Kami On… Why I think a “Steambox” is a pipe dream.

This is what we think of when we hear "Steambox", no?

Everyone got very excitable over the prospect of a series of ‘Steamboxes’, machines dedicated to the sole purpose of running Steam and its games. Except, harsh reality may also need to kick in for some of these people because there are lots of problems to come before this becomes truly noteworthy…

 

Kotaku would have us believe that the announcement of Valve getting behind machines dedicated to running Steam would be a threat to the console industry.

In actuality, there’s a lot more to it than that, and I have to admit I am a little sick and tired of this inherent rush to claim that consoles are dying/handheld games are dying/PC gaming is dying and so on and so forth. There’s almost an inherent blind lunacy that accompanies any new hardware release – unless your company name happens to be Nintendo, by which case you are considered fair game before you’ve even had a chance to get out of the changing rooms and into the pool. Look, let’s get this cleared up. The Nintendo 3DS at last check had hit 27.03 million units (not at all bad), the X-Box 360 and PS3 are almost neck and neck in terms of sales after a long and often bitter tussle on the market, the Wii-U is selling ‘okay’ and Steam sales have doubled this year.

Congratulations! No-one is dying!

But on that last point, let’s get one thing clear; Valve may be the dominant force on the PC in terms of its digital presence, and Gabe Newell may have the kind of market influence that most Bond villains would be envious of. But the Xi3 Piston, the first in a series of third-party machines dedicated to running Steam and its Big Picture Mode on your average TV, is not exactly what you’d call an attempt to undermine the console gaming industry. On the contrary, the hardware on which it is based costs $1,100 before tax (It will be cheaper without Windows and the like, but it’ll still be prohibitively expensive whichever way you slice it), and that’s an awful lot for a system running Linux that to date can only run in theory 41 of its extraordinarily large database of titles. And I say in theory because the actual hardware may not even be able to run some of those, despite the fact those 41 titles are primarily indie games. You see, Gabe Newell isn’t a fan of Windows 8. He’s spoken about it a few times – calling it both a disaster and a great sadness. So okay, he’s not a fan of Windows 8. Quite a lot of gamers and PC fans aren’t. It’s a bit too clunky and a bit too fiddly at times to be a true Windows heir. But this means that Steam is starting to target Linux as a potential means of differentiating. I doubt they will ditch Windows altogether – there are still plenty of us running Windows 7, far too many to so willingly toss their custom aside.

Of course, Linux brings with it some interesting questions – whilst it has been at the bum end of the gaming spectrum and I am sure that the appearance of Valve is music to their ears, remember that Linux is an open-source platform extolling the virtues of sharing and experimentation. Valve is a commercial monolith; a gigantic Capitalist monolith that has been growing rapidly over many years. For all the desire to see gaming and Valve come towards their operating system and take advantage of the community that comes with it, the fact is they are taking advantage. They won’t be ditching their Windows support regardless of what Gaben thinks about Windows 8, Linux is simply another market to get into. And crucially, for a Steambox, it’s a cheap operating system. It comes with caveats, of course, but ultimately there is little cost involved in getting the OS into the box, because it is open source. And therefore, free. Well – depending on the version of Linux you use. Some come with extras which they are allowed to charge for, after all. But the point is that for all the impassioned debate the last twenty-four hours, I can’t help but think this is a dirty quick-fix solution for a Steambox, and a commercial expansion for the PC market. There is an undercurrent of seedy exploitation, Linuxploitation I shall call it, and Linux users may want to be exploited. I’m sure they’d fall over themselves to have Valve start pitching more games their way. But I can’t help but wonder if this is really the right way of going about it.

And let’s be fair – even the Mac has support for about 500 games on Steam. It’s very early days for Linux support, and I doubt it’s going to be a smooth transition.

It’s not just the whole Linux thing that bothers me either.

I’m sort of also wondering how you can juggle having many versions of an actual machine – now, I know that all PC’s are inherently different but I suppose that’s the nature of the PC architecture; it varies from household to household, but to have a ‘Steambox’ as a direct threat to games consoles you need a specific amount of standardisation, and this is clearly another problem that Valve will have. You see, the upcoming next-gen of gaming consoles isn’t exactly one giant leap for gaming-kind – all signs point to it being a particularly tiny step forward and more of a massive sidestep to the left in order to start doing new things and developing new means of selling product, much the same as the Wii-U really. Each machine and each inherent hardware revision from that original design concept follows the pattern of maintaining the status quo of which is started; the same technical specifications, but perhaps developing form over the years rather than focusing on function. They get cheaper over a five or six year space of time and the hardware gets pushed and pushed and pushed.

