Published on January 15th, 2013 | by Deejay Knight, Editor/Founder
Valve’s SteamBox Aims to Change the Game. Can They Pull It Off?
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2013 has given us a lot of cool and creative products, showing that electronic companies will consistently have new products for our consumption. While there were tons of awesome products though (NVIDIA’s Shield is one of my favorites), the one that takes the cake for me is a product that fueled a lot of conversation from gamers — the Xi3 Piston.
Today, we know it as the Piston, but being the first hardware product to ever associate itself with Valve, early assumptions were that it was the official Steam Box – Valve’s initial foray into gaming hardware. Now that Valve Co-Founder Gabe Newell has come out and spoken more publicly about what the company is doing, it’s become more apparent that while the Xi3 is exactly the sort of thing that Valve has planned, it’s not their official offering:
The way we sort of think of it is sort of “Good, Better,” or “Best.” So, Good are like these very low-cost streaming solutions that you’re going to see that are using Miracast or Grid. I think we’re talking about in-home solutions where you’ve got low latency. “Better” is to have a dedicated CPU and GPU and that’s the one that’s going to be controlled. Not because our goal is to control it; it’s been surprisingly difficult when we say to people “don’t put an optical media drive in there” and they put an optical media drive in there and you’re like “that makes it hotter, that makes it more expensive, and it makes the box bigger.” Go ahead. You can always sell the Best box, and those are just whatever those guys want to manufacture. [Valve’s position is]: let’s build a thing that’s quiet and focuses on high performance and quiet and appropriate form factors.
-The Verge interview, Jan. 8, 2013
The idea in a nutshell is a multi-tiered ‘console’ that puts Steam hardware in your living room. Newell’s plan isn’t too much different the strategy taken with the current console generation, though. Each system had multiple versions of the hardware on launch with new models releasing every couple of years, but it seems their vision includes a cheaper, low-end box that I imagine streams from your PC — if you already have a blockbuster system, of course — while still giving you a convenient box underneath your TV that isn’t the size of a small cabinet.
A key point to take from that quote is that other hardware vendors will be allowed to make their own version of it, so the Xi3 series of modular computers could technically fill every one of the tiers that Valve is aiming for, let alone the capabilities of the yet-to-be-detailed specs of the Piston.
This approach may seem like a very bad idea to some, but I personally think the concept is amazing. By having other hardware manufacturers make their own Steam Boxes, Valve is absolving themselves of the traditional race to lose money on hardware during launch and leaving that option up to everyone else. There are a few other key points about this type of system that could be beneficial or detrimental to the implementation of the Steam Box.
Let’s have a look at some of them, shall we?
It’s been a standard for the last couple of console generations for the companies involved to produce an expensive and powerful machine, which results in that company losing money on each console sold. If you’re talking about a system that isn’t being subsidized by a single company, that subsidy would lie with the company creating their own version of it.
Definitely a smart way to keep from sinking untold amounts of money into such a project.
Since we’re talking about Steam, there’s a ridiculous amount of games already on the service. Rather than adding backwards compatibility to a new architecture and raising the cost, games on Steam have been coded to work on PCs, so there are decades of games available for purchase already.
For anyone who’s participated in any of Steam’s seasonal as well as daily sales, you need no explanation as to how mind-bogglingly great some of their sales can be. The Walking Dead: The Game‘s entire 5-episode saga could be grabbed last summer for $15 at one point, which is almost half off the original price. Compared to Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network, Steam has prices locked down in comparison to the other two, which may have benefits to gamers in the form of better sales from Microsoft and Sony.
Here’s the kicker: with a system in place that lets companies make their own hardware, there is always room for adjustment and/or upgrade a couple years down the line for less than the price of a standard console (especially if the tech behind the Xi3 becomes the standard). If Valve gets into a standard “upgrade” time frame, you might be able to use the same system you purchased initially and just upgrade what you need — you know, like PC gamers have been doing for decades. Which leads to my next point…
It’s a Friggin’ PC
The Steam Box is great because of it’s simplicity. Right now, it’s a PC you already own and can plug into your TV via HDMI. Pop a USB controller in it, turn on Big Picture and you already have everything that excites legions of gamers about a Steam Box. Big Picture is a part of the OS, and Valve are essentially trying to do what Google’s done with Android: “Want to make a killer console? Here’s our solution. Put your hardware in and let’s make money together!”
If you’ve ever played a game online through Xbox Live, you likely paid $50 plus per year to do so. That’s sort of a hidden tax of the console for the uninitiated, that you’ll be paying $50 plus yearly for the privilege of playing your games online, or watching Netflix/Hulu Plus, or a number of other online options that are hidden under the Xbox LIVE Gold moniker. Remember when the PS3 had no such network? Now PlayStation Plus is here and gives you all kinds of perks for paying them money monthly (though PlayStation Plus isn’t required to play online).
