Steam Box is exciting - but don't expect it to be "Open"

Valve's entry into the console market is a thrilling prospect, but this isn't about a war between Open and Closed ecosystems

Steam Box prototypes will be in the wild for customer testing in the next three to four months, according to Gabe Newell. Valve has given up on pretending that it's not interested in the hardware game; its ambitions are now pretty clear, and somewhat wider than we expected. Where once the concept of a Steam Box was thought to be simply a minimum set of specs for PC manufacturers to follow in order to get a "Steam Powered" sticker on their boxes, now Newell talks openly about the nitty gritty of hardware challenges like heat and noise management, or building biometric sensors into the custom controller for the console.

"While Steam is an amazing distribution platform that has massively boosted the reach of PC gaming, in many ways it's just as much a walled garden as any of the consoles"

A great many people are hugely excited about the Steam Box. I'm one of them, I confess - I think it'll be just the thing to ease me back into PC gaming, which is where my roots as a gamer lie, but from which I've become increasingly (if unwillingly) estranged. However, I think there are some tough questions and unhappy realities about the Steam Box - whatever final form it may take - that still need to be addressed, especially by the most outspoken proponents of the system.

The crux of the problem is this - Valve's console is already being lauded as a chariot of openness, a triumph for all those who love things that are Open as opposed to Closed, even if some of them aren't very good at defining what those terms actually mean. The box will presumably run either Windows or some Linux variant, and if you want to, you'll presumably be able to leave the Steam environment and pop back to the desktop of that OS and run whatever games or other software you want. (That's the assumption, anyway; we shall see.) That's certainly Open compared to, say, a PlayStation 4 or an iPad, which won't run anything Sony or Apple respectively don't want you to run.

However, there are other facets to this which look less convincing. For a start, while Steam is an amazing distribution platform that has massively boosted the appeal and reach of PC gaming, in many ways it's just as much a walled garden as any of the consoles. Indeed, when I wrote a column recently calling on Sony to lower the barrier for indie studios and small firms wishing to publish PSN games (something they seem intent on doing with PS4), many people pointed out that Steam can actually be an even tougher place to publish a game than PSN - and with the advent of a PS4 based on PC architecture and seemingly more open than ever to self-publishing, that contrast may become rather stark. It's already a stark contrast with the iOS App Store and Google Play, which both place only the smallest of barriers in front of creators who want to put their games in front of consumers.

As such, the question I'm asking myself is this; to an average consumer, who doesn't really want to dig around in another OS that sits behind the "console" interface, is Valve's proposed console really all that different to what Sony are suggesting? It seems to me that while Valve and Sony have started out on very different ideological and technological ground (and as such, are bringing along vocal supporters who originate in diametrically opposed viewpoints), they've converged significantly towards a midpoint. Sony, a company whose consoles have been totally closed ecosystems that were extremely difficult to publish on, has made huge strides towards welcoming self-publishing and liberalising its pricing and business models. Valve, a company with its roots in the open free-for-all of PC distribution, has gradually erected taller and taller walls around its garden and will, in the final analysis, build something that's rather more like a games console than most PC gaming fans are comfortable admitting.

That's fine, of course. If anything, it's a triumph for common sense. The companies that used to build totally closed systems are recognising the immense benefits of more open platforms and loosening the reins accordingly. Companies who were ideologically wedded to the concept of openness, meanwhile, are recognising that a certain degree of gatekeeping helps to ward off malware, fraud, viruses and a host of other damaging software. Perhaps the best thing about Steam, from a personal perspective, is that I trust implicitly that both it and the software it hosts will not damage my computer, which is a very major step for PC gaming but not one that could be taken without first stepping back a little bit from the concept of "openness".

"Valve isn't smashing consoles; it's building one. Open isn't obliterating Closed. All the major players are cherry-picking the best bits of both models"

What I'm trying to challenge here, I think, is the notion that whatever Valve does with the Steam Box is necessarily going to ride roughshod over next-gen console efforts. I simply don't think that's a given. The Steam Box will have advantages - a huge catalogue of games being the most obvious - but it's simply wrong to assume that it's going to be waving some extraordinary flag of democratisation and leading the charge against a closed console market. It's just going to be another walled garden among several walled gardens - the good news being that the walls this generation are going to be much, much lower than they've ever been before. It goes without saying, though, that Xbox and PlayStation are much stronger brands with the consumer market than Steam or Valve, so there's an uphill struggle to be fought in that regard.

