Daily Reaction: Is the Steam Box Really a Next Gen Competitor?

Things are getting steamy in the console market, with PC-gods Valve planning to release a ‘Steam Box’ that could dominate your living room. But are people getting all hot and bothered over nothing, or is this the next big thing? Daily Reaction wipes the condensed water off of our crystal ball and discusses the future of gaming.

Seb: Boom. Talk about big news – this could very well be a huge success, have tons of users and change the way people play. But it’s not going to kill the PS4, I’ll just get that out of the way right now. Same goes for the next Xbox as well.

If you don’t know what the Steam Box is, I’d suggest reading this great interview by The Verge, although we’ll go over all the key features in this DR. The main thing that you need to know is that it’s a living room-focused, console-like, Linux-based PC created by Valve. They haven’t talked final pricing, but Gabe Newell said that they’re looking into the possibility of 3 versions – “Good, Better and Best.” Good could even be as cheap as $99, better around $300 and best will only be limited by how much you’re willing to spend. The $99 version is planned to act simply as a streaming device from your PC, however, so it’s more of a gamer’s AirPlay than an actual console.

We here at DR have seen several challengers to the living room throne be announced since we started this daily column, but we weren’t impressed by the likes of Ouya, and we weren’t impressed by the likes of the Game Stick. This is different.

Valve aren’t a small fish, they’re a behemoth in the games industry. Steam dominates PC games distribution with over 50 million users, and they already have over 500,000 people using Steam’s recently released Big Picture Mode – a mode that makes Steam look awesome on your TV, so that’s already a foothold in the living room. They also have a decent amount of money to throw around if they so wish, with an estimated equity of $2.5 billion. Oh, and they make games like Half-Life and Portal. Essentially, they’re what you get if you high-score Game Dev Story.

Perhaps the biggest factor to how successful the Steam Box (I prefer GabeCube) will be is purely how much money and capital Valve put behind this. Unlike with conventional consoles, there isn’t a significant need for Valve to ensure this is a runaway hit, they can go slow and experiment if they wish. While the PS4 and 720 need to sell a certain number otherwise publishers won’t make games for them, the Steam Box is a PC, and publishers are already making PC games. The only reason it needs to sell a small amount is to get support for the specific controls it uses, but that requires far less investment than a console port for developers.

Still, no matter how much Valve puts behind this PConsole, to many this will always be a PC. It’s not going to be fixed hardware, it’s not going to remain the same. It’ll be upgradeable, and you’ll have to deal with all the issues of compatibility and buying new tech. Those people will not buy this, and they’ll remain loyal to the console. They don’t want their gaming device to have a half life.

The target market for this is the people who own a PS3/360 but are also big Steam gamers, which is actually quite a large market. With the right specs, the right support, the right price, the Steam Box could certainly capture a sizable proportion of that market.

Dan: Well it is obvious that Gabe does read Daily Reaction, given he has seemingly responded to the majority of the issues we raised in our earlier DR. The Steam Box has the potential to become a driving force for the gaming industry, but will not play as big of a role next generation as much as it will the generation after, as both the PS4 and 720 are well in development, and it would be unlikely to see either company deviate drastically with only a year left in development.

Given the technical ability behind the people who work at Steam, I have no doubt that they could create a full featured product that is capable of grabbing the attention of developers and consumers around the globe. They have been the minds behind the modified Quake engine GoldSrc, which ran Half-Life, and the later introduced Source for HL2, which have been the home of countless mods and has been one of the few titles that kept PC gaming in the public eye. Also, not to mention that they have single-handedly packaged the digital PC market in a way that even the big 3 console developers have not been able to replicate. Which means that when Valve sets themselves to do something, they do it absolutely the only way they know how – by being the best.

Last generation, Nintendo was able to set the industry on fire with the introduction of motion controls, now Valve is trying to look at how they can improve the way that we interact with games on a whole new level. First, Gabe discussed the potential of including biometrics in controllers, as the ability to get feedback from a end-user would be drastically increased compared to the current button and analog format. This would allow things like body temperature, or moisture to be analyzed, so that the game could detect stress and modify difficulty or understand the best time to introduce new challenges.

