Steam Machines must be more than a hobby

Valve dithers on Steam machines, but must commit to endure coming changes

Steve Jobs was in the habit of describing the Apple TV - the real Apple TV, that is, not the hypothetical uber-device that's been stalking the imagination of tech pundits and the nightmares of TV manufacturers for years - as the company's "hobby". It sells a few million units here and there, but it's no iPad, no iPhone, not even a Mac. It's a casually dangled toe in the water of a new market whose primary purpose is to extend the functionality of iTunes and iOS devices, rather than being a significant product category in its own right. "Hobby" summed it up; lots of noise and light around the topic accompanied all of Jobs' later keynote events, but really, Apple was just dabbling.

Steam Machines, then, are Valve's hobby. Admittedly, Valve is a company with a lot of hobbies, but Steam Machines fit a similar profile to Apple TV in this regard. The rest of the world, or its more credulous denizens, are waiting with bated breath for Valve to sally forth with a device that's going to cut a swathe through the games market - yet for all the world, everything Valve does looks like little more than casual dabbling. They're mucking around with a custom version of Linux (saying "SteamOS" sounds really impressive until you realise that most people's family pets have their own custom version of Linux at this stage) and experimenting with an intriguing controller design, both of which are fine hobbies - but the much vaunted Steam Machines themselves, thus far, are little more than an underwhelming branding exercise.

"Valve's not about to get into hardware manufacture any time soon. It's not what they do and it wouldn't make sense"

Of course, Valve's not about to get into hardware manufacture any time soon. It's not what they do and it wouldn't make sense. However, the company has a deep interest in ensuring that the gaming PC, as a platform, is in robust health. The name "Steam Machine" is a giveaway, if one were required; Valve needs lots of machines out there for Steam to run on. It has, as I've argued before, become the de facto champion and caretaker of the PC gaming sector, a role long since abandoned by Microsoft. Steam itself is the biggest pillar of Valve's support for the PC, and Steam alone has done a great deal to ensure the continued flourishing of this market. The company's gamepad efforts are an interesting sideline, its dabbling with SteamOS little more than tinkering for now; the Steam Machines, though, we earnestly expected to take a rather more dramatic form when they emerged at CES this week.

In the end, Valve managed scarcely a handful of minutes on stage to introduce the dozen "Steam Machine" manufacturers, each of which is producing its own versions of the system. Gabe Newell deflected all questions to the device manufacturers. Despite carrying the Steam name, it's almost like Valve isn't entirely happy to be associated with the project right now - perhaps wincing at the heavy responsibilities which being seen as a platform holder will inevitably bring. Perhaps the Apple TV comparison isn't fair after all; Apple TV always felt like an under performing but beloved hobby. Not much feels beloved about Steam Machines. Not yet, anyway.

It's not hard to see why the Steam Machines might be unloved, though. They're an ugly and rather ramshackle lot. Their prices range from a console-matching $499 up to an eye-watering $5000, while their case designs range from the functionally ugly through to the kind of howlingly awful rig that inspires mass eye-rolling even at LAN parties. The specifications of the devices, which one might have expected to conform to some kind of standard, or a number of standard "steps" at different price points, cover the whole spectrum of PC performance. This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the announced devices - if these were actually meant to attract less hardcore gamers (most core gamers will still build their own systems, of course), then by doing nothing to reduce the mind-numbing complexity of figuring out specifications and component codenames, they have already failed in their most basic task.

"by doing nothing to reduce the mind-numbing complexity of figuring out specifications and component codenames, they have already failed in their most basic task"

If I sound disappointed, it's because I am. I'm disappointed on an entirely personal level, I confess. 2014 was going to be the year I got myself a gaming PC again. I've missed too many games and experiences through not owning one, and I'd love a reasonably small, low-profile box with enough grunt to play PC titles comfortably. I haven't followed PC specifications and components for about a decade and I'd rather perform my own open-heart surgery than build another of the damned things myself, so a Steam Machine looked perfect; yet after this week's CES reveal, it appears that the actual advantages of such a system in terms of reducing complexity (let alone cost, which was always unlikely to be a major factor) are negligible. I'm left wondering who exactly these boxes are for - the core audience will ignore them and build their own systems, while the more casual audience who are eager to engage with PC gaming won't find any advantage in a "Steam Machine" that doesn't exist at any other pre-built PC box-shifter.