From both a consumer and developer standpoint, though, this all looks rather positive. Assuming that the leaks about Xbox 3 are correct, we're talking about three consoles backed by serious, heavy-hitting companies, each based on PC architecture that's pretty straightforward to develop for, and in the case of Valve and Sony at least, each courting the notion of openness and self-publishing. That level of competition is very, very healthy indeed - so much for the notion that the console market is moribund and set for an early grave. Consoles are changing and adapting to new conditions; not extinction but evolution. It's great to see Valve being a part of that process and helping to knock down the utterly artificial barrier between PC and console gaming, which have always had far more commonalities than differences.

Developers, publishers and others involved in the industry simply need to be careful about how they conceptualise this shift. There is going to be a lot of fanboy nonsense written and spoken in the coming months about Valve turning up to "smash" the consoles, or about how "Open" is going to obliterate "Closed". Valve isn't smashing consoles; it's building one. Open isn't obliterating Closed; all the major players from both sides of that ill-defined fence are cherry-picking the best bits of both models to create an environment that makes sense for a modern, digital world. It's going to be a topsy-turvy few years - I still can't quite get over being told by several indie developers that they find it easier to publish on Sony's consoles than on the PC via Steam, and I expect to have plenty more such preconceptions and notions being overturned in years to come. The only real certainty about the ongoing digital transition is that it still holds a great many surprises and turnabouts.

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Latest comments (17)

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 8 years ago
I used to buy comics... tons of them. I still do, nowadays, but far far less, and only from writer/artists I already know. The change happened when my local comic shop folded, and the guy passed the baton to a mail order company. No longer could I just wander in and see what was new, trusting that the owner had exercised some form of discretion in ordering comics that were quality.

People talk of how hard it is to get games onto Steam, how it needs to be open. But just as Rob is right in saying that there is a trust that no software on Steam is malware, so there is a certain amount of trust that the software is quality. Certain titles are obviously not (WarZ, Revelations 2013), but this is where Valve have to tread a fine line - an objective assessment of quality is needed for any store to remain relevant to the customer. True openness (that which many mobile developers bleat about being a necessary on Steam) does the consumer no good, since it creates a "thrift-store" environment, searching for gems in the rubbish. This is actually why Greenlight could be such a positive force - for games already released (or nearly) it's a consumer-based buying system, which in itself sorts the chaff from the wheat.
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Alexandros Gekas Co- Founder, Editor, Ragequit.gr8 years ago
An interesting and thought-provoking article, although one that reaches its conclusion based on a number of logical leaps. What I find especially perplexing is that Rob is talking about how the Steambox will be just as closed as other home consoles, when this very site has already reported on Newell's plans to tear down the Steam "dictatorship":

Valve's Newell on tearing down the Steam "dictatorship"
"So the right way to do that is to make Steam essentially a network API that anyone can call. Essentially, it's like, anyone can use Steam as a sort of a distribution and replication mechanism," said Newell. "It's not us making a decision about what should or shouldn't be available. It's just, you want to use this distribution facility? It's there. And customers decide which things actually end up being pulled through. So Steam should stop being a curated process and start becoming a networking API."
How is this similar to the traditional console model?
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters8 years ago
Depends how they market it, really. It might have a higher initial cost, but games on PC are a fair bit cheaper and with regular Steam sales, in the long run it might work out the same or cheaper. It's hard to sell to casuals like that, but hardcore gamers might be more receptive to that.
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Show all comments (17)
Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital8 years ago
Excellent article. Hopefully, it will be an eye-opener for some people here.

@ Alexander: When Steam actually implements what Gabe Newell said, then I will start believing it. Not sooner. If they really are about to enter the dedicated gaming hardware market, they need all the support from major publishers they can get. Opening Steam like that would work against it. If the next Call of Duty would have to compete for discoverability with Joe Smith's next match-3 zombie game, it would mean the death of Steam Box. Ouya is here to be opened and "democratic" for everyone. Steam Box should be hardcore gamer's wet dream.

Going the "console way" can work for them. Or having one channel for the AAA and next to it another channel for the indie games, like XBLI is doing (and to lesser extent Sony as well, with minis and PlayStation Mobile) is the middle-ground where everyone can be happy.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee8 years ago
I think Valve are taking advantage of the Xi3 Piston as a good way to prototype this idea. In the long run I don't see the form factor and price being sensible, especially when there are so many others ways to achieve the same specs and features at a lower cost (and albeit a bigger product) with potentially similar performance to other consoles. Of course, there's nothing stopping there being multiple boxes with multiple form factors, if Valve want to take that approach.
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Alexandros Gekas Co- Founder, Editor, Ragequit.gr8 years ago
@Jakub: We are talking about unreleased platforms, based on what little information we have available. While it's absolutely fine to speculate and comment on the possibilities for both the Steambox and other next-gen consoles, I feel it's too soon to jump to conclusions as Rob did in the article:
It's just going to be another walled garden among several walled gardens
There's no possible way of knowing that at this point. I assume it's Rob's opinion, but it should be presented as such and not as fact.

The Steam Box needs to be much more open than consoles because that's the whole point of its existence and the 'soul' of the PC as a platform. Being open doesn't necessarily mean a lack of curation, nor is it solely about unlimited access to a platform for developers. It's also about consumer choice in software, stores, hardware configuration and many more.
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Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games8 years ago
i do not see valve as other people do. in gabe's every move lately, what i see, is an attempt to badmouth others in order to draw attention and promote their own, closed platform, within an open environment (i.e. windows) and close people in. they can't even stand the very idea of competition. instead they move to closed solutions, and platforms like linux and mac where there is no competition.

I do not believe a single word about openness from valve. and i feel that even the games they make mainly act as a marketing attunement device, a reminder to developers "hey we are like you, an awesome democratic developer you always dreamt of and not a publisher or a closed platform like the appStore!" in the mean time, how many games they make is irrelevant, as they make a lot more from publishing other people's games on steam.

It is without doubt a genius business that took advantage of the fervor of indie developers and provided a low cost of entry outlet for indies and that, i trully admire! but i am not ready to believe any proclamations made.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up8 years ago
For the general public, its difficult to appreciate a software based eco system like steam without a piece of hardware that allows you access to it. This will do a lot for awareness in that respect, and for Valve as a company. Maybe not this generation, but possibly the next it might be the family console of choice. Got to start somewhere, and this isn't a bad place to be starting from to be fair.
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Michael Benfield Senior Designer, Codemasters Birmingham8 years ago
My guess is that we may see an evolution of the 'channels' first seen on the Wii. Users will buy the box that allows them access to the Steam distribution platform which is truly open but is presented as a selection of 'stores' that users browse/buy content from. These stores can be created by the content creators/publishers but can also be created by third parties (the comic book store owner) with each containing a sub-set of all content, its down to the user to choose which stores they trust but with ratings systems to assist.

The problem with this system would be incentivising the third parties, as even if they are allowed to apply a mark-up, users would simply check their recommendations and then head to the cheapest store to buy it. I guess allowing stores to incorporate advertising or even use subscription models could solve the problem, although allowing them a small cut of Valves percentage would probably be neater.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Michael Benfield on 8th March 2013 2:20pm

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Caleb Hale Journalist 8 years ago
Valve is going to have to do some amount of gate-keeping so Steam Box is just as user-friendly as a PlayStation, Xbox or Wii U. Steam Box is already going to be the odd duck out among the other consoles, simply because it will likely distribute games only through its download service. That means no discs or cases in GameStops, Targets or Wal-Marts. I realize we're all big into downloading games right now, but physical copies means public exposure in places where thousands of people pass every day.
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Graham Simpson Tea boy, Collins Stewart8 years ago
It's a mini computer that plugs into a TV and only allows you to use Steam. Revolutionary.
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Kevin Clark-Patterson Lecturer in Games Development, Lancaster and Morecambe College8 years ago
What about DRM...will we always have to be "connected" like EA want us to be or will the Steam Box be 'open' enough to not enthrust that upon us?
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Want to make a couple of points:

1/ Steam already exists, and already has a huge audience on PCs. This is purely an extension of that to increase their potential user-base. Nothing else.

2/ Valve don't need this to succeed. Obviously they want it to, but again - its an addition to their existing audience. This is unlike other consoles.

3/ Just like the PCs, the specs on the SteamBox don't matter - and can/will vary over time. This is NO console. You don't design a game for Steam, based on the hardware specs of the SteamBox.

