Valve Corporation, the video game developer behind such hits as Half-Life, Team Fortress, and Portal, seeks to revolutionize gaming with the Steam Machine, Steam OS, and Steam Controller, and now the pros and cons of their plans are revealed, since Monday when media outlets first published reports on recent visits to Valve Headquarters outside Seattle.
This is the first of two articles on Valve’s plan and its potential chances for success. This article discusses the pros, and the second one covers the many cons that could derail the gaming giant’s risky new initiative.
The original Steam was Valve’s literal game-changer, an online platform for gamers that allows them to digitally purchase and download games and other content, while also acting as a social network, enabling and enhancing multiplayer interaction, and performing other functions. As of October 2013, Steam has over 3,000 games available, 65 million user accounts, and has surpassed 6.6 million players using the network at once. The highly imitated service accounts for 50-70% of all digital PC game downloads. In order to duplicate Steam’s success, similar Internet sales portals have been developed for console gaming platforms like Xbox Live and Playstation Network. Now, just as the consoles copied them, Steam is looking to return the favor. They are producing a PC gaming experience called Steam Machine, designed to rival consoles in their traditional domain: the living room.
By now, Valve’s plan is fairly well-known. They are releasing Steam OS, a new Linux-based operating system designed specifically for gaming. They will also release the Steam Controller, a console-style controller intended to package the accuracy and control of a PC’s mouse and keyboard into a handheld remote you can use from your couch. The most ambitious piece of the roll-out is the Steam Machine, what The Washington Post describes as an “anti-console”, the prototype for a line of smaller PC towers engineered to fit into an entertainment center, connect to your TV, and make the versatility of PC gaming as convenient as Xbox, PS3, or Nintendo. It will allow the sharing of content between devices connected to it, including live streaming, media sharing within families and households, and even parental controls.
The company is taking some big risks, in the hope of an even bigger return. Valve has a lot going for it, but also a lot of unknowns waiting to be resolved. Industry luminaries such as Id Games’ John Carmack and Epic Games’ Tim Sweeney aren’t certain about the future of Valve’s plan to market and develop for what is essentially a console for PC games, with Carmack calling the plan “dicey.”
Will it work? The information released Monday gives new and detailed insight into Valve Corporations’s plan for making all this work, and how they are handling the risk of competing with Xbox and Playstation on their own turf. Some of the pros and cons revealed by recent reports on the Valve Steam Machine are broken down below, starting with the pros.
–The controller works. While admitting there was a learning curve to using it, the reporters invited to try the new platform at Valve’s headquarters in Bellevue, WA all reported that the Steam Controller did the job. Steam has more than 3,000 games, designed for use with a keyboard and a mouse, but the controller offered full functionality in playing these games that were never designed for it.
It uses dual track-pads instead of joysticks, providing fine motor control along with haptic feedback, and is not only covered in physical buttons but will offer a touchscreen where users can create virtual buttons of their own. Controllers for PC games are not new, but most have fared poorly on all but a handful of games designed for their use. By using Steam to mediate between the controller and the software, Valve shows every sign of having cracked the code.
Tommy Refenes, a developer for Super Meat Boy who tested it, was quoted in the Washingon Post as saying the controller is a “great start, needs some improvements, but I could play any game I wanted with it just fine.” IGN is already calling it “the perfect controller.” On top of that, Valve appears to have solved another big problem…
–The controller is easy, too. The bane of every PC controller, beyond whether it could be used effectively on a particular game, has been the time it took to make it work at all. The user would have to set up the controller themselves, choosing which button shoots, which button jumps, etc. “This is the kind of thing that is the nightmare for most PC controllers,” Valve product designer Greg Coomer told Wired, “because you start a game and then you’re in this screen for half an hour before you ever get going. We believe we’ve designed a way around that.”
They are crowd-sourcing the controller setups, with players able to create and share their own button-mapping layouts and a ranking system that lets the community vote on which are the best. This means most players will be able to download a game off Steam, install it, download a high-rated controller scheme, and get right to playing.
–The prototype works. The first Steam Machine, the Steam Box, was built in-house at Valve. It will be beta-tested by 300 handpicked existing users of the Steam platform, and is designed to do the job with standard parts rather than a lot of specially engineered technology, since PC gamers tend to like to customize and augment their own rigs.
