Valve revealed 13 Steam Machines this week, the latest move in its quest for accessible PC gaming. But the pitch is worryingly complex, argues Matt Martin, and Gabe Newell should be putting his money where his mouth is.
Steam Machines are segregated by price point, by tech spec, by model and manufacturer. They don't seem to be solving anything. Worse, they could be creating more problems.
Since it was officially announced last year, Valve's Steam Machine initiative has been one of the most intriguing prospects of accessible PC gaming since streaming service OnLive. The intention is attractive: a hassle-free way of playing high-end desktop games through a combination of standardised hardware, a dedicated and simple operating system and an intuitive controller. Unlike OnLive, it's coming from a company with incredibly strong heritage in the PC gaming business, a company that has defined and refined digital games sales and made some of the greatest PC games in existence. This is Valve's most ambitious project, something we applaud. Valve is a leader, not a follower. You will not get Half-Life 3 until this is entrenched in the living room or abandoned in defeat.
I buy into Gabe Newell's philosophy of openness, competition in the marketplace and accessibility. I really do. But an esoteric controller isn't any more accessible than a console pad with multiple buttons, sticks, pads, microphone and speaker. It's just as intimidating. (You can read Phil Owen's hands-on impressions of the prototype here). And if the controller looks baffling or formidable, each Steam Machine manufacturer is free to create their own version of it, alongside Valve's 'official' take. That could mean at least 14 variations on one controller design.
Sounds fiddly. But the controller isn't the main problem that Steam Machines will face. There are multiple price points ranging from $499 for those on a 'budget' to $6000 at the high end. I say 'budget' because $499 may be cheap for a PC but it's not cheap for a high quality games system. And those are just the prices so far. More manufacturers and different prices are going to confuse the issue as they're announced.
It's the same problem with tech specs: is my budget-priced Steam Machine going to be under-powered? Yet again, it's the classic PC gaming worry - the fear that you'll pay a stack of cash for something that will be out of date within a year.
Will prices come down in the longer term? To a point, but Steam Machines won't be made in bulk by one manufacturer. They will become cheap when they're discontinued, not because massive sales can help bring prices down. They're never going to be built in bulk like consoles, smartphones or set-top boxes.
And here's something else that bothers me. Why isn't Valve making its own Steam Machine? When you introduce something new, you should lead by example. Newell should be the one shouting "charge!" as he rides out on an overclocked beast, swinging his sword at Microsoft and Sony. But instead he stands at CES and pulls drapes off 12 different boxes, speaks for all of seven minutes and lets his manufacturing partners fight it out among themselves. Maybe Valve's much-praised flat management structure is at fault here. As well-liked as Gabe Newell is in the gaming and PC community, he's no spokesperson or evangelist. That can be a good thing (he's not a gobshite, after all), but here Valve's notorious 'throw this at the press and let them do as they will' attitude isn't enough to sell the vision.
Perhaps understandably, there's no official release date or window for the Steam Machines. They'll trickle out with some fanfare, but you're either first or best in the hardware market. First will get all the big media attention and best won't be known until much later. The rest may as well be doorstops.
I understand PC gaming is at an all-time high. It's leading the way in digital distribution, in independent success and creativity, in online multiplayer, modding and visual fidelity. PC gaming is in rude health. But Steam Machines in their current guise won't increase accessibility. Steam Machines are segregated by price point, by tech spec, by model and manufacturer. They don't seem to be solving anything. Worse, they could be creating more problems.
Surely, if Valve's aiming at the TV games space, Steam Machine should have been on sale before PS4 and Xbox rebooted the generation with an eye-watering 7 million sales since November?
But whatever the worries with hardware, any platform is about the games. Of course it is. Newell claims there's about 250 titles running so far on SteamOS and Valve is busy working on developer tools so developers and publishers can create across Windows, Linux and Mac. This is great, but, again, where's the problem that needs fixing? Steam already has 65 million users. Who's going to be buying into this?
If SteamOS is the real Steam Machine draw, I'd question the audience. Is SteamOS aimed at the hardcore gamer who wants a pure PC gaming machine? He probably already has one. This is an audience that has been building its own dedicated gaming rigs much cheaper than an off-the-shelf solution for years. The PC gamer is one of the smartest, most switched on consumers in the games playing community. He knows when it's being asked to pay through the nose. Is he going to drop extra thousands on taking his PC experience to the TV when everything he does involving games is based about his desktop?
It's also worth remembering that PC gaming may be going through a golden age, but PC hardware sales are tanking. Are Steam Machines aimed at the lazy games consumer, the PC gamer wannabee not interested in making his own PC from scratch but with money to spare? If so, this is Valve's big gamble. Steam Machines, many of which resemble the ugly PCs of old, are releasing in a declining market. Tablets and laptops have taken the place of the traditional home computer. Valve is the biggest player in PC gaming but going up against hardware manufacturers like Sony, Microsoft, Google and Apple in the living room it becomes much smaller with only one (albeit very desirable) unique selling point - Steam. I'm not underestimating Steam (the whole initiative's built on it), but surely, if Valve's aiming at the TV games space, Steam Machine should have been on sale before PS4 and Xbox rebooted the generation with an eye-watering 7 million sales since November?
And if the window for a Valve box under the TV has been missed, so, apparently, has the opportunity to simplify PC gaming in general. What's missing is a unified, compact piece of kit, a small set-top box that simply plugs into your TV and comes bundled with the funky controller. Imagine one of those micro-consoles, but instead of playing a ropey Android clone of a good iOS game it's streaming Half-Life straight to your TV screen. Keep imagining.
The situation has the potential to be cripplingly disappointing. I want TV access to those PC experiences consoles just can't do; the bug-laden alpha builds; those cool indie games only ported to Vita 18 months after everyone else has played it; the triple-A game modded to within an inch of its life and spun out in so many amazing directions; the experimental, inventive, highly ambitious and downright incredible experiences I can't find on any other device or service.
I'm not sure Steam Machines can deliver that to me yet. I'll keep the faith, but Valve's performance at CES has been worryingly loose.