The Neo, The Scorpio… And Steamboxes.

This is The Piston. Or a Steambox.

Oh yes, I’m going there. All hands brace for impact…


 

Sony and Microsoft really don’t want you to feel pressured into upgrading to the new generation of consoles next year.

The buzzword of the day is “choice”; you can choose to buy into a cheaper, lower-end games console or you can buy a mid-range update or if you’re feeling flush with the cash, a £500-£600 option with full 4K visuals able to run VR with its hands tied behind its back might be more up your street. In an industry and indeed, a market where software sales have seen a sledgehammer taken to their kneecaps and whose sales are still significantly lower than the previous two generations spanning all of fifteen years (#dealwithit), what we all wanted right now was choice. Because the vantage of choice has been doing great for all those games with multiple collectors and limited editions, where you need spreadsheets in order to work out exactly which one is right for you. Hint games industry; if we need a spreadsheet for that. YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!

But what Sony and Microsoft forget, or rather haven’t noticed, is Steam has already tried this. And failed… miserably.

Steamboxes, for those of you that have been living under a rock for the last few years, were Valve’s attempt at a sort of digital service kind of like Amazon Fire; a piece of hardware that allowed you to play a variety of games from Steam. They made a huge deal of it; they built a controller, they polished up a Big Screen option for those running the Steam client on their TV exclusively… you couldn’t have missed their push to get Steam off the PC and into the living room. And with the PC Market growing and Valve in such an incredibly strong position, you’d think this would have been a big problem for the likes of Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. Valve’s Steam brand is incredibly strong. What could possibly go wrong?!

Well, a lot of things – but chiefly among all of the reasons, standing out, was Valve’s own reluctance to flex its muscles and play the strong game. Rather than build a decent, respectable machine with set specifications that could play the majority of Steam’s library – Valve bottled it, instead offering small PC manufacturers the option to use the moniker of “SteamBox”, and build their own variations. And early on this was an absolute minefield – one Steambox aimed at indie-only fare came in at a respectable £200, whilst others went up beyond £1,000 and one I recall even clocking in at £2,300. And there were multiple other variations in between the two extremes, all vying for your attention.

The end result was predictable – most of us just looked puzzled. What was the point? If you wanted a machine that could play games that cost £1,000, surely you could build a PC for that? And with Windows, not SteamOS (another thing made for Steamboxes), you can do so much more and actually also buy from other online outlets like Good Old Games. Or Origin, if you happened to have an EA executive holding your dog hostage. A normal PC can be used for lots of other things – and chances are a PC built like that would both be more capable on specifications, because off-the-shelf parts tend to be cheaper than those built specifically for a machine, and can be upgraded down the road – as Steamboxes were fitting a lot of tech into a very small space, as machines designed primarily for the living room, meaning that a new CPU or GPU might not fit inside that lovely sleek case unit.

SteamBox was a failure on a marketing standpoint and a technical standpoint, and it’s hardly surprising that now we’re all more or less over the notion of a SteamBox. Valve was in a prime position to launch into a market that needed radical change and I certainly would not have minded a fourth wheel in the console market. Oh, and if we’re to accept that Nintendo’s big problem with the Wii U was that it’s name made it sound like another Wii console – what’s going to be the scenario when we want a new console next time?

Customer; “Yes, I’d like an XBox One please.”
Retail Clerk; “Certainly. Would that be an XBox One, XBox One S or XBox One Scorpio?”
Customer; “Err… on second thoughts, I’ll have a PlayStation 4.”
Retail Clerk; “Okay. Do you want the PS4, the PS4 Slim or the PS4 Neo?”
Customer; “Umm… what about Nintendo?”
Retail Clerk; “That’d be the NX right now.”
Customer; “I’ll take it.”

And I know Sony and Microsoft fans will excoriate me for that, but screw you people. This is the logic you argued killed the Wii U, and you guys are clapping like trained seals when your own choice of brand-powered company tries to make a complete hash of things? I’d point out the hypocrisy… if some of you would kindly remove your head from your bottom. I know the name of a really good proctologist!

That’s not me giving Nintendo an easy ride; hell, I bash Nintendo a lot for a variety of reasons. And I’ve conceded before and will do Nintendo’s good position right now is not because it won Gen-8; it lost, lost hard and in doing so has little option but to cut all ties with the Wii U to move on. It won’t be trying to keep the old-gen system relevant, which gives it the potential to be the preferred platform if not just for consumers who’ll at least know they got the right machine for that special Christmas 2017 present, but for developers who won’t have to worry about if a game can run on both an old XBox One as well as an XBox One S and an XBox One Scorpio; all three of which will, as I understand it, have different levels of hardware power. Yeah, I don’t think that’ll work.