Valve may have reason to wish that it was taking this hobby a bit more seriously. In spite of the robust health of the PC games market right now, there are structural issues with the PC market as a whole which present a major challenge to its continued growth and success in the coming years - structural issues which only Valve is likely to be in a position to solve, and for which a Steam Machine style venture may well be necessary. To wit, a primary advantage of the PC platform, namely its sheer ubiquity, is winding down. It used to be the case that nearly everyone owned a PC and thus, nearly everyone could play games, at least to some extent. In recent years, the PC benefitted even more as a gaming platform from the inverse of that argument. Gaming PC purchases were justified in part by the prowess of the system as a multi-function device. A gaming PC was expensive, but also served as the user's primary computer.

Today, the desktop computer is an increasingly rare beast. A great many households only have laptops; a great many more are supplementing laptops with tablet computers that perform much of the functionality that once belonged to PCs. Laptops, too, have changed. Apple's Macbook Air and Google's Chromebook, followed by a steady parade of Ultrabooks and wafer-thin, solid-state imitators, have refocused the desires of buyers away from power and towards size, weight and battery life. When I bought my last laptop, the ultra-thin one with 10 hours of battery life put forward a case that simply couldn't be answered by any hankering for a powerful gaming system. Sales figures suggest that I'm far from alone in making this choice. The resulting device can run some games (it's fine for lots of indie stuff, and Civilization V just about works) but it's certainly not a gaming system. I've never even bothered installing Steam.

"I am not, in any sense, predicting the "death of the PC" - but there's no doubt that this switch away from desktops presents a challenge to the existing PC market"

I am not, in any sense, predicting the "death of the PC" - to do so would be nonsensical - but there's no doubt that this switch away from desktops and towards tablets and Ultrabooks presents a challenge to the existing PC market. I believe that gaming PCs will increasingly have to make a case for themselves as gaming devices alone; a subtle but important change from "here's your next PC, and it's great at games" to "here's your next gaming device, and it can do PC stuff too if you want, which you probably don't". Core gamers won't change their outlook at all, of course, but beyond that group there's a vast hinterland that was once the domain of PC gaming and which now risks disappearing as the technological landscape shifts.

Steam Machines ought to be at the vanguard in terms of counteracting that shift - accessible, attractive, easy to understand gateways to PC gaming designed perfectly to fit into the lives of "lapsed" PC gamers using Ultrabooks, or console gamers looking to branch out, or former core gamers who want to stay in touch but don't have the time or money any more to be deeply involved. Valve, as the operators of essentially the only PC game software distribution platform that matters a damn, ought to be leading that movement. On the strength of this week, Valve knows it ought to be doing something, but doesn't have the stomach for doing much of anything - while left to their own devices, it seems, PC manufacturers aren't capable of seeing beyond their own narrow world of hilariously arcane specifications and desperately ugly boxes. There's an enormous opportunity waiting here to be grasped; so far, Steam Machines have only fumbled.

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Latest comments (23)

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
I think that when Valve saw that there would be a forthcoming Win8 store, they basically shat themselves and saw a sudden expiry date stamped onto Steam. Some meetings were had and "lets make our own pc console" was the result.

Then Microsoft dropped the ball at a scale that only Microsoft can do, and much sighing and signs of relief were in evidence around the Valve offices.

Steam O/S and the "build your own steam machine" concept are them just pushing out stuff from the point they got to before they refocussed on plan a).
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 4 years ago
(Must... not... comment... more... *gurgle*)


Most of what I think I've said in the previous two article threads. I will say one thing, though.

Steam Machines/Controller/OS seem both rushed, and... not. This announcement was underwhelming, but then I'm wanting the Streaming Steam Machine, and that service isn't even in public Beta yet. The Steam Controller is still being prototyped. SteamOS is still improving, and is still currently the domain of the more tech-oriented end of PC gamers.

For a company that traditionally likes to announce things that are mostly completed (or likes to announce things through "non-standard" means, like ARGs), this all seems very... not "unprofessional" as such, but also not exactly "glossy". I think that's why Valve seem out of their depth - in the same way that they don't have a "normal company's" Customer Service department, they don't have a "normal company's" ability to market and talk to the consumer who is their non-traditional audience.
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Anthony Gowland Consulting F2P Game Designer, Ant Workshop4 years ago
6th paragraph is bang on the money. There's a good idea here, but the hardware revealed so far completely misunderstands who their customer is and what they want.

It's like - in adverts Apple don't say "the new iPad, its processor runs at whatever Mhz, and it has this amount of RAM". They say "it's faster than the old one". They understand marketing, and that most audiences don't care about features, just benefits.
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Show all comments (23)
Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 4 years ago
Something else...

Hardware is hardware. They've boxed themselves into (kind of) the same problem every PC manufacturer has, and that does not exist on consoles: multiple hardware configs. They didn't have a choice, particularly (even a low/medium/high tiered system would still have been vaguely daunting), but if I were them, I would focus on something at the edge of what Kassidy