC gamer buy a Steam Box instead of a gaming rig now, and at what price point does it tip from cheap gaming PC to overpriced console?  If faced with the decision of a PS4 or a Steam Box, are the features and price competitive enough to make a dent? For the sake of gaming innovation, I hope so.  One of the other downsides I see is the strict EULA Steam has in which if you do not agree, any games you’ve purchased on Steam are locked away from you. Would that then turn my Steam Box into nothing more than an HTPC?

Valve Prototype Steam Box
TF2 running on Valve's prototype Steam Box. Image from The Verge
The grandiose ideas behind the console, potential implications, and new shiny gadgets to play with are all quite exciting. If it were any company but Valve, I’d be skeptical, but they were right when they thought of a platform to download your games on the internet, integrated cloud saves, and unified user-created items in a central hub; perhaps they’re right now. Either way, as the year rolls on, I’m sure we’ll see more Steam Box hardware details, pricing, and controller details at E3 and GDC. Hopefully as the frankenconsole comes into focus, it remains as enticing as it is right now.
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