And the NX has a fight ahead of it… but I can’t buy anyone who thinks Sony and Microsoft will “do better”. Because you’ve confused ‘choice’ and ‘competition’.

Choice can be confusing; as I said earlier, when games end up with enough limited and special editions you need a spreadsheet to work out what comes with what and which is the best value for money… you dun goofed. That’s not choice. That’s insanity. I want to pick up your game. Give me the option to just go in and BUY A VERSION OF YOUR GAME, not worrying about whether you’re screwing me out of a better deal!

Competition, on the other hand, pits companies against each other. Competition is what improves things; XBox pushed the Live service? Now Sony and Nintendo have their own online networks. Nintendo pushed the Analog Stick? Wasn’t long before Sony and at the time Sega were adopting it. But the reason these things are pushed at all in the first place is to have a competitive advantage on the market – to make yourself stand out, to improve your games and your hardware and to stand and watch the competition scramble to catch up. Which doesn’t always end well – ask Sony about the controller rumble thing. Just be prepared to see a corporation burst into tears. But that’s the nature of competition – find a unique selling point, exploit it hard and watch your rivals fall over themselves trying to reposition themselves in the wake of your success. Nintendo is actually surprisingly good at that game; d-pads, analog sticks, rumbles and motion controls… heck, Nintendo almost got away with the second screen thing too. Remember Sony pushing the Vita as a PS4 controller option? Or Microsoft desperately pitching Windows Glass?

Your choice should be between the brands – not the devices. You should, initially at least, be thinking; “Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo?”. And I’m perfectly okay with that, because that’s the sign of a healthy and competitive market. If there’s only one real choice, you end up with the PS4. Nice machine… but I’d be lying if I said I was thrilled with the quality of the software on the damn thing of late. I have a Wii U, which has better software… but in limited amounts, so I tend to burn through it and end up back on my PC. Mind you, the same was true of the PlayStation 2. The shovelware on that machine… wow…

When you end up with companies competing to make their console the best choice, consumers also get a better deal. Price cuts get aggressive. Development cycles get shorter as there is more pressure to one-up the competition. Services get added to. Costs fall. We, the consumers, are the ultimate winners in a highly competitive market. Whatever console you invariably choose, with or without bias, you still end up with a very good deal. And that’s great for everyone because no-one feels short-changed; no matter how pointless or stupid fanboy wars are, the point is they SHOULD be pointless and stupid. It shouldn’t be a one-sided fight.

However, if you’ve got to worry about variations on what your console is and whether you need a seperate VR headset of a 4K screen to enjoy them, you muddy the waters. That’s why Sony and Microsoft haven’t impressed me with the Neo or Scorpio; I want them to move away from the XBox One and PS4. We should be moving on. We need to forget Gen-8 ever happened, it was a mistake. And it’ll be an even bigger mistake if, with the kind of hardware that could really drive competition in the market – two of the biggest names in the field decide that their super-powerful new-gen consoles are for nothing but 4K upscales of XBox One and PS4 games. I don’t want the choice; I want competition. I want them to compete to make their consoles and games the very best they can be; how can you do that juggling two or three variations of hardware?

As for Valve… well, it’s still got the PC Gaming scene pretty much cornered. Which as a Consolation Prize is perhaps the better deal, seeing as how rapid the growth of PC Gaming has been the last four years or so. The SteamBox had potential; but it was mired by a company that wasn’t prepared to go for the kill, worried about its image or perhaps worried about costs and marketing. Had Valve had the balls to go for it, I’d have applauded it too – anything that will give Sony, Microsoft and yes, even Nintendo a slap around the face gets my vote. But too much choice and too little focus aren’t good for sales and definitely not good for progress.

After all, to end this on – I’m all for 4K being the new thing. I really am! But if there’s no impetus to upgrade to new consoles for new and better games… why would I buy a 4K screen when I can get the same games, with the same content with fairly similar graphics on my current consoles and television set? Gamers the world over saw HD as the time to upgrade to it; video games made HD the thing it is now. It had that power. And it has the same power to push 4K as the standard to follow – making us go out and push forward a new generation of hardware on two market fronts.

But if you give us the choice between what we have right now and an £600-£800 outlay on a new console and 4K screen? Well… I don’t know about you, but with no special exclusive new-gen games, I can think of much better things to spend up to £800 on. The industry depends on us not hitting that logical point; it’s a knife in their sales. But right now, I concede, the only console that might be able to push me to 4K is the Nintendo NX. And we don’t really know if that’ll be true native 4K either yet.

I just hope Nintendo doesn’t do 1080p and 4K versions of the NX. At that point, I really will show the console market my middle finger and stick with my PC…

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