However, Valve has been able to greatly decrease the size of a legit gaming PC, and that is where they have performed an engineering feat. According to The Verge, “Valve’s steel and aluminum chassis measures just over 12 inches on a side and is 2.9 inches tall, making it a little bigger than an Xbox 360 and smaller than any gaming PC of its ilk. And yet the box manages to fit a giant Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan graphics card and a full desktop CPU—and keep those parts quiet and cool—without cramming them in like a jigsaw puzzle.”
The trick that allows this is a case designed so that the all heat generating pieces of hardware have separate fans ventilating air in different directions, with none of the parts sharing airspace to heat each other up. The result is a cool, quiet PC, described as quieter than the air conditioning in the room where it was demonstrated. And software-wise, it seemed to work just as well as a traditional Windows box. The Verge’s reporter wrote, “The team switched between a Windows and SteamOS box halfway through our demo, and I couldn’t tell the difference.”
–Users don’t have to go all-in. Full adoption of all the plan’s elements is not required for Valve to succeed. The price-point on Steam Machines are not yet clear, but the company is not planning to make those itself (see below). What Valve is offering will be their OS and the Steam Controller. There is nothing to stop gamers from loading Steam OS on their existing machines, buying a Controller, and having essentially the same living room gaming experience the company envisions.
A rough comparison would be if Sony could somehow download a Playstation 4 directly to an existing PS3 gamer’s house and just sell them a controller and downloadable games. Sure, they would not make money on the console itself, but its certainly a workable business model.
–Valve’s won this kind of battle before. When Steam debuted in 2002, it did not look promising. It just began as a way to get matchmaking for multiplayer and download updates and patches for the game Counter-Strike. When it launched, its servers were overloaded. In 2004, Valve announced Half-Life 2 would require Steam installation and use. Again, servers overloaded, and people who bought physical copies of the game had to wait hours or days to activate them. But Steam endured, improved, and thrived.
Downloading content, updates, and entirely new games was ironed out, and became the easiest way for many gamers to continue the hobby, with other publishers offering their games on the platform as well. According to Wired, “Steam has revived the PC gaming market, which had been in a death spiral when discs and CD activation keys were the only thing standing between publishers and rampant piracy.” Part of the reason for the success, of course, has been Steam’s edge on pricing. Read on…
–When it comes to games, the price is right. Once a game is developed and released, every Internet sale is pure profit. Selling a copy of a game on a disc in a box that you ship to a store has costs, but selling a digital copy is essentially free. Steam schedules sales strategically, offering steep discounts, knowing that selling a $60 game for $5 is still profit. Playstation and Xbox have tried to compete, lowering prices where possible, but they have a relationship with brick-and-mortar stores they need to protect. They can’t undercut retailers. Valve can, and does.
–It’s an open platform. Companies like Apple, Microsoft (which has even locked down its PC ecosystem since Windows 8), or Sony force 3rd party developers to jump through hoops when making software or peripherals, and generally keep a tight hold how their own hardware is repaired or upgraded. In contrast to these closed, corporate-controlled software and hardware lines, all of Valve’s new moves are in support of their existing open platform. Steam offers an ease of accessibility for independent game developers that none of their competitors in this new space allow. It also offers certain freedoms for the more DIY-oriented gamer types who have traditionally been attracted to PCs over consoles.
–Steam has a built-in audience. Valve’s biggest advantage, the one that makes this whole initiative viable, is that they are not just trying to lure in millions of new customers. They are also marketing to fans they already have. Sixty-five million accounts is a massive number, even if not all of them are the hardcore Valve fans described in The Washington Post, who make digital birthday cards for the company’s founder and excitedly speculate about upcoming sequels.
For those PC users, who are used to consistent and small incremental upgrades instead of an entirely new device every few years, this jump is nowhere near as extreme as the leap required from, say, Xbox 360 to the forthcoming Xbox One.
Of course, it’s not all silver linings. There are some big stumbling blocks—including one huge impediment—that could doom Valve Corporation’s whole experiment. First you read the positives, now click here to read about the negatives in the second half of this article, Valve Steam Machine Pros and Cons – Now the Cons.
By: Jeremy Forbing