It seems that iBuyPower’s Steam Machine will be the first to market, priced at $500, sized between an Xbox One and PS4 and reportedly close to outperforming both. Many are celebrating the arrival of Steam Machines as a way for the console market to open up past the usual big three, but in a way that feels more viable and sustainable than say, the Ouya arriving on the scene.
That said, the Steam Machine faces a number of hurdles in the market that it’s going to have to overcome to justify its existence. At $500, it’s no casual purchase, and it’s hard enough to convince gamers to buy a primary system for that price, much less a secondary one, which will likely be the case for many.
The Steam Machine has to…
Pull Players From Their Gaming Rigs
- While big-screen living room play is appealing, PC players who wanted to hook up their rigs to their TVs to play have had the ability to do so for years. Will they really play $500 for the privilege now?
- PC players generally prefer mouse and keyboard controls for most of their favorite PC games, many of which actually require such a set-up. What will make them converts of Valve’s thumbstick-less controller? It may function well, but better than a mouse and keyboard?
It’s hard to see what PC players would get from a Steam Machine that they don’t already have from their current rigs. They’re playing games on computer screens with a mouse and keyboard not because they have to necessarily, but because it’s their preference, and everything about the Steam Machine seems to go against that.
Pull Players From Their Xbox Ones, PS4s and Wii Us
Perhaps a slightly better proposition is for Valve and companies like iBuyPower to go after existing console players. Show a longtime console player how easy Steam is to use and how many great games are available for cheap, and you could have an instant convert on your hands. Not to mention if the system outperforms current-gen consoles, that’s another appealing factor for many. But still…
- If console players prioritized graphics above all else, they would probably be PC players.
- Part of the appeal of the Steam Machine is that it’s a somewhat open, customizable system, but that capability may be lost on console players who are used to one box that doesn’t change and simply plays all the games released for it. Can they really be bothered to learn how to say, install Windows on a Steam Machine or take it apart to install a new upgraded graphics card a few years from now?
- The Valve controller, however innovative, may be a hard sell for players whose hands have gotten used to a PlayStation Dualshock or Xbox Controller over the last decade and a half or so.
Console players like simplicity and consistency, and the Steam Machine may not exude either in many respects./>/>
Find Meaningful Exclusives
There’s really no such thing as a Steam Machine exclusive, which is something any home console needs to differentiate itself from its competition. Consoles are hugely identified with their exclusive series. You can’t think of Nintendo without Mario and Zelda, PlayStation without Uncharted and God of War, or Xbox without Halo and uh, Forza, maybe?
But a Steam Machine won’t have that at all. Valve has already stated they’re not going to make games exclusively for the console, nor restrict future releases in their famed series like Portal, Left 4 Dead or Half-Life to the Steam Machine only. And while Steam does have games that are only available on the platform, they still technically won’t be “exclusive” to the Steam Machine, as any computer with Steam can play them.
Past this, a Steam Machine, at least initially, will probably lack many big third party games like those from EA and Ubisoft, which have their own PC distribution platforms. It’s one thing to not have big name exclusives, but it’s another to be missing important third party games as well. A priority for Valve should be talking with EA, Ubisoft and others to figure out how to get their newest titles to be available on the Steam Machine at release, in addition to thinking how it might be possible to develop exclusive games for the system themselves.
Figure Out Its Marketing
Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony all have multi-million dollar ad budgets to promote the Wii U, Xbox One and PS4. But who is going to be paying to sell the Steam Machine?
While Valve is supplying the OS and Steam itself, they’re patterning with external companies like iBuyPower to actually make the machine. Neither can supply the budget to compete with any of the big three consoles, so how exactly will the Steam Machine be advertised? Will Valve just advertise it on the Steam homescreen to the hard-to-convince PC players I’ve mentioned? Will these external companies pony up money for their own ad campaigns? Will it just rely on word of mouth and gaming press coverage?
It’s also important to think about what happens when there starts being more than one version of the Steam Machine on the market. While Valve will have an interest in all of them, iBuyPower will have to start competing with other Steam Machine-building rivals in addition to the big three consoles. The small, burgeoning Steam Machine market could cannibalize itself and confuse customers if there start being three, four variants of the product on the market which all look and perform differently.
Sell the Potential, Not Necessarily the Product
This may sound like a somewhat amorphous piece of advice, but people may be willing to invest $500 into a product that isn’t exactly what they want if it at least has the potential to be down the line. For example, if Valve could promise that a Steam Machine would be able to run new Ubisoft and EA games like we’ve mentioned, that could be another pro in its column. Past that, if they said that it might be the only console capable of pairing with the Oculus Rift (which has dismissed the idea of coming to consoles) that might be a huge point in its favor.
New “disruptive” consoles like the Ouya had the problem of never really sounding like a good idea from the start. “You can play phone games on your TV!” wasn’t exactly the breakthrough people were waiting for, and so when the Ouya more or less delivered what it promised, the response was lackluster. But the Steam Machine? “An affordable, customizable living room gaming PC that uses Steam as a distribution library”? That’s a much better proposition. There needs to be some sort of combination of the last four points to create an effective marketing campaign to PC gamers, console players and even non-gamers as to what exactly the Steam Machine can do, and also what it could do in the future.