The Steam Machines are coming, like a Rebel Alliance mounting an assault on the Death Star-like monolith that is console gaming. But will the customizable Machines really upset the balance of the Force or will these new boxes be a clever aside to Microsoft and Sony's towers of power?
Valve revealed a batch of Steam Machines during the Consumer Entertainment Show last year all produced by third party companies. 14 companies so far have signed on to produce the micro PCs that begin releasing in 2014. The number will be much greater as Valve has opened the gates for other companies to make machines and multiple versions to fit every gamers budgets; so it says. For example Alienware, the high-powered custom gaming PC builder, announced its Machine will be sold much like a console, in a not-so-easy to modify form and for a “competitive price” with next-gen consoles at around $300-$500 dollars. But unlike Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation system Alienware will released a new high-powered version every year.
But the prospect of so many different types of Steam Machines hitting the market offers a huge range of choices, but in the console market could choices be a bad thing? A huge selling point of systems like the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Wii U is that it is basically plug in and play ready. This can be contrasted with PCs where a fair amount of installation is required. Will Valve's new operating system SteamOS be as user friendly and will the Steam Machines be as easy to use as other mainstream consoles? Or will Steam Machines preach to a choir of PC users and whole new group of converts? Is it possible that Steam Machines will become a quiet oddity in Valve's pocket, for later use, by a company notorious for playing the long-game over short term gains?
The Steam Machine grand plan – in brief
The goal, as Valve head Gabe Newell sees it, is a future where small, completely customizable PCs that can be purchased from a third-party company or built at home and upgraded exactly to a users' power needs. Having third-party companies compete against each other for Steam Machine users means competitive prices and upgrades for customers instead of being pigeon-holed to one price like Microsoft or Sony's systems. Not only will gamers be able to modify their Steam Machines to make them faster and more powerful but have access to all their games through Valve's online game service Steam and never have to purchase new versions as Steam Machines change unlike consoles like the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Generations of consoles will become a thing of the past and replacing it will be a linear year-by-year acceleration of hardware and always-on streaming game systems. That's the idea anyway, here's where the concerns start.
The first problem, options
Options are great right? While options in the console market in regards to power and memory open up many new possibilities it might also have some serious drawbacks. When Alienware announced its Steam Machine, it initially said that the system would not be upgradable by the user, later clarifying the issue. It's not that the system cannot be upgradable but that “upgrading the internal components will not be as easy as compared to other [PC] platforms” said a representative from Alienware to TrustedReviews, “but we will not prevent a customer from upgrading.” The remaining makers have yet to come out with specifications on if other machines will be any easier to handle.
Part of the problem is that the Steam Machine is really a small PC. And PC's come in near-endless size (meaning memory) and power options. Not having a set standard to a Steam Machine's hardware requirements means that while games and the interface will look the same on every Machine, performance is likely to vary wildly from one system to another based on options and configuration the user and producer chooses. Also the various sizes of Steam Machines, from tiny Apple TV sized boxes to large PC towers, means some will be more upgradable than others. So the idea of buying a Steam Machine on the cheap and upgrading later may be foiled by the very market aspects making them inexpensive in the first place.
The true cost of hardware
When gamers buy a Xbox One or PlayStation 4 are they paying a fair price for the hardware? The short answer is no. Consumers pay at, or below the cost of the components of the system. Both Sony and Microsoft (as well as Nintendo) have always sold its systems at a loss because you need games to play and movies to watch and subscription fees to for online multiplayer and these are meant to make up the loss in hardware costs. What about Steam?
A Steam account is free. Gamers can buy games as often or as little as they like and because Steam Machines will be built by companies will little to no dollars in the Steam market that means gamers will be paying the full cost of the Steam Machines they buy. That cost ranges from the next-gen console-comparable iBuyPower machine at $499 to the astronomical – perhaps hydrogen-fueled and definitely water cooled – Falcon Northwest's $6000 tower of power. The question as these machines roll out is if users can get the same power from a $500 Steam Machine as they can from a $499 Xbox One or $399 PlayStation 4? Paying for the true cost of parts may mean more bucks for less bang.
So many Linux games...someday
The third weak spot in the Steam Machine's half-buried snow base defenses are the games. Yes we all know you'll be playing Steam games on your new Steam Machine, but which games? Since SteamOS, the software running the boxes, will only run Linux-based games. As January 2014 there are over 3000 games on Steam of which about 300 are Linux compatible and thus able to be run on Steam Machines.
Moreover Valve won't be converting games to be SteamOS compatible. That responsibility falls to the developers. So while all of Valve's popular single and mutiplayer games will be available – the likes of Left 4 Dead 2, Counter Strike and DOTA2 among others – outside developers will have to make the choice to convert its own games. Will they? You can bet many indie and smaller game publishers will convert, especially when many of its other games are on Steam. But what are the chances of a Call of Duty or Battlefield on the machines? Not very likely.
So what the hell's the big deal?
While Steam Machines certainly have limitations right now, Valve isn't one for knee-jerk reactions. When Steam started up back in 2003 is was just a way to register Valve games already owned and streamline multiplayer by stopping cheaters. What started small has now become the largest online marketplace for PC games. Valve really has nothing to lose. If the Steam Machine doesn't take off its existence means Steam will keep expanding until they possibly do. Valve is gunning for long term benefits, not short term profits.
So while Steam Machines in the near term are going to give next-gen console level quality for a likely steeper price, it also has to deal with the problem of the chicken and the egg. Steam Machines need Linux-based games to sell boxes and enough boxes need to be sold to show developers that there is a market to convert games to Linux. At least Valve and its hardware partners seem committed to giving it their best shot in 2014. As master Yoda says, “do or do not. There is no try.”