The Mysterious “Steam Box” Vents More Questions Than Answers

By: George Weidman

Three days ago a short interview between Kotaku and Gabe Newell yielded a bombshell announcement: a confirmation that Valve will be competing with the next generation of consoles from Sony and Microsoft. The interview clarifies the nature behind the rumors of a “Steam Box” hinted at back in March and sheds new lights on Valve’s recent efforts to make Steam more TV-friendly. But details are still murky as hell, and the concept itself is caked in contradictions. But brace yourselves– it’s the kind of concept that could potentially change everything, so it’s naturally a cause to question everything.

What would a Valve console look like? What would a Valve HTPC look like? Exactly where would a product like this land on the consoles-to-computer spectrum, and how different would it be from the products already on the market?

Hasn’t this failed in the past? Back in 2004, the Phantom Console was set to bring PC games into the livingroom by way of a download-only set-top box that ran on a Windows XP kernel. Users would connect to a dedicated online network that would sell downloadable games on top of a monthly fee. However, the steep monthly fee and the inevitable specter of PC hardware upgrades (which were moving particularly fast in 2004) were concepts that the Phantom never seemed to nail down. The project failed to garner enough investor money to come to life, and disappeared sometime in 2005.

The OUYA (sic) is tackling a similar idea with a drastically different philosophy. Their tiny $100 box sports internals similar to most smartphones, with an OS built on Android and a chipset based on the phone-sized NVIDIA Tegra 3 board. It’s set to deliver a quasi-mobile gaming experience onto the TV, with an online marketplace of freemium games that will probably look a lot like the Google Play store.

Unlike the Phantom, the OUYA actually managed to reach is investment goals (thanks to Kickstarter) and is scheduled to hit the market in March. However, neither console was really intended to compete with consoles from Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, nor were they designed to mimic the experience of playing Steam games on a high-end PC. Since many gaming PCs are lying out in the living room these days anyway (Big Picture mode was ostensibly developed for that purpose,) what’s the point of Valve making hardware anyway?

Is Valve developing a system that will compete with Windows? Back in April, Valve began working on porting Steam over to Linux. In July, Newell vehemently expressed his frustrations at Windows 8 and did it again a month later, saying that the company is hedging its bets on Linux. November marked the public beta release of Steam on Linux, with Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead 2 and Serious Sam 3 leading the charge.

Investing in Linux is a risky endeavor. The open-source operating system is used by only 4.8% of consumers, which is hardly a profitable audience for the big-budget AAA PC game releases. Unless the engine itself is already cross-compatible, porting games over to multiple platforms is a huge task. Obviously, not all developers will have the resources to make their game engines compatible with such a small percentage of customers.

There are currently 30 games on Steam that can run on Linux, which is approximately 1.6% of the entire Steam library. The possibility of porting them all is an unrealistic pipe dream at this point, which means that the selection for Linux customers (which would include users of a hypothetical Linux-based Steam box,) will be extremely limited. How realistic is the possibility of porting games that were written on Microsoft’s proprietary DirectX API?

Will it be a console or a PC? Towards the end of the interview Gabe slips out an important detail that shrouds the whole project in an even more questionable light:

“Valve’s hardware might not be as open-source or as malleable as your average computer.

“Well certainly our hardware will be a very controlled environment,” [Newell] said. “If you want more flexibility, you can always buy a more general purpose PC. For people who want a more turnkey solution, that’s what some people are really gonna want for their living room.”

Picture a Linux-based HTPC that boots directly into Steam’s Big Picture mode, and doesn’t do anything else. How is that not a console? The open-ended, malleable utility of a computer’s operating system is what defines a PC. After all, the closed nature of Apple’s operating system has been enough to separate it from the “PC” label, and the restrictive regulations behind Microsoft’s app store and the closed framework of Windows 8 has scared away many developers other than Valve.

Video game consoles are specialized computers built specifically for gaming (though each new generation adds an ever-increasing list of secondary entertainment features). How does Valve intend to compete with game consoles from Microsoft and Sony by closing down their system? On another note, how do they plan on competing with those of us who already have a high-end gaming PC in the living room? There’s already a healthy market of living room-size gaming PCs like the Alienware X51, but they’re certainly more expensive than the consoles. Will Valve’s box at least have a file browser?

And what about the input device? No one seems to have figured out how to make the keyboard and mouse couch-comfy yet.

Now that living rooms are oversaturated with HDTVs, interfacing with a computer isn’t the problem it used it to be. But what about those stuck with older screens?

What about those of us who just like to play games on PCs? Microsoft is limiting game development and potential on its new operating system (likeley because they’d rather have you play games on the Xbox,) and Valve is preparing to jump ship over to Linux. But all the games I know and love work just fine right here on Windows 7! Ten years in the future, will I need a Steam Box for gaming in the livingroom, a PC for making mods for games in the livingroom, a separate Linux OS installation on said PC for playing games in the office, and a separate Windows installation on said PC for editing videos and writing papers?

Will the hardware be upgradable? Will it be a closed platform? How hard will it be for developers and modders? Will I be able to alt-tab between Firefox, Thunderbird and Minecraft at the same time? What will this do to PCs? What will it do to the freedom and convenience of the most versatile gaming platform available?

1 Comment

  1. Waldo Navas says:

    Even though it’s Valve, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get it. My PC works fine.

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