People shouldn't expect the SteamBox to do anything outside of "Run Steam" out of the box. This will likely have some custom OS as well.

Otherwise, there is no point of all of this - and Steam could purely remain a "software" solution. Steam could just partner with manufacturers, and "recommend" boxes (running Linux) and that's it.

And yes, this will almost definitely remain a closed-garden. The PS4 may end up being more open than this, apart from certification requirements.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 8 years ago
@ Kevin

Well, Steam already has a Go-Offline mode, where it drops a small amount of profile-data on your PC to negate the need for a constant internet connection. So, Steam/the Steam Box won't require you to always be online. However...

1) This is also down to some games. For instance, whilst Steam is happy for me to play Offline, if I want to play Dragon Age: Origins, then I need to be online to connect to EA servers, so it can authenticate my DLC.

2) The Go-Offline mode needs serious work. Whilst the lack of an internet connection (due to moving house) didn't upset my Steam account on my desktop PC, my girlfriend couldn't access her Steam account on her laptop. No User Log-In details existed, apparently, and that meant Steam required a internet connection to verify her account, before going Offline

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 9th March 2013 9:03am

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David Serrano Freelancer 8 years ago
I think Valve understands there's a real demand, and space in the market for a true console - gaming rig hybrid.

So if Valve can figure out how to provide more flexibility and functionality than MS, Sony and Nintendo while retaining the simplicity of using and maintaining a console, they could quickly gain a foothold in the market. I'm never going to buy a 2 to 3 thousand dollar gaming rig. But if there was $300 to $600 hybrid on the market that finally let me access a code command console and install mods but keeps the OS hidden behind an XBL type GUI... I would be sold.
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Andreia Quinta Photographer 8 years ago
@ David.
I'm never going to buy a 2 to 3 thousand dollar gaming rig. But if there was $300 to $600 hybrid on the market that finally let me access a code command console and install mods
That's precisely the thing. Currently I would be the perfect target for Valve, my laptop is aging not so well to run games and it's time for a new one, either laptop or rig up to 2000. But with Valve releasing a hybrid for me to play a library I already have of 100+ games for a reasonable amount, they've got me, no doubt.
I wouldn't even have to worry about retro-compatibility on older games, if it's on my steam library it will run on my 'steamachine', plus the ability to install community maps/skins/mods/texture packs would be a tremendous advantage.

I believe Valve can do consoles right in the sweet spot of that walled garden that people call it. It might be a walled garden, but if it gives me all (within reason) the options I want/need whilst protecting me from the old, but wild, dinosaurs (pun intended) that roam outside those walls, I'm all for it.

I must add that, ok, granted that Valve has Steam to rely on as a backbone, but that's all their credit anyway to build up Steam to what it is today. I still have old .gif images mocking Steam's update service back in the first days it showed up, and I remember how people hated it with a passion. If it's loved today it's their own merit for listening to what consumers wanted on how to improve it. Expanding to the living room with Big Picture and a (possibly) budget-considerate machine is the next logical step.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 8 years ago
You can put together a good gaming PC with plenty of muscle for about US $600. (An i5 is about $150, a very good graphics card is under $200; you can fill in the rest.) You may feel you need to spend over $1000 on a graphics card to get hardly more than double the performance of the $200 one, but really, that's not normal, so using such prices as a point of comparison doesn't really make any sense.

The Steam Box probably would have gotten me, too, back in my console days, though now that I've got my rig built (the easy part) and configured (the hard part), it doesn't appear to have much to offer me. A good deal of the problems I've had have been software issues, rather than hardware: games such as Nightsky and Offspring Fling, for example, require me to use my controller in "map to keypress" mode. My Logitek gamepad happens to come with software that makes this easier than with other controllers, but even so, it's not just "pick up and play."

Another question is going to be compatability. It's still not clear if Valve will go with Windows or Linux as the OS. Going with Linux kills software compatibility (Steam is getting most of the games out there that run on Linux, but that leaves them with dozens, as opposed to thousands, of games). But Windows increases cost and complexity and limits customizability.

Personally, I think they'll go with Windows myself, regardless of cost; the loss of the huge software library (including all AAA titles) seems to me like just to big a hit to take.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Curt Sampson on 11th March 2013 1:16am

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