Valve knows however that there is a growing trend of PC games revolting against this however – freeing themselves from the shackles of the console architecture floodgate and pushing to use new waves of hardware. This goes for Mac, Linux and Windows users. How can Valve contemplate a machine which, in terms of performance, will have to either be shackled into the same old console trap or, more worryingly, move into a space which is currently owned and indeed, dominated by Apple? With less functionality at that. On the one hand you’ll be frustrating a growing wave of developers itching to take advantage of the new PC architecture and finding themselves being arbitrarily limited by a specifications cap, to allow a Steam library to grow. On the other, you’ll be frustrating the consumer who may wonder what is the point of this new limited hardware when a base PC is cheaper and more accessible, not to mention better functionally?

And then you come to exclusives.

All the major console makers right now – Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo – have a raft of exclusive first-party games. Valve arguably also has first-party titles as well – but if they find their way to the PC, or Mac, then they’re not really “exclusive”. You’re not going to see another Halo or any Gears of War on a PC. Microsoft know that in doing so, they would cannibalise a huge portion of their own X-Box 360 market. And yes, Sony via Sony Online Entertainment do have games on Steam, but equally have plenty of titles in their pocket – God of War, Ratchet and Clank, not to mention inFamous and Gran Turismo. Nintendo obviously have the behemoths – Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Donkey Kong and that’s before you mention having their own special variant of Final Fantasy in the Crystal Chronicles vein – then Pokemon and various other handheld exclusives too. Indeed, this year sees both Sony and Nintendo expand their exclusive range – Sony having Beyond: Two Souls and the profoundly gorgeous The Last of Us, whilst Nintendo has Dragon Quest X and Bayonetta 2 amongst rumours of Eternal Darkness set to make a reappearance after a decade away.

In comparison, Valve do have various first-party exclusives – Half Life, Portal and Left4Dead – but to say Valve take their sweet time with them would perhaps be doing a disservice to the passages of time. For as much as we talk about third-party support being great for games consoles, truth is that really you’re not buying a games machine for the third-party support. It HELPS, no doubt about that, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting plenty of support from the industry. But ultimately, if your sole decision is based on that then you may as well buy a proper PC anyway. No, let’s just admit it. We buy consoles for the games we can’t get anywhere else. I want to play Zelda, Bayonetta 2, Eternal Darkness again. So I got a Wii-U, knowing they will come. Likewise, I will buy a PlayStation 4/Omni for its exclusives – God of War, Uncharted, Ratchet and Clank and so on. Microsoft – well, okay, it’s first-party stuff doesn’t always grab me but I still play Halo and Gears of War, as much as I gripe about the quality of their narrative being the atypical English Nonce on the Internet.

And notably, these games are put out there because the companies know they need to get them out there. Valve have demonstrated over the years a clear statement of intent whereby it kind of takes its time with certain things. As much as the market wants Half-Life 3 and Left4Dead 3, perhaps even a Portal 3 (not sure about that myself but y’know, stranger things have happened!), Valve have a reputation for being rather slow and coy. This frustrates the PC Gaming crowd – Valve even knows it frustrates them. Now imagine a standardised Steambox where you buy it on release and have to wait the full five years before you get the new Valve games. Simply put, it won’t work. Steam did a lot of things right as a marketplace on the PC, but in the world of under-the-telly gaming, it counts for nothing. Unless Valve are serious about committing to a first-party line-up as well as committing to a hardware specification (something again it seems rather coy to extrapolate on), then it stands no chance compared to dozens of console franchises which frankly dwarf its own sales.

This isn’t to say a Steambox wouldn’t be desirable, or interesting, or fascinating. But everyone talks about it being a “Steambox” and “It’s Valve!” and they miss important issues. Getting into the ‘console’ market (by which I mean, a box under the TV) is very hard and often prohibitively expensive. The Ouya still has yet to prove it can do what it promises, remember – it may be cheap, very cheap. And it may be a great place for indie devs and for pushing Cloud services. But remember that the console industry has seen the fall of Sega, Atari, Panasonic and Neo-Geo to name but a few – and the handheld world has seen more casualties than that. Microsoft getting involved was possible only because that initial push was a financial dump – Microsoft knew to gain presence and market respect it had to spend, spend, spend and Microsoft is of course one of the few companies that has the money for that to be possible.

