This changes everything: Valve enters console race

Wednesday, 9 January 2013 09:38 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Gabe Newell has confirmed Bigfoot, a Valve-made, Linux-based, console-like Steam box. Pay attention, says Patrick Garratt: the TV games market is about to be shaken to its “core”.

The joke surrounding Steambox has always been that of Half-Life 3 launching as an system exclusive and just how funny it’d be in terms of hardware sales. Who’s laughing now?

Valve will enter the living room games market with hardware it’s codenaming Bigfoot. The news ends nearly a year of speculation on the firm’s intentions for the console space, and could be the single most significant move in “video gaming” in the past decade.

Bigfoot, the only official name for “Steambox” we have at the moment, won’t be alone. Littlefoot (whatever that is) will cover touch and mobile devices, providing a complete home gaming solution for PC, TV and portable, all glued together with Steam. Valve head Gabe Newell said yesterday that Bigfoot’s controller won’t include motion controls (Wii Sports has already done it, apparently), but biometric feedback could well be related to the pad. The words sounded more Nintendo that Valve.

Newell’s admission comes at a telling time. Microsoft could be on the cusp of announcing the next Xbox – some rumours are suggesting you may get a first look at it a lot sooner than you think – and there’s little doubt Sony will use E3 in June to start seriously talking about the future of PlayStation. Valve is coming. Assuming Gabe can keep the price down, there’s every chance you may never need to buy into Microsoft or Sony hardware again.

Entry point

Valve’s entry into the console space bears stark similarities to Microsoft’s arrival with Xbox in 2001. Japanese firms Sony and Nintendo were in absolute control of consoles at that point, and it was unthinkable that a fresh approach, especially from the US, could make an impact. The chink in the market’s armour was then largely based on cultural aesthetics (that console games were made by the Japanese and the PC approach had no place on the TV), but this time the perceived normality of content delivery, specifically that it’s based on the sale of discs, has gifted Valve, and the apparently infinitely ambitious Gabe Newell, an access point. Steam is about downloading. It’s amazingly popular. Its approach is about to be taken across every screen in the home. Bigfoot will challenge the perception that the video games industry must sell itself on Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo’s premium disc model for another generation. Given Steam’s dizzying success and the explosion in subs-based music and video streaming, we already know that, for many, discs have been dead for years.

Then there’s the Steam library, an Alexandrian effort in comparison to XBLM and PSN. Thousands of games for less than $10. More than 50 publisher catalogues. Seasonal sales which bring “PC” versions down to single-digit euro levels. The impact on traditional retail and current supply chains could, in theory, be seismic. Valve’s already said it’ll sell Bigfoot to consumers itself. It doesn’t need shops. And if you have a fast internet connection, neither do you. Newell’s announcement today means that unless you want to play certain exclusives, PlayStation or Xbox may be about to become unnecessary.

The main unanswered questions regarding Bigfoot are related to date, power and price. If Valve can keep Bigfoot’s cost down to a sensible level, it probably won’t be able to make units fast enough, but there’s a chance it’ll be expensive. Also, we don’t know the spec. We all know how much users, especially console users, obsess about grunt. Lastly, we could be looking at something that won’t arrive for years, in which case the next traditional generation will have time to properly settle before Valve takes its shot. Newell’s already said there are no plans for a 2013 reveal.

Regardless, where some of the core audience was gearing up to buy into 720 or PS4 yesterday, today it’ll be waiting for Bigfoot. This is real: Valve is to launch a living room video games machine.

The joke surrounding Steambox has always been that of Half-Life 3 launching as a system exclusive and just how funny it’d be in terms of hardware sales. And here we are. Who’s laughing now? Bet your ass it isn’t Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo.