Valve’s Steam Box: a true console contender?

Steam Machines 2

Valve’s trio of recent announcements – first details of Steam OS, its hardware beta and controller – has added an extra sense of the unknown to the future of videogame hardware. Though the face off between PS4 and Xbox One continues to attract the greater number of headlines, Valve is deliberately and defiantly steering clear of that particular race; it has become a platform holder, like Sony and Microsoft, but a most unconventional one.

Steam’s all-encompassing presence in the PC games market has spurred a renaissance that few would have foreseen years ago, when consoles were the dominant force and the death of the PC was forecast by so many. In fact, we’re seeing a complete reversal of that trend, says one research specialist.

“In the battle being fought between consoles and PCs at the moment, the PC is winning,” Kantar Worldpanel analyst Jules Williams tells us. “Console game shoppers switched £3 million of their spending to the PC this year, which has meant that declines in computer game sales have been far less severe than other platforms.

“Shoppers have switched to PCs because at the moment the PC offers better graphics and a wider range of games at lower prices than its rivals. The only downside for PC gamers is that often playing on their computer involves leaving the comfort of the living room.”

That is, of course, where Steam Box comes in. Games Investor co-founder Nick Gibson says that there’s potential for two types of console here, “a SteamOS streaming device” and “A fully specced PC running SteamOS.”

“Given that Valve is known to be working with multiple potential manufacturers, it seems likely that there will be a range of SteamOS devices that will span a very broad price range depending on functionality,” Gibson tells us.

And it would be a mistake for that all-important price to be too far north of PS4 and Xbox One, says Size Five Games’ Dan Marshall, developer of Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please. “Given the wealth of ‘LOL no’ comments I’ve seen about Piston’s $1000 price tag, I’d be surprised if they didn’t shoot for something extremely competitive with the next gen consoles,” he tells us. “If they can undercut them, they’re laughing. Given that Steam makes all its money through game sales, I’d be tempted to suggest that might happen.”

Chris Wright, CEO and co-founder of GamesAnalytics, agrees. “It’s absolutely essential that Steam Box delivers a truly high-end gaming experience to live up to its [potential] high-end price tag otherwise it is going to face an uphill battle,” he tells us.

So if industry wisdom places the Steam Box’s price in the same bracket as PS4 and Xbox One, it is tempting to believe that Valve’s Steam Machines are designed to seduce longstanding console players away from traditional platforms. But that’s not the case, say our analysts. “I think they are mainly going after Windows and the PC gaming community with the promise of a super efficient, free, dedicated games computer OS and better performing games,” says Games Investor’s Gibson. “In this scenario, the Big Picture TV functionality is a nice but corollary benefit.”

GamesAnalytics’ CEO Chris Wright agrees, but highlights a very different challenge for Valve’s play for the living room. “Steam Box’s biggest threat isn’t PS4 or Xbox One but the fact that having a dedicated gaming box in the living room is fast becoming a niche and outdated concept,” he tells us. “Players increasingly want to play wherever and on whatever device they choose, be that on a bus, a lunch break or at home, online, on mobile or on console.

Valve has created an incredible distribution platform that has revolutionised how people get PC games. This is an incredible achievement and something they need to leverage. However, going from a software platform and turning it into a hardware platform seems like a backward step.”

Indeed, though plenty of industry observers have hailed new, more open games hardware designed for the living room as the console market’s second coming, Ouya has made little impact thus far, beyond a few excited indie developers and embarrassing gaffes. There’s very little buzz around GameStick’s launch later this month, and Mad Catz’ own effort, Mojo, launches in December for £219.99 / $249.99 – a price unlikely to attract either an impulse buy or tempt players away from proven contenders PS4 and Xbox One.

“These were never going to be anything other than niche devices catering to an audience that represented a subset of a subset of gamers,” says Gibson of the microconsole market. “They therefore began life with a very limited addressable market. Those that have launched have met with a muted response because their software offerings have simply not been compelling enough, although the mixed reviews of the hardware have also not helped.”

Steam Box “could well kill off the likes of Ouya and GameStick altogether.”

Valve’s game hardware has an obvious advantage over those consoles in the form of Steam’s ready-made player base. “A Steam Machine is probably well-placed to compete with Sony and Microsoft a fair bit, but I suspect could well kill off the likes of Ouya and GameStick altogether,” says Marshall.

There’s also that daring new controller; an utterly fascinating prospect. Its “super-precise haptic feedback” and “dual linear resonant actuators” – responsive trackpads, in other words – could yet offer the kind of disruptive jolt to established practices Nintendo once offered in its Wii and DS heyday.

“I think that the new controller is a necessary risk if Valve is to properly support its Big Picture functionality, as traditional gamepads are simply not suited to many games and even some entire genres,” says Nick Gibosn. “From the early feedback, it seems they have created something that works pretty well. However, it is such a novelty that gamer scepticism is completely understandable and will only be dispelled when players have had a chance to try it for themselves – another challenge that Valve faces.”

Dan Marshall sums up the developer response to date: “Looks brilliant – I’m confident there’s no way they’d release something shoddy, or something that doesn’t work absolutely beautifully for games. They’ll have focus-tested the damned thing for years, right? There’s no way it’s a dud. I’m looking forward to tech-minded indies getting their hands on it and making something specifically for it, that’s when it’ll really shine!”

It also solves a longstanding problem on PC, says Chris Wright. “It’s an interesting device and something PCs have historically lacked – a good dedicated controller.”

As Kantar Worldpanel analyst Jules Williams notes, ultimately the success (or otherwise) of Valve’s push into the living room will come down to user experience and price. Games Investor’s Nick Gibson concludes that Steam Box, whatever its final form, won’t be an overnight sensation. “I cannot see it reaching a mass market or competing at the level of consoles,” he tells us. “I believe this will be a moderate niche offering for some time yet, but it has the potential to become a large niche in the longer term.”

Valve’s Steam Machines do, however, have the right component parts within their grasp: Powerful, PC-grade performance, a dedicated controller and a wealth of software. As ever with Valve, there’s an intoxicating sense of the unknown with Steam Box – one that makes the PS4 and Xbox One’s impending launches feel positively conservative in comparison.