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 second of two articles discussing the pros and cons of Valve’s plan and its potential chances for success. The first article discussed the pros of the gaming giant’s risky play to enter the console game, and this one covers the many cons that could derail the new initiative.
As the previous article explained:
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 coach. 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 big question, of course, is “Will it work?” Valve has a lot of things going for it, but a lot of other things that could still go wrong. Fighting their way into the living room, where consoles are king, will be a tough fight even for a proven leader in PC games. Monday’s reports gave a lot of insight into how Valve seeks to tackle these challenges, but also how it could still blow up in their face. One obstacle looms especially large, and its one the company can’t directly control. I’ve broken down some of the pros and cons revealed by recent reports on the Valve Steam Machine, with the cons listed below.
–Consoles are competitive. Just ask Nintendo, whose recent Wii U went over like a lead balloon. This month will see the release of both Playstation 4 and the Xbox One, the latest consoles from the two industry leaders. Anticipation is high for both units, and they will be premium 2013 Christmas gifts, whereas the first Steam Machines aren’t expected to hit the market until Summer 2014. The new Sony and Microsoft consoles work more like PCs, and hope to attract more independent developers like those working through Steam. And while Steam has its 65 million users, IHS Screen Digest says there were over 238 million consoles in homes last year. “They only way they sell it is to give us a reason why we need it,” Michael Pachter, an analyst for Wedbush Securities, told Bloomberg. “If they make every game work better with this OS, that’s great, but I don’t see how it becomes a big threat to the console guys.”
–PC sales are down. PC sales reached their peak in 2011, but have been declining since. More users are adopting tablet devices or smartphones for tasks that once required PCs, or waiting longer to replace their old machines. This year, PC sales are expected to drop another 9.7-percent. Given their dominance in mobile and tablets, Valve co-founder and head honcho Gabe Newell has openly admitted Apple is a bigger threat to the company’s plans than existing consoles. “If you pressed us to say, who are the players in the living room who could curtail what we’re trying to accomplish,” Coomer told Wired, “we spend probably more time thinking about Apple and the success that they’ve had upending the PC space with tablets. They could bring a lot of energy to bear on the living room, more than they have.”
–Hardware costs are still a mystery. The Steam Controller isn’t likely to be expensive, but no one knows how much Steam Machines will be. They are likely to be comparable to PCs, since they essentially use the same parts, which means only the low-end ones will probably be comparable in price to consoles. Users seem pretty devoted to the existing Steam platform, but their devotion will have to be very intense for them to make the financial investment required, which will be at least as that for a new Playstation or Xbox.
–Big games won’t be exclusive. This is a pro for gamers, but perhaps a con for Valve’s potential success with Steam Machines. Upcoming games like Half-Life 3 or a new Portal sequel may be optimized to work best with SteamOS, but they won’t require it the way Half-Life 2 required Steam. “(Locking Half-Life 2 to Steam) may or may not have been a good idea, given the condition Steam was in at the moment,” Valve’s Doug Lombardi told The Verge. There is no denying that having an exclusive and highly anticipated Triple-A game like a Half-Life sequel would do a lot to ensure adoption of the new OS, but Valve is saying that’s a no-go, as it would defeat the purpose of developing an open platform in the first place. Lombardi says, “It’s against our philosophy to put a game in jail and say it only works on Steam Machines.”
–Not every game will be perfect for the controller. Though any game playable with Steam should be playable with the controller, even Valve’s own games are not always an ideal match. Speaking to IGN, Valve’s Eric Hope used Valve’s free-to-play MOBA game Dota 2 as an example. That game is simply too complicated, at too fast of a pace, to be played on anything but traditional PC input devices, especially a keyboard. “We have an internal joke. You can play Dota with the controller; you just can’t win,” Hope told IGN. “Unless you’re playing against everybody else who has a controller, and then it’s a tractable problem.”
–Valve’s not making the Steam Machines. The Steam Box is an impressive prototype, but only a prototype. And when those 300 units are shipped to testers, Valve is planning to quit the business of building gamer rigs. Instead, they plan to partner with 3rd-party PC manufacturers, who won’t be revealing their models until this the January 2014 Consumer Electronics Show. In fact, Valve is not yet ready to even announce the names of any partners, just as they aren’t talking about price-points. Not all the boxes will have the same specs as the Steam Box, in fact it’s possible none of them well. Basically, Valve just built the Steam Box to show it could be done, and those who want one of these console-style PCs will have to trust one of the other companies, not Valve itself.
–Most games don’t work on Linux. This is the big one. SteamOS is based on the Linux operating system, which represents a risk. When respected industry stars such as Id Games’ John Carmack expressed doubts about the SteamOS plan, the main concern was often the fact that the platform is based on Linux. “It still seems a little bit dicey to me, getting everything moved over to Linux, pushing from that side of things,” Carmack said at Nvidia’s recent conference in Monteal. Almost all PC games are made to work on Windows, and a few also get ported over to Mac, but right now the number of Linux games are small. Of the 3,000 games on Steam right now, only a tenth or so work with Linux at all, and they’re not the games most people have heard of. Many of Steam’s devoted users are likely to want to give the new OS a try, but not if they can’t play most of their favorite games, and the financial investment required to get a Steam Machine will be even more difficult to justify if there isn’t enough software support. Part of the reason the Linux issue is likely the biggest sticking point for Valve’s plan is that it is out of their control. Publishers will either create custom Linux/SteamOS versions of their games, or they won’t.
Despite the potential drawbacks, it is important to note that using an open base like Linux is the point of the whole initiative. As inEpic’s Sweeney explained at the nVidia conference, “There’s a lot of fear from the major publishers, and the major developers, of being tied down to platforms that are ultimately controlled by Microsoft and Sony, or others. “Absolute control over certification is scary and their control of econgress rules out possibilities where we would like to have direct relationships with our customers and they prevent it.”
Valve is betting that the desire for openness will make developers and publishers want to get on board. Newell has recently called Windows 8 “a catastrophe” for game developers, and PlayStation 3 a “total disaster.” Closed platforms have been an added layer of difficulty for developers as long as they’ve existed, but there have been few other viable options, given their ubiquity. This is Valve’s bid to change that by becoming a player in that space but keeping Steam completely open. One big-name game, the first-person shooter hit Metro: Last Light, has already been ported over and was tested by reporters. And the growth of Mac popularity has also helped. Valve’s Anna Sweet indicated that if you have already created a version of a game that is Mac compatible, “you’ve done a lot of the work that’s required to move to … Linux.”
However, while Valve indicates many developers are anxious to port their games to SteamOS, they couldn’t announce any yet. In fact, many questions remain unanswered. Just as they were unable to name software partners, the hardware partners who will build Steam Machines also couldn’t be revealed. And price pointsalso remained a secret.
But with all the uncertainties, Valve also has a lot working in its favor. And if any player in the PC games space could make this move work, it would be them. It is hard to imagine anyone else even daring to try. In the same quote where he expressed his doubts, Carmack—who was proven wrong in his early criticisms of Steam last decade—also the company’s unique position clear. “If it were some other random company I would be pseudo-scornful,” he said. “But it’s Valve, so I’m not.”
If you read the negatives first, now click here to read about the positives of Valve’s ambitious plan in the first half of this article, Valve Steam Machine Pros and Cons – First the Pros.
By: Jeremy Forbing