The markets are different. There’s no doubt in their own sphere, Valve are huge giants on the landscape of gaming, but right now, people are rushing ahead of themselves – and I’d also suggest Valve may be rushing ahead of itself without considering that there are cheaper alternatives available to them. That there are nicer ways of going about it that might bolster the industry, rather than stake any amount of money trying to reinvent something that is already more or less reinventing itself as we speak! Although a Steambox might have one advantage – that is, pushing a much better digital download service than the current crop of consoles wants to offer, for fear of pissing off the retail industry and being told to go away but even then, people will simply go online for the hardware, meaning as much as retailers may hate this slow march, ultimately it’s one they have to find a way to adapt to or find themselves shoved aside as the big three suddenly realise they have the power and the prestige and the market share to ultimately do whatever they want. When they realise this, the idea of a Steambox will seem utterly redundant – a completely pointless object, pushing a limited architecture with an OS that will need a lot of work and investment to get to standards which the consumer expects.

The problem isn’t that Valve are actively encouraging the idea of Steamboxes. The problem is that as an object – the Steambox is resolving a problem that ultimately will end up resolving itself anyway. Even at $500, the painful reality is for that money you can make your very own Steambox – a PC – with stronger parts for ultimately a lot less. And yes, perhaps it will be bigger, and a little more noisy, and a little less aesthetically pretty. But you’ll get more for your money, get more functionality and have access to a wider array of titles from Steam than you would get from a Linux-based Steambox.

Everyone is caught up in the shiny moment of, “Wow, this is a cool new gadget!” And I’m sure it is a cool new gadget. And I’m sure there’s a market for it. But unless Valve is prepared to nail things down and spell out how it intends to revolutionise things, then it can revolutionise nothing. I am so tired of hearing how these things will do such amazing new things and then in reality these amazing new things are so utterly niche that you might as well be buying a walking stick made of chalk. It looks cool stylistically but the minute it rains, oh dear, it’s ruined. Congratulations. How much did you pay for it again?

Valve does a lot of things right. But it does a lot of things wrong, and supporting a Steambox branding I fear is only an instrument to further highlight how utterly removed from the realities of the hardware market Valve have become. I can appreciate and even wax lyrical about how much I’d like a Steambox shaped like a Companion Cube. I could even remark that I think the sales format in Steam is absolutely one of those things that Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft need to be looking at, seriously contemplating how important it is that the consumer is put first – you can’t have a fixed digital presence that has no give. It’s a waste of time and money.

But to have a console-like presence next to or under my TV, I cannot and could not overlook a multitude of sins Valve are responsible for. Valve may be looking, like Microsoft did with the Dreamcast (remember, the Dreamcast ran on a Windows-based OS!), for a route into the market. It may well eventually find a way in, and find a way to get itself in a position to disrupt the market. But this won’t be with a mythical Steambox. It will have to happen with a focus on hardware, software – first party as well as third party – and affordability. Everything that ultimately could jeopardise the Steam platform for the PC market, pushing people towards – dare I say it? – Origin, or a similarly PC-focused alternative that won’t be too troubled about concerns over cross-machine compatibility.

I just can’t see it working. Not now. And perhaps not ever. A Steambox is a fantasy – a dream, a conceptual reality filled with rainbows and bunnies and unicorns and lakes of chocolate milkshake.

The realities? Valve really aren’t a company I can see in the hardware space. Because, truth be told, they’re a commercial retailer nowadays above being a games developer. Getting into the hardware space means spending lots of money on R&D and hardware, and an equal amount actually making your own quality software to attract people.

Steam is expanding into Linux because it’s another market. It’s supporting these Steambox-ideal machines like Piston because it’s another market for them. At the base level, in the cold light of day, these are not consumer-orientated decisions. They are commercial opportunities to generate more income revenue from a wider rage of Operating Systems and machines. It’s capitalism, plain and simple. And sure, Valve have the consumer on their side – they need to for this kind of aggressive expansion. Let’s just stop trying to glamorise it with Steamboxes and Gabe Newell’s opinions on Windows 8 and Big Picture Mode. It’s business – clever, cold and calculating.

The Steambox concept is a means to an end. It won’t take off because it is so inherently flawed – good, better or best? Puh-lease… but hey, perhaps that’s the point at the end of the day. It has us all talking.

So, whilst we’re here Valve, can we perhaps discuss Half Life 2 Episode 3… or Half Life 3?

You know, the games we’ve been wait for now for… oh, some years…

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