Opinion: The Future Of Steam Machines Is A Little Foggy

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?

Maybe not.

Valve Logo

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?

Valve2

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?

Steam Controller

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

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20 Comments

  1. Those of us with gaming PC’s that really care about the visuals are already enjoying the couch experience while playing.

    I can’t speak for others but it wasn’t all that hard to find a HDMI cable long enough to go from my PC to my TV, and steam already has Big Screen mode(tm). Wireless keyboard/mouse and a 360 pad.

    I guess the success or failure of a steam machine comes down to marketing. And if Apple can make as much money as they do with their overpriced crap, there is no logical reason Valve couldn’t do the same.

    • Indeed same here, although I use a (better) Logitech controller in 360 emulation mode, since it has the buttons in the correct (PSX) layout. Just going to take on the Apple comment, it sells to the people who buy it simply because it works. If Steam had locked down the hardware specs in the same way as Apple then they may have had a similar chance, as it is there is fragmentation and the potential for variable experiences, I will be very surprised if it does not end up almost as bad as the Android ecosystem and it will be far from the homogeneous environment that powers the whole Apple cult.

      • If it’s any help, the PS4 controller is becoming more and more supported. It’s natively recognised on the PC (for Dying Light) and didn’t even require nasty MotionInJoy drivers that I used to have to use for the PS3 controller.

        Imagine my delight when the game even recognised the touch-pad! :-)

      • @bunimomike Worth knowing, thanks :) I gave up trying to use a PS3 pad on the PC because of those drivers :) BTW, the Logitech one I use is very similar in size and weight and identical in layout to a PS3 pad, but it has onboard firmware which reports itself to the PC as a 360 pad, meaning you can use the same Microsoft drivers as the 360 pad. Full compatibility with anything that works with a 360 pad, but with the buttons and sticks in the right place :)

    • I have a gaming PC (or at least a PC powerful to game with) and I’m happy with it away from the TV area. Consoles for the TV, PC for the monitor. However, I agree with the fact that the article (and yourself) mention that the PC fans have already sorted that out and would be very slow (or even non existent) to move across to a Steam Machine.

      Regardless of the teething troubles that console manufacturers historically have with the first year or so of gaming on their respective platforms, the ecosystems these guys have set-up is vast. Someone trying to dive into this and steal a slice of the gaming pie has to back up their hardware with some serious infrastructure.

      This is why we see so many failures over the past x number of years. Hell, Apple is a hugely profitable company and I don’t see me itching to buy their home console that’s equally powerful to a PS4. Why? Because it doesn’t exist. It’s obviously something that isn’t floating Apple’s boat right now.

      Best of luck to all newcomers but remember, it’s the ecosystem that keeps it alive. Not just some overpowered hardware that promises better anti-aliasing and some extra bells and whistles.

      Top article, Matt.

    • Like Plutonium said, Apple may be overpriced but their products simply work and they are supported for years (not just until the next model comes out). Plus, they are unrivalled when it comes to design and build quality.

      Anyway, where Smartphone’s are concerned at least, aren’t most flagship models similarly priced these days?

      Galaxy S6 32GB : £579

      iPhone 6 32GB : £619

      • If you compare specs for those two phones you will see that the S6 has ALOT better specs. The iphone 6 hasn’t even got a quad core processor, and it only has 1GB of ram compared to the 3GB the samsung has. That what is meant by overpriced. You can get alot more for you money but people stick with Apple just because of the brand.

      • People often stick with Apple for smarter decisions than just simple brand loyalty. However, we’re digressing terribly. The point of the matter is that entering the home console market is a massive undertaking. Apple could afford to do such a thing but profitability is probably far better in other markets (including mobile, obviously).

      • Does annoy me when people compare spec only for these comparisons to state which one is better value. I had iphone for about 6 years until my current phone which is the note 3. Now I’ve loved every one of the phones including the note 3, however I’m 50/50 on going back to apple (now they have the larger screen) because no matter what the spec is the apple software (ios) was better (in my opinion), I’ve learnt the app store is far superior on ios and it just doesn’t crash as much.

        To some extent they could add a billion processors onto my phone and it wouldn’t make the experience any better – it’s what I use it for that matters.

        This is the exact same argument between the Xbone and PS4 in my eyes. Its the content far more than the slightly faster spec for me.

        This is my problem with the steam box too. It’ll be all about content and as far as I’m aware I can get the majority of the content on my PS4 or PC. There doesn’t seem to be a point for me to get an Xbone or a steam box. Or is there?

      • I want to hug your reply, Stonyk. :-)

        Same here. An Xbox One is way, WAY off seeing as my PC covers many “console exclusives” that the PS4 won’t get.

      • Is it brand though? Sure the specs on the S6 are obviously better (and that will be great news for a small percentage of smartphone users) but the iPhone 6 isn’t some awful, cripplingly slow device that people carry around with them just because it makes them look good. Has that ever been a reason people buy iPhones?

        I think the reason people stick with Apple is mostly down to build quality and great software. They want something that’s going to last, be supported for years and keep it’s resale value. A phone that’s simple to use, free of bloatware and does exactly what the average person needs it to do. Not because it make them look cool.

  2. I just can’t see a large enough market for this, sure they’ll be the “Alienware crowd” and similar who will buy into it, but mass appeal seems unlikely. I don’t even have any plans to install SteamOS on my current gaming machine, as given decent hardware Windows 8 actually does a pretty competent job with gaming, IMO. Do like the look of that controller though, ( assuming Windows support of course!) maybe that will be the takeaway success story from this.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with your analysis, Matt. I already own a PS4 and an Alienware PC, so what’s my motivation to buy a Steam Machine? As far as I can see, there really isn’t one.

  4. I agree with you Matt, I just can’t see Steam Machines catching on. Steam Link on the other hand, looks like a no-brainer for people who want to play on a big TV.

  5. Is that middle image in the article from some Valve promotional material? Pretty glaring typo if so.

    • Well spotted. That’s a howler!

      • Compatility is a very important factor when making hardware purchase decisions. It’s also very hard to type into Google to see exactly how common a typo it is. Especially when Google asks “Did you mean compatibility?”. No, I didn’t mean that, surprisingly. The one time someone actually did mean compatility, and Google goes and makes a wild assumption that I might have meant something else. Like, you know, something which is an actual word, and not just some half-arsed attempt at spelling that ended once most of the letters were there in what was probably the right order.

        (Incidentally, about 43,700 results. Compared to 170,000,000 for spelling it properly. So it’s spelled wrong 0.026% of the time)

    • Well spotted!
      We’ve got a big development going on near our office and no-one has seemed to notice that the sign says ‘Devolpment Project’ until I point it out to them. Each letter is about 5ft big!

      • I once had a job where I had to produce purchase orders for 9 inch clocks. Once you’ve done 1 wrong, it becomes almost impossible to get them right ever again. Never acknowledge how amusing your own typos are, or you’ll be doomed to repeat them forever.

  6. Steam already supports in-home streaming to another PC. People have set this up using fairly low-end miniPCs connected to their TVs.

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