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Steam Machines: The anti-consoles that are just late to the party

Gear & Gadgets Screenshot - 1153808

After a line of vague teasers in 2012 and a rumor flare-up in recent months, Valve has thrown all its hardware cards on the table with the reveal of Steam Machines and their companion software, SteamOS, to be released in 2014. The former, as stated by its announcement page, will be a varied line of gaming systems available in multiple models with differing specs, while SteamOS, as its name implies, is an operating system “built around Steam itself.”  Together, the two are a living-room PC gaming experience straight from Valve that incorporates a new touch-based gamepad, the Steam Controller, the digital distribution powerhouse that is Steam, and the ostensibly open architecture of Linux into one heaping pile of game. However, as it stands now, Steam Machines are inconsequential.

New hardware contenders are usually worth noting, as they are the only wild cards in the otherwise trichromatic race between Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. With that said, Valve is coming from a uniquely disadvantageous position and is attempting to break into a market polarized all but to the point of impregnability. What’s more, Steam Machines are bogged down by their inability to choose between being a PC or console experience so heavily that they wind up as a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.

Steam Machines

The army awakens.

Consoles are characterized by a predominant focus on gaming, compact design made possible by streamlined hardware, and unrivaled simplicity of access and use. The PC, as a gaming platform, is lauded for its raw computational power and the resulting visual fidelity seen in games, its open-ended structure allowing for player mods and adjustments, and upgradeability as a system, which allows its architecture to remain dynamic whereas consoles invariably stagnate. Valve is clearly aware of this distinction, and is seemingly aiming to hybridize the two with a line of Steam Machines, which allow users to “optimize for size, price, quietness, or other factors” and access “the nearly 3,000 games on Steam” and “in-home streaming.”

Theoretically, the idea is brilliant. However, it’s also one that already exists in the form of PC gaming — a venue with which Valve is all too familiar. From its freeform operating system to its diverse infrastructure, nearly every aspect of Steam Machines is already available in your average gaming PC. A potentially valuable focus on SteamOS has already been thrown out, as users can, in fact, run another OS on their Steam Machine. At that point, Valve’s only remaining saving grace would be a competitive price.

SteamOS Features

Unless, of course, these sell anyone.

If it looks like a gaming PC, upgrades like a gaming PC, plays like a gaming PC, and is priced like a gaming PC, it’s a gaming PC. Adding the term “living-room hardware” to the mix amounts to approximately nothing, as does SteamOS, since Windows operating systems are already perfectly viable for accessing and running Steam network. The Steam Machine line, as it stands now, does absolutely nothing to advance gaming and adds nothing more to the industry than a name — excluding its wonky controller, of course.

But it’s coming down the pipes anyway, so let’s look at target markets for the little boxes.

Ironically, Valve, a company notorious for its “avoidance” of a third anything, is looking at three potential markets for Steam Machines: PC gamers, console gamers, and the grey area between composed of hesitant gamers on both sides of the fence — gamers who are either intimidated by the prospect of building a PC themselves or not entirely sold on the appeal of traditional consoles, who are also presumably without a gaming system.

While it flies in the face of their adamant refusal to offer more of a select few IP, this demographic lineup was evidently enticing enough to push Valve over the edge and into the hardware business. Of course, unless they’ve never heard of extended HDMI cables and harbor an innate hatred of keyboards, PC gamers won’t be torn away from their current rigs and screens, so let’s just focus on the latter two.

In order to win potential PC owners over to the Steam Machine side, Valve would have to offer a consumer-friendly and cheaper gaming system that also has access to the same titles as gaming PCs. Barring PC-exclusives, that is a verbatim definition of console, which means Valve will be forced to rely on price and PC-only titles. The latter is irrelevant; all platforms tout their own unique IP, and if those are enough to sell a user on a Steam Machine, they’re enough to set them up with a regular PC as well. This leaves price alone, which leads us into console user territory.

Steam Controller

It also leads us to gamepads, which this is, apparently.

Surely there are console gamers who’ve long wished to play PC's many exclusives. Similarly, there are plenty of console owners whose friends play on PC, which creates multiplayer appeal. For this reason, console owners who currently don’t own a capable gaming PC would prove to be the biggest demographic for Steam Machines. Further sweetening the deal are the system’s in-home streaming, family sharing, and media libraries that resonate well with console functionality. However, Valve is still doomed to run headlong into the inherent contradiction between low cost and upgradeability.

If users want to make full use of their Steam Machine by upgrading it, even if the original price tag beats out PS4 and Xbox One, Steam Machine’s prime competitors, users will still spend into a range that could easily buy them a fully-loaded gaming PC, or, more pertinently, both next-gen consoles. After all, competitive video cards run anywhere from $200-$350 depending on their manufacturer (which Valve has yet to distinguish between regarding supported tech), with top-tier GPUs touching on four digits. This is to say nothing of the fact that Valve has elected to announce their first system while the entire industry is on the cusp of a new console generation, and most gamers are picking a new platform based on their current platform.

It’s irrefutable that SteamOS and Steam Machines will be “open,” if only in the sense that their design philosophy is rife with holes and bleeding logic quicker than a fanboy console debate. Much like Nintendo’s 2DS, the two are a needless intermediate between already established systems. Unlike the 2DS, however, Valve’s brand has no foothold in hardware. That's not to say that it's without a trump card; Valve just needs to push Steam's archive of exclusive titles and hope for a big splash. But we’ve already seen that promises aren’t enough to sell a product, and as it stands, Valve could be gearing up for an enormous flop.

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Austin Wood
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