Also mentioned was the inclusion of ‘gaze tracking’, the ability for a device to determine where on the screen the person has their attention focused. Whether this is simply a matter of learning more about how to direct a person’s attention, or to create a virtual distraction so that a developer could actually create interactions when a person is least expecting it, all of which could lead to some interesting concepts down the road. Lastly, one of the other interesting things that has been brought up was the ability for the Steam Box to stream across multiple screens with a single console. Which would negate the need for splitscreen gaming, allow people to dynamically move between screens, and allow numerous devices to act as a Wii U tablet. This will even include mobile platforms with their secret “project Littlefoot”. Even though Valve is trying to evolve how we interact with games, it seems Gabe is not a fan of motion gaming, as he has gone on the record stating:

We’ve struggled for a long time to try to think of ways to use motion input and we really haven’t [found any]. Wii Sports is still kind of the pinnacle of that. We look at that, and for us at least, as a games developer, we can’t see how it makes games fundamentally better.

Seb: I think on behalf of all core gamers, I can say that I wholeheartedly agree with Gabe’s statements. Motion controlled games haven’t gone anywhere. There’s still a potential, of course, but it isn’t worth them creating their whole PConsole around it. Biometrics, on the other hand, sound rather promising, although we still don’t know what they plan to do with it:

Biometrics… is essentially adding more communication bandwidth between the game and the person playing it, especially in ways the player isn’t necessarily conscious of. Biometrics gives us more visibility.

Gabe also says that “we think gaze tracking is gonna turn out to be super important.” Now that’s interesting, because Sony has patented biometric controllers, and they’ve repeatedly patented different variants on gaze control. I do wonder, however, how much of an unfair advantage Valve has when creating their platform’s unique features, because they probably have had a PS4 dev kit for a long time, while Sony has far less knowledge about what they’re up to. Either way, Gabe’s comments and Sony’s patents potentially means that both Sony and Valve could take advantage of these features, so they’ll be implemented by more developers, not just Sony’s first party studios.

And with every newcomer to the console market, Sony’s first party teams become increasingly important. They need Uncharted, God of War, Gran Turismo as key differentiators, something that will be all the more vital against the insanely large Steam library that has both AAA blockbusters and obscure indie titles. Luckily for Sony, Valve’s ‘first party’ has absolutely no notion of keeping to a deadline.

If Valve really go full throttle with this, they could take away a sizeable number of core gamers – or at least cause them to spread their spending habits across even more systems – but those that don’t want a PC, or don’t buy stuff they haven’t seen in ads, or have their parents buy their console, those that don’t want to fully embrace digital downloads just yet, or those that simply are happy with what the PS4 or 720 have to offer won’t get this. It’s hard to know just how well it will do, given the current information known about it and the PS4, but one thing is for sure – if Valve release a $99 version, who the fuck is going to buy an Ouya?

Dan: Well there is no arguing that Valve can create a well developed PConsole, but pushing out a piece of hardware is not going to be like anything they have done before. This is all the more true given the fact that they are considering the release of 3 systems that supposedly start as low as $99, and are going to push the $500+ mark for the higher end version. Given that the lower end model could just be a streaming method running from any PC, and that the Better and Best models differ (and the Best model can differ from other similar models), it is going to be an issue for the average consumer to understand what they should buy.

When the PS3 launched in 2005, it was being sold at a loss, a decision that cost Sony 3 billion dollars by 2008. Considering that Valve is now trying to move a home PC at varying prices, the possibilities for them to subsidize the cost of the hardware is almost impossible – they may be rich, but they’re not that rich. Trying to push new hardware on the normal consumer market is going to be a hard sell as they won’t be able to eat much of the costs, and are already going to fragment their install base with multiple models. So even though this will be the closest PC gaming has ever been to the console market, do not expect to be avoiding the high price tag that usually follows if you want good graphics, or to be able to get the same experience across all platforms like on consoles.

As we have very much been awaiting the arrival of the next generation of consoles, this news from Valve only makes me more excited as a viable contender has finally risen to the challenge, and is preparing to enter the market. I only hope that consumers do adopt the Steam Box if it really does live up to its own hype, as it could make PC gaming that much less of a pain in the ass.

Could you see yourself being tempted by the Steam Box? Or are you a PlayStation gamer for life (style)? We’ve switched the kettle on, put our feet up and are prepared to annoy you in the comments below and on Twitter at Seb and Dan.

Be sure to email DR ideas, podcast comments and steamy images of your valve to [email protected].