You really can’t blame all these companies for trying to pry their way into the console gaming space. It’s a huge market right now, and with the PS4 and Xbox One selling much faster than their predecessors, all the naysayers from a few years ago that predicted the death of gaming consoles are suddenly nowhere to be found. The success of the console model has brought a gaggle of newcomers into the fray, with devices such as the Ouya, Amazon Fire TV, and the OnLive Game System.
The problem with these newcomers is they’ve consistently under-delivered on the kind of quality console gamers have come to expect. Their platforms rely on either cloud gaming or an Android OS with weak hardware whose games don’t even come close to matching the kind of quality we’ve seen from the Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo systems over the past decade.
Enter Valve, who has been threatening this industry with their Steam Machines for a couple of years now. Valve has a different idea on what to do for the living room. They essentially want to pack a powerful, yet customizable PC in a console box, throw the SteamOS in on top of it, pair it with what could be a revolutionary new controller and see what happens. Sounds like it could be a win, doesn’t it?
The beginning of my skepticism comes from the console market itself. Yes, this market has repeatedly proven itself in the face of uncertainty but can it support a fourth major platform outside of the three we already have? While some of the manufacturers of the smaller Android and cloud-based consoles may be content to own just a tiny sliver of the pie, surely something with the kind of support and investment that Steam Machines seem to be garnering would have to own a much larger slice to make it worth their while.
I can’t help but wonder what this platform will offer that will pull gamers over from the systems they know and (often) love, to invest their time and money into something else. Yes, they can certainly build a more powerful piece of hardware that will make the new games look and run better than what they might have now. And yes, mod support for major games like Skyrim and the Grand Theft Auto series is very compelling. And there’s very obviously a crowd for all the neat indie games that only ever make it to Steam.
But is that enough? I could be convinced that those are all persuasive reasons to own a Steam Machine, but wouldn’t you think almost all the people that really, truly care about envelope-pushing visuals and game-changing mods already own gaming PCs?
A few months ago I would’ve countered that argument myself by saying that there are probably quite a few PC gamers out there that would love to have a console in their living room that’s capable of most (if not all) of the features they have on their gaming PC. The problem is Valve offered a scratch for that itch just this week at GDC, and they didn’t do it by selling them on the idea of a Steam Machine.
Steam Link, which we reported on recently, is a small device about the size of a large smartphone that’s meant to stream games from your gaming PC to your TV (or another monitor). It seems quite capable of the task, too, with 1080p and 60Hz visuals, and what Valve describes as very low latency. Oh, and it supports the new Steam controller as well. For $50, that sounds like a steal for anyone who games on a PC but wants the option to do it from their couch now and then.
The problem with that is Valve likely just cannibalized what could be a sizable chunk of the market that might’ve been interested in a Steam Machine. With over 140 million active users on Steam, there’s a huge contingent of people that know what Steam is all about, and they likely know that anything sporting the Valve logo probably means quality.
But would they really shell out a minimum of $400-$500 dollars (or more) for a second PC that might not be as powerful as the one they have now? Again, without Steam Link, that answer might’ve been yes. But when they can essentially just carry the potential of their current rig into the living room via a rather cheap and useful device, how many of them are going to pass on that option and go the more expensive route?
Let’s not forget that Valve are only part of the equation here. There’s very little doubt in my mind that SteamOS is going to be great on a bigger screen, and although their new controller looks very different to what we’re used to, it could end up being a positive variable that pulls people away from what they love now. But it’s third-party companies that are making the rest of the hardware. How powerful they make the consoles that are available for around the same price point as traditional consoles might play the biggest role in the success or failure of Valve’s foray into our living rooms.
This isn’t meant to be a doom and gloom story about the future of Steam Machines. Valve have repeatedly raised the bar in areas they get involved in so if anyone can pull this off, it’s probably them. But with at least twelve different hardware manufacturers making their own version of a Steam Machine, the uncertainty of a slightly different input device, and what I believe could be a small market of non-PC owning gamers that crave the advantages of PC gaming, I’m not convinced that they can.
Despite my outlook, I really hope it all works out. Valve is a fantastic company and I think nothing would be better for the console market than a new face with a great collection of software capable of exciting new things to really shake the industry up. I’m just not certain this is it.
Image credit: Polygon