Steam has no such fee (at the moment, at least). The games you play have their own servers that have nothing to do with Steam, so the service is currently free to use and has a massive friends list. They’ve also added tons of new community features with the “Community” feature now in the client.
Steam is the only company I’ve been completely comfortable with going digital-only for my gaming, mostly because of the amazing sales! Besides that, it’s very easy to log in on another computer you own, answer the email verification, then download/play games as you do normally. If they can get major publishers to allow pre-loading of pre-purchased games (some games can be downloaded 48 hours before a game’s release, then unlocked at midnight on launch day), this could be a huge benefit. Imagine sitting at your system at 12:00am on launch day of a hotly-anticipated game and logging in? No going to the store or waiting for the mail, it’s already there.
With all that awesome, though, there’s down to be some negativity there, right?
While Android is a refreshing thing that changed the status quo of the cell phone industry, the license model isn’t without its quirks. The first and most noticeable thing that could be an issue down the line is fragmentation. For instance, with many new Android updates, there are many phones that are rendered obsolete and not allowed to update due to not having enough power under the hood. Add in to that, each hardware manufacturer licensing Android can dish out their own custom version of it, meaning all users wouldn’t have the same distribution anyways.
Without further details, it’s hard to know whether or not the Steam Box will see the same sorts of user lockout, but let’s hope Valve doesn’t let that possibility through.
The Linux Kernel
On its own, the Linux kernel shouldn’t be a problem because it removes Microsoft from the equation and allows the box to be made without Windows. The biggest problem I can think of lies in the lack of DirectX. We’ve gotten past it on OSX, but the current list of Steam games that work on Linux is miniscule compared to the amount that work on Windows. I look forward to Valve’s progress with this point in particular.
The selection of consoles meant for the living room is growing every day. We already have the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and Wii U as far as current hardware is concerned. Soon, in addition to those, there’s the Ouya, NVIDIA’s Shield, Steam Boxes, “Xbox Next” and the PlayStation 4. What are the chances that developers will keep making games for each of those consoles over the long run? I’m leaning toward that being highly unlikely. And by highly, I mean impossibly high.
The biggest question I’m having is the price of a Steam Box if you don’t already have a PC that you can game on. For example, $300 won’t buy you a gaming quality PC by any means, so could Xi3 make this something more powerful than a 360/PS3 for that cost? Not to mention that $300 is basically the starting line. If you want a beefy system that can handle the next four years of PC games on high settings, you’re going to be spending a pretty penny.
It’s a friggin’ PC
The biggest thing that differentiates the Steam Box from the consoles is that Valve isn’t hiding the fact that it’s a multi-purpose device. You can put Windows on it if you like, browsers, expand on it how you wish, but at the end of the day, it’s still a PC. And if you really wanted to, you could take the PC you already have and do the same thing.
There are a lot of people out there that are simply not comfortable with making all their gaming purchases through a digital distribution system right now. If Valve is fortunate enough to snag a decent percentage of casuals and get them hooked on the concept (those sales would help tremendously), this could change some people’s minds, but that’s a tough sell.
When many current gen games have download sizes well over 2GBs and with many internet users on data-capped internet access plans, it could be problematic to be a download-only gaming service. That’s something that has a good chance of becoming an immediate problem.
I’ve been excited about the possibility of a Steam Box for quite some time. There’s been a good amount of new information from CES 2013 regarding the Piston and the Steam Box as a whole, but there are still tons of questions to be asked. Tons of unknowns and possibilities that could change the system as it’s currently being planned.
I have a slight feeling that Microsoft and Sony are not as worried about this as they should be. Valve may not have the same resources that either of the industry behemoths currently hold, but they’re a very gamer-centric company that have a forward-thinking attitude toward where games are and where they’re headed. Microsoft and Sony introduced us to the ‘tiered console’ with the various versions of their systems, but what happens if Valve perfects it by having price points set to cater to everyone?
- A $99 box meant for casuals looking for a quick game or hardcore gamers with a beefy PC already.
- A $300 box capable of playing all the current games on the market and through the remaining life of the Xbox 360 & PS3.
- A box costing over $399 that’s essentially whatever hardware companies can come up with.
The result would be a company that has an offering at every price point in the spectrum. With the right advertising, you’d almost have to give it a look before considering the other options in the gaming console market.
The biggest point to make however, is that regardless of the outcome, this move puts more PCs on the market — which makes PC gaming relevant once again, giving developers a reason to take the platform more seriously than they have in the past. How can that be a bad thing?
Personally, I’m thinking the Steam Box has the potential to change living room gaming as we know it.
What do you think? Was I completely wrong on any of these points or miss an obvious one? Let us know in the comments!