Steam console: the big picture

Steam console: the big picture

Steam console: the big picture

New console rumours are, more often than not, fleeting. Such is the stranglehold of the ‘big three’ platform holders, it’s difficult to take seriously any new contender’s claim that it could join, much less supplant, the established club. But this year we’ve seen two concepts surface with credentials credible enough to threaten a disruption to that status quo: the Ouya, and Valve’s Steam console, apparently codenamed ‘Steam Box’.

The recent furore surrounding the $99, Android-based Ouya, and the remarkable support it has received through its ongoing Kickstarter campaign, has rather overshadowed the initial excitement generated by unconfirmed reports earlier in the year that Valve was planning to bring Steam to the living room with a dedicated console of its own design.

That’s hardly surprising, of course, given Valve’s uncommon ability to keep a game industry secret until it’s ready to reveal the finished article, and Ouya’s very public rallying cry to independent developers sick of hardware manufacturers’ strictures. And, speaking to Kotaku in March, Valve director of marketing Doug Lombardi moved to quash the rumours.

"We're prepping the Steam Big Picture Mode UI and getting ready to ship that, so we're building boxes to test that on," he said. "We're also doing a bunch of different experiments with biometric feedback and stuff like that, which we've talked about a fair amount.”

He didn’t entirely dismiss the possibility, however, saying that Valve was “a long way from…shipping any sort of hardware." In an interview with Penny Arcade a month earlier, however, Gabe Newell made it clear that if there were a need, Valve would take the initiative.

“If we have to sell hardware we will,” he said. “We have no reason to believe we’re any good at it, it’s more we think that we need to continue to have innovation and if the only way to get these kind of projects started is by us going and developing and selling the hardware directly then that’s what we’ll do.”

So if the rumours circulating are in any way representative of the company’s eventual intentions, what might a Steam Box look like? Unlike Ouya, there’s no clear design concept for the Steam console, and, according to sources, the slightly disingenuous ‘Steam Box’ name actually refers to software capable of running on systems built by a number of hardware manufacturers, the specifications for which Valve will define. While that might draw some worrying parallels with the ill-fated 3DO, Valve’s modest, and non-bespoke, opening component gambit – Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and an Nvidia GPU – together with Steam’s formidable existing presence give the company a considerably more robust foothold from which to launch.

"We'd rather hardware people that are good at manufacturing and distributing hardware do it," Newell told Penny Arcade. "We think it's important enough that if that's what we end up having to do, then that's what we end up having to do."

There are rumours, too, that Alienware’s compact, gaming-focused X51 has already been designed with retroactive compatibility in mind. With respected names like Alienware in the picture, the setup begins to look a great deal less risky.

Alienware's X51 is the closest thing to Valve's rumoured Steam Box to date

Like Ouya, the Steam console would be an open development platform, with no licence fees or expensive SDKs, and be capable of running existing PC titles. Exactly how many of the games currently available on Steam would be compatible from launch, however, is less clear. For the greatest coverage rate, Valve’s console would presumably have to run a Windows OS with some kind of stripped-down, bespoke GUI upfront.

But Valve also confirmed Steam Linux earlier this month, having successfully ported Left 4 Dead 2 to Ubuntu, a lightweight and more flexible OS better suited to the kind of open-source creation being mooted by Ouya. Either option presents potential headaches when it comes to ensuring compatibility, suggesting that Valve may have to offer an even more carefully curated list of games if a Steam console does emerge.

While it’s easy to dismiss the Steam console as a Valve-branded PC, the standardised specifications would allow for console-style stability and a level playing field for developers of all sizes. Sources point to a publicised hardware upgrade cycle of three to four years, offering further clarity to PC developers used to having to cover a vast range of hardware specs and manufacturers. Of course, it’s unlikely that the arrival of Valve’s standard on the scene would dissuade developers from courting owners of more traditionally upgradeable machines, but it would provide the impetus to create an optimal, if not maximised, version of every game and could take focus away from maxed-out visuals. That thought may well send shivers down the spines of gamers used to the benefits of keeping their gaming rigs on the bleeding edge.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop players building their own Steam box at little expense based on the device’s final specifications and taking advantage of Big Picture Mode to hook it up to their own TV – and there are already plenty of PC owners out there who are more than happy with their current (and likely more powerful) rigs. Communicating the value proposition of a Steam console is perhaps the biggest hurdle Valve would face. But that will all depend on what price Valve and its manufacturing partners could offer such a device at, and if it was positioned right, there is undoubtedly a market for PC gaming without the associated hassle – or required technical knowledge – to maintain a working, and up-to-date, system.

And that market is exactly what a Steam console would target, and not, necessarily, the established tech-savvy PC userbase. Console gamers tiring of the protracted life cycle of the current gen and the restrictive, closed environments offered by platform holders are clamouring for change – a fact underlined by Ouya’s reception, and to a lesser extent, the success of Raspberry Pi. Both have demonstrated that there is a great deal of interest in mid-priced, open source hardware.

But despite the high-profile names behind Ouya it remains unproven, while Raspberry Pi’s educational focus gives it a separate appeal. Valve’s pedigree, however, and pure game focus – especially if combined with hardware manufacturers of similar stature, like the aforementioned Alienware – combined with the growing desire for revolution in consumers would give a Steam console instant appeal.

While Valve’s staunch denial of any such hardware being on the horizon is more likely genuine than misdirection, Ouya’s more imminent arrival, if successful, could provide a precedent to accelerate any schedule Valve has in mind. But even if the company sticks to its glacial ‘Valve Time’ pace – or, indeed, never releases a Steam box at all – Valve is already creating a future in which its service sits comfortably in the living room through Big Picture Mode. This, together with Ouya’s open-source threat, is beginning to outline a potential future in which Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are no longer the dominant players in the console space.