So, reports are that Valve is ‘quietly’ removing links to Steam Machines (SteamBoxes) from Steam.
Most of us saw this coming years ago; whilst many agreed with Gabe Newell’s commentary on Windows 8 being “bad for PC Gaming” at the time, the direction in which Valve as a company decided to take the fight to Microsoft was baffling. Here were PC Grade machines, in small form, running on SteamOS (a Linux-based system) costing more than your typical games console. The idea was with console gaming, and Gen-8 in particular, running aground on technical and socio-political spiky rocks that there was space for ‘another way’.
Of course, we know now there isn’t. Or at least, not right now. The Ouya could have carved out a decent niche – but it didn’t. OnLive arguably had a solid idea with game streaming (I’ll be writing about that in a few days) but it couldn’t really survive in a market still predominantly driven by physical media. Even VR is struggling, with sales so poor that VR Headsets are seeing deep price cuts in order to shift them.
The problem wasn’t even really the idea of a “Steam Machine”, it was the half-arsed and half-baked approach. The Steam Machine was, ostensibly, a games console running its own firmware/operating system. And there was certainly at the time a very strong belief that the Valve brand – in late 2013/early 2014 as this began then unmarred by a slew of unfettered rubbish – was enough to make a significant impact, particularly as Microsoft and Nintendo had effectively fallen at the first hurdle. There was definitely a time and a place for a big company like Valve to knock at least one major player out of the industry for good.
But rather than commit to one model, with one price, Valve spread the load. It licensed its OS and brand out to a variety of PC Manufacturers like Alienware, and expected them to effectively do all the legwork for them.
Two points there; one, why would Alienware promote a sub-par “console-like” system when the majority of its profits were ostensibly in making expensive (but admittedly powerful) PC Gaming rigs? Whilst no-one will admit it out loud, I’d wager good money that the profit margins on a Steam Machine, after Valve had swallowed its cut – no doubt up to 40% – was minimal at best, and the real money was still in their higher mark-up PC Gaming rigs. It made no financial sense, almost as if Valve didn’t really believe in the concept.
The other point is perhaps the most obvious; having a console-like PC is all well and good but the virtue of a PC is in its modular genes. Hell, I can put together a PC. Replacing parts isn’t difficult – a graphics card is effectively just take one out, slot one in. A CPU is trickier, but it’s not unduly challenging. With Steam Machines being priced very close to that of actual PC’s, at $600 at the lower end, the question was simple; why buy a poor facsimile of a PC? You couldn’t upgrade a Steam Machine, because they were designed to look like consoles with very limited internal space left. Space being a premium for PC Gamers.
No-one wants to talk about actual sell-through, but as I understand it, about a year after Steam Machines hit proper – sales figures were under 500,000 units. Come on, even the Wii U managed three million in its first month or so! I reckon Valve, by this point, would take the Wii U’s 13 million units straight-up and follow with a hearty “No thanks, I couldn’t possibly have any more…”.
That’s not to say it was an outright cataclysmic failure.
The Steam Controller seems to have been a hit; it’s a decent controller if a bit weird but everyone I’ve spoken to who has one quite likes it. Steam Link isn’t doing much better – but it has a functionality that some may like, kind of like a Fire Stick or such. It’s a niche audience, but it at least exists.
And SteamOS continues to chug along as well; Linux Gamers must have scarcely believed their luck when Valve hooked into their thing to run actual games, considering Linux was never really that well supported on a gaming front. Whether SteamOS is in widespread use… eh, I’m not sure and there are no figures for me to even hazard a guess on, but it has at the very least served an audience that can now play modern gaming releases on their Operating System of choice. So that’s certainly a plus point.
And the HTC Vive… actually, let’s not go there.
The thing we come back to is simply; why didn’t Valve commit? With two major console market players effectively on their knees, why didn’t Valve go in for the kill? A simple, straight-forward gaming system with a set hardware model, a decent OS and the ability to tap into Steam’s storefront would have made Valve, at that point, a dangerous threat to at least one company if not both.
You can fill in your own answers, but mine is – Valve, like many, didn’t understand the nature of the console market. Inexperience and perhaps nerves effectively kept them from making a deeper mark on the landscape, leaving them to come up with a compromise that served no-one very well and one that in the long-term made no sense. Heck, whilst Valve may be reportedly removing links to its Steam Machine page, Steam Machines as objects have been dead a good year or so by now. No-one is really making them anymore.
This shouldn’t matter though. Valve isn’t the first company to try and muscle in on the console scene – Panasonic tried it, as did Mattel, Philips, Casio, Bandai (yup) and Daewoo (no relation, I know it’s confusing) amongst many, many others over the years. And of course we can cram in Atari and the Ouya here as well.
But Valve seems to be in a sort of mini-identity crisis. It has struggled to curtail the worst excesses of developers on Steam, it’s been silent on a game development front for a while now (like so many, still waiting for Half Life 3. Oh so patiently…) and now even indie developers are bailing the Steam storefront, finding greater success and prosperity on things like… well… the Nintendo Switch.
The Steam Machine being effectively dead shouldn’t matter. But that it took this long before the penny dropped for Valve is quite worrying (not least that no-one is making them). With a variety of issues with developers on Steam (not all are pleasant people), the only thing that seems to keep it going is that for PC Gaming, most give out Steam Keys as a matter of course. Humble Store does this, for example, as do a few other stores. But that feels like a tenuous grip at best.
So yeah, goodbye to the Steam Machine. An idea that was conceived at the right moment, but lacked the proper execution to really do anything – and that kind of left Nintendo to come back with the Switch.
I’m not going to say “I Told You So.”
No, I’m really not going to say it. But I am thinking it REALLY LOUDLY…