The Valve-spearheaded project looks to be as much an attempt to distance PC gaming from Windows as it is a push into the living room. Valve, the makers of games like Portal 2 and Left 4 Dead, has spent years focused on hardware research and design, and the Steam Machine and its various peripherals are the first major fruits of that labor.
While disrupting a market is often a noble—or at least newsworthy—pursuit, the Steam Machine doesn’t appear to offer anything that would lure many console users away from their preferred systems, or PC gamers away from their PCs.
Ultimately, I think the Steam Box will command a strong niche and little more.
1. Variety is not a selling point. Console gamers have essentially three choices to make when purchasing a video game system: Xbox, PlayStation, or Nintendo. Each of these brands consists of more than one offering, but the basic choice is between a simple three. The Steam Box will not be a “fourth way” so much as a fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh way, ad infinitum.
This is because there will never be one Steam Machine, but rather myriad different Steam Machines built around Steam OS. These will range in price, form factor, and manufacturer. Essentially, they will be gaming PCs that run Valve’s own version of Linux and are set up for Steam’s Big Picture Mode, an updated Steam UI which makes makes the service more accessible on an HDTV and via a gamepad.
Console gamers, as a whole, prefer the simplicity of the choices they already have, often picking a brand and sticking with it, knowing that the system is the same for everyone. If you play Call of Duty on Xbox One you can rest assured that everyone else is on an even footing in terms of graphics, controls, and so forth.
This will not be the case with Steam Machines, which will have wide-ranging horsepower, different inputs, and so forth.
Frankly, I still can’t figure this one out beyond “the enthusiast.”
PC gamers are largely content with the systems already available, which often double as work stations for other, non-gaming tasks. A good chunk of Linux enthusiasts might show up for a Steam Box, if only because it makes Linux-based gaming convenient, but many others will likely prefer their own favorite versions of Linux.
And while some PC gamers may opt to purchase or build a Steam Machine either as a primary or secondary gaming system, it’s trickier to see nearly as many console gamers making that leap. To make a real dent in the living room wars, Valve and its manufacturing partners will need to somehow convince console gamers to spend money on a new system that doesn’t really offer anything new. Since it’s already perfectly possible to set up a gaming PC with your TV, I have a hard time seeing what will compel these gamers coming over in droves.
3. Price is still a problem. Just like variety isn’t necessarily a selling point, a wide price range for these machines is also problematic. It’s nice to know that everyone pays the same dollar amount for a PS4. Your friends’ PS4s are all going to cost $399 just like yours, and each of you will have the same hardware when you open the box.
But Steam Machines could cost as little as a few hundred dollars, or well over a thousand dollars—just like a PC. How will gamers know which one is the right one to buy? What price point is the “right” price point? The convenience of a console isn’t just the ability to hook something up to your TV and play with a controller. It’s the unity of the platform, and price is a big part of that.
Console gamers are pretty much tapped out at the $499 price-point the Xbox One costs, whereas PC gamers often spend much more than that. What will be the ideal target price for a Steam Machine, and how will consumers be privy to that information?
4. Four’s a crowd. The Steam Machine(s) is also a latecomer to a crowded party.
We keep hearing about possible disruptions to the video game industry from various new bits of tech. The Android-based Ouya console was supposed to come in and disrupt the market, landing at just $99 replete with emulators and hackability. But, so far, it’s failed to catch fire.
Other enthusiast devices like nVidia’s handheld SHIELD are just that: enthusiast devices that can’t truly compete against consoles, handhelds, or mobile. So far, nothing on offer from the Steam Machine is novel or compelling enough to penetrate an already crowded market.
The only thing that’s truly disrupted the console business in the past few years has been the rise of the smartphone and the tablet. But even these haven’t made as much of a dent into the market as many predicted, in spite of the fact that basically everyone owns one now. The Steam Machine will not have the same kind of reach.
5. No true exclusives. Last, but not least, is the fact that there will be no true Steam Machine exclusives.
Everything you can play on a Steam Machine you can play just as easily on a Windows-based PC. As much as people hate exclusives (that they want to play but can’t because they don’t have the right console) exclusives are what drive console sales. Sure, other factors like the quality of online networks, friend-lists, and gamepad preference all influence consumer decision-making, but exclusive content is key.
And unless Valve decides to no longer make games for Windows, it’s hugely unlikely that we’ll see any true Steam Machine exclusives. Even if Valve did take the very risky step of releasing Half Life 3 (if they ever do) on Steam Machines only, I can’t see it being enough to radically alter the video game landscape.
Meanwhile numerous major IPs are released exclusively to each of the big three consoles from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, ensuring that the only place to play these games is on this specific hardware.
There’s nothing at all wrong with the concept of a Steam Machine. As a niche product that gives some gamers a better living room PC set-up, it’s great. But don’t expect the Steam Machine to drastically alter the industry anytime soon. Steam has been around for years, and while it’s had a huge impact on PC gaming, it hasn’t revolutionized how games are distributed or priced in the console market. (Granted, I believe the consoles are moving toward something similar to Steam, but not necessarily as a direct result of competitive pressure.)
New hardware with essentially the same exact service won’t change that. Tech and gaming enthusiasts, as well as journalists who spend a lot of time thinking and writing about this stuff, are often entranced with the new and with the promise of an endless supply of disruptive technology.
But I think it’s far more likely that the Steam Machine remains largely on the sidelines of the living room wars.