While Valve’s fleet of Steam Machines may be laying the groundwork for some massive future shift in console and PC gaming, in their current form, it’s hard to think off too many reasons to run out and buy them at release. They’re expensive, are limited to the games you can buy on Steam, and often duplicate the functionality of an already-owned gaming rig or console. What’s the appeal, and to who?
Many of these questions remain to be answered, but what’s clear is that Valve isn’t trying to create a console that runs their service and their service only. During a reddit AMA, Gabe Newell spoke about how he wants the machines to be truly open to even rival companies like Electronic Arts:
This would solve one of the major problems with the idea of a Steam Machine. Though Valve has a huge stable of games in their Steam library, big publishers like Ubisoft and EA often use their own independent clients for players download and play their games. A Steam-only machine would not only lack big name console-specific exclusives, a staple of the Wii U, Xbox One, PS4 and pretty much any home console, but they would also be behind in the release of many large third party games that are not on Steam.
But if EA could run Origin on a Steam Machine, or Activision could distribute its Blizzard titles through a Battle.net application, that would be a huge leg up for the Steam Machine over its competition. Valve’s “console exclusives” could then become games like Starcraft, Hearthstone, League of Legends and more. Obviously there’s the keyboard/mouse/Valve controller issue to sort out after that, and the idea that if players wanted to plug in their PCs to their TVs currently, they already can, but it’s at least a step in the right direction.
A Steam Machine can’t just be a Steam box, and it’s good Newell and Valve realize that. It needs to be more or less a full PC, but one that’s easily customizable by those who don’t say, build their own gaming rigs or install multiple operating systems on their computers. If it’s too technical to truly make a Steam Machine open, their audience will be limited to avid PC gamers who already own expensive rigs and have little incentive to purchase and build an entirely new one for their living room.
To succeed, a Steam Machine needs to be a cheap but powerful living room gaming PC that can do pretty much anything a normal PC can. So far, from what we’ve seen, the different models certainly have “powerful” down, but “cheap” remains elusive, as many are over $1,000 and the bottom barrel price for a unit is $500. That’s as much as an Xbox One, the most expensive console of this new generation. But if Valve works with EA, Ubisoft, Blizzard, Riot and others to ensure a fully PC-like experience in the living room, the Steam Machine might end up being worthy competition to traditional consoles after all.