The Age of the Steam Machine….

With the general lackluster reaction to the next gen consoles – (a bit of opinion passed off as fact there) – the world of all things gaming is starting to get sweaty about Valve’s intriguing and potentially game-changing Steam Machines.

I’m primarily a PC gamer it has to be said, but the plan for this particular installment in the blogosphere is to be as objective as possible. The Steam Initiative (as it henceforth shall be known) is bold, intriguing and exciting for me if for no other reason than to see what The Mighty Valve can do to get a shoe in on the ‘living-room’ market.

Valve-logo-the-bald-guy

I think that’s a good starting block as it happens: Valve. They are really the only ones who could initiate such bold attempt at cracking a notoriously tough nut. They have been a pioneering game developer for a long time now; Founding Father Gabe Newell is considered an industry behemoth and revered with almost Yoda-like admiration and respect within the gaming world. Valve themselves are known for their innovation and pioneering initiatives not only in game development but also in their general ethos to the industry and their company, and in turn seem to breed excellence as standard. Steam is an example of this, and while it was a rocky start for the digital distribution platform it was the first of its kind and is now, basically, standard-issue for any PC gamer, with the likes of EA and Ubisoft et al only now attempting to emulate their success with varying degrees of terrible. Oh, Valve are also known for taking f**king ages with everything as well, but that’s an aside.

Indeed Valve’s entire approach to infiltrating the living-room space seems so very, typically, Valve. It doesn’t seem like an aggressive invasion, or a declaration of war that you might feel from the mighty electro-giants of Sony or Microsoft. Imagine if this entire scenario was perpetrated by Apple or Samsung, it would feel much more of a cold, corporate attempt to muscle in, but with Valve you get the distinct impression they aren’t trying to start a fight, they just genuinely believe there is a gap which they are best equipped to fill. A gap which, if successfully filled, could change everything for consoles.

So, the gap then. Does it even exist? Tough one that. Personally, I think yes. For sooo many years now I and other PC gamers have oft remarked on the fact that consoles by their very nature can never really be cutting edge in terms of processing and graphical capabilities and are instead very quickly out of date and left behind by the march of technology. I won’t dwell on the same old arguments though, this is in no way an indictment on consoles, just merely pointing out a factor which Valve appears to be addressing. On the flip side of that coin of course is the plethora of potential issues that can occur with having a PC. Compatibility, software, cash, all become factors in the PC Gaming world, especially if, like me, you want to try and keep up with the technology at least to a degree. For these reasons it can be a lot simpler to have a machine that you simply press ‘go’ on and boom, you’re playing.

Steam

With those reasons (and others) in mind I think the Steam boxes do fill a gap. The question ultimately will be, is the gap a problem enough for gamers to want to get the gap filler (if that terrible sentence makes any sense)?

It’s a tough call, because on one hand, this gap is getting smaller. The Steam boxes are effectively going to be PC’s for your living room in a console-shaped box (not effectively, that’s actually what they are). But isn’t that the way consoles are already going? The Xbox One and PS4 seem to be crowing about how they are ‘media-centres’ which I would argue in part is because they are struggling to define and justify themselves in a tech-savvy market who is only too aware their gaming capabilities do, and will always lag behind their PC counterparts. On the other hand however, maybe it’s the perfect time for this bridge between the PC and living room. Maybe the relatively unimpressive impact (not in units sold, but in favourable reviews) the new consoles have had on the gamersphere illustrates that, in fact, the time of the console is coming to an end and the current incarnations are living out console’s last generation and that their struggle to find their own place in the universe has afforded the opportunity for Valve to come in and smash the shit out the industry.

That’s really the key issue; can a Steam Machine exist in the same world as a console? Can they co-exist? And if not, who’s going to go? Xbox and Playstation have good pedigree and loyal (oh-so loyal) fans that would likely never turn away from their beloved games machines even in the face of utter, incontrovertible defeat. But then, gamers want to game, and if the Steam Boxes do it better than the consoles, what’s to say a slow and steady migration won’t leave the consolers adrift and dwindling in numbers before the generation is out. The gaming-road is strewn with the corpses of dead consoles and once-mighty titans of the industry that have been forced out into oblivion. Sega, Atari, even Nintendo who were so successful in staying out of the Xbox/Playstation wars a decade ago with one of the greatest consoles of all time, the Game Cube, are starting to slip as the overwhelming tide of cash generated from your CoD’s and GTA’s begin to force them into the realm of a second-class console, and no-one lasts in that realm for long.

