Steam Machines will be powerful, upgradable and open – the potential is remarkable


A beta! Of course it’s a beta. It’s Valve, after all.

The next part of Valve’s Steam in the living room announcement campaign has been revealed: a forthcoming restricted beta of Valve-designed living room computer hardware. The Steam Box is coming – but what shape it will take (and what’s in it) is still a way from being shown off.

The result has been thousands of PC gamers hurriedly booting up a game in Big Picture mode in order to push themselves forward into a list of eligible beta participants. As I write this, 24 minutes after the announcement, there are 10,000 in the list already, and the Steam website’s timing out on legal disclaimer submissions. Valve will be picking just 300 for trips into Gabe Wonka’s magical hardware factory.

Mania aside, Valve hasn’t pulled the curtain back on an awful lot of extra hard information on what form the Steam Box will take, but we now know for sure that it will actually comprise a variety of “powerful new category of living-room hardware”, made by a wide group of manufacturers and with different hardware configurations.

So why would Valve run its own hardware beta? “As always, we believe the best way to ensure that the right products are getting made is to let people try them out and then make changes as we go,” reads the FAQ, along with the line that its machine is a “high-performance prototype that’s optimized for gaming, for the living room, and for Steam”.

There’s therefore the sense that Valve’s own take on the Steam Box is the gamer’s machine, aimed at the core PC user who wants “the most control possible over their hardware” – “completely upgradable and open”. Thirdparty hardware will therefore focus on other attributes, including size, price, quietness, or other factors.

It gives an insight into the many variables that need to be juggled for a computer designed for the living room, and the many values that consumers have for it. Should it be cheaper than an office computer? Does it need to be small so it fits under the TV? Should it be silent, too? How powerful is powerful enough? Valve is inviting a very public form of discussion of these attributes, a contrast to the very private deliberations that have been going on in Redmond and Sony’s studios for the past few years.

For the moment, though, Steam users’ minds are fixed getting on that list by completing a set of humdrum tasks to get the Steam Hardware Enthusiast badge by October 25, which will allow entry. As well as signing a legal form, they need to make 10 Steam friends (presumably to complicate attempts to increase chances by opening multiple accounts), make a public Steam Community profile, play a game in Big Picture mode and join the Steam Universe group.

Aside from the hardware, what will they been playing? Valve is claiming that “hundreds” of games will already be running on SteamOS natively, which seems fair: 305 Linux games are already listed on Steam, though we don’t yet know whether these games will need any specific retooling for SteamOS.

One further tidbit is that, in true Linux fashion, Valve will be publicly releasing SteamOS’ source code, which will do something to appease Linux users and offer the possibility of a proliferation of SteamOS versions alongside many version of the hardware. Perhaps we’ll see Elder Scrolls VI-focused SteamOSes, or ones built specifically for the most hardcore Dota 2  or Team Fortress 2 players, offering direct access to the game’s community and competitive features? The potential for this is remarkable.

And as for Friday’s announcement? Well, there’s a hint to that, too. Answering a FAQ about whether SteamOS is about using a mouse and a keyboard in the living-room, the reply is, “Stay tuned, though – we have some more to say very soon on the topic of input.” Valve’s new controller is incoming.