hl3

Valve also have some very powerful weapons in their arsenal, not just their reputation and track record on innovation: The games. Not least the calibre of their own games; Half Life, DOTA, Left 4 Dead, Counter Strike, Portal – not many developers can boast a roster like that.  It may seem counter intuitive citing games as a big pro in the Steam Box corner, after all exclusive AAA titles are rarely exclusive to PC’s. But that could change were Valve to release Steam Box Exclusive titles – can you imagine Half Life 3 exclusive to Steam machine? That would be enough to put the shits up Sony and Microsoft. In addition, game developers would surely relish their games being fully compatible with everyone’s device should the Steam Boxes draw gamers away from consoles. Instead of having to adapt or port multi-platform titles, with the various restrictions and parameters that come with that, I can only assume dev’s would be far happier developing for one platform, unrestricted by the glass ceilings that consoles demand. In addition, Valve’s OS being open-source can only add to developers licking their lips with anticipation.

But the weapons cache doesn’t end there, oh no. Valve isn’t manufacturing any hardware, they have left that to the hardware experts, and as I write this Valve have just announced 14 individual Steam Machines from various manufacturers. And this surely has to be one of the main selling points. Steam Machines range from around $500 up to the ridiculously high end $6000 (no GBP prices as yet). And judging from some of the proposed specs the lower end models are easily comparable to the latest consoles. The CyberPowerPC rig comes in at $499 and boasts a GTX 760 GPU, 8GB RAM, 500G storage and an Intel i5 CPU (AMD GPU and CPU variables available). That is the lowest tier Steam Machine and quite frankly it easily competes with the Xbox or PS4, and don’t forget, these things are upgradeable!

ku-xlarge

^ Alienware’s entry into the Steam Machine world

Low tier not for you? Fancy splashing the cash? The Origin PC Chronos boasts an i7 Intel CPU and a twin 6GB Nvidia GTX Titan GPU’s (yes, twin). Falcon Northwest have their Tiki models in a range from around $500 up to a monstrous $6k with up to 6TB of storage and again rocking the mighty, currently-unrivalled GTX Titan (I want one…..).

I could do a whole blog just on the variables, but the point is Valve have concentrated on the software – the thing they excel at – and left the hardware up to the experts to produce an entire range of Steam Machines to fit any option you may desire. If any operation were ever to be successful in changing the current way of things, this approach must surely be it. Valve at the helm, multiple hardware options, but all basically plug and play.

controller

Of course, the other big difference between consoles and PC’s is the input devices, i.e. mouse & keyboard vs joypad. I’ve written a little on this before in previous articles but suffice to say on many games – First Person Shooters primarily – the precision and speed of a mouse & keyboard is of course unrivalled. Whilst some modders have managed to get the mouse and keyboard rigged up on their Xbox’s – which is totally cool by the way – Steam have not ignored this obvious difference and once again have provided what appears to be a ‘revolutionary’ mid-way solution. Anyone remotely savvy about the subject of this article will by now have probably seen the Steam Machine controller and whether you are excited by it or not, I would like to think most of us can agree we are at the very least intrigued. Haptic feedback on two smooth, circular trackpads which boast high fidelity resolution approaching that of a mouse, much greater than any traditional joypad that has come before. These pads are also clickable, acting like buttons in themselves, and the central console is due to be a customisable touch-screen for various buttons, although current prototypes have a 4-button configuration rather than the touch-pad.

All of this adds up to something very exciting if you ask me. The thing that stimulates my loins the most is just to see what impact this will have on the industry. Maybe it will be a complete non-starter, with PC gamers sticking to their rigs and consolers eschewing the Steam Machine’s in favour of what they know. Maybe Steam will annihilate the competition and leave Xbox, Playstation and even traditional PC’s fighting it out for the pitiful scraps left in its wake.

If it does strike a chord with gamers I think the effect would likely be more subtle. People who have recently forked out a fat stack of green for a new console – and there are many as Microsoft’s 3-million-Xbox’s-sold announcement shows – are unlikely to be doing the same again for a Steam Box any time soon, but if it’s as good as it could be I would guess the shift away from consoles (or indeed PC’s) and toward Steam Engine’s will be more of gradual migration rather than a tidal surge.

Whichever way it goes, I’ll be here, shitting my word-guts all over the interblog in a pitiful attempt to get people to like me and trying in vain to convince people I know what I’m talking about.

I don’t. All I do know is, I love games, and the Steam Machine’s excite me.

Now go, for I grow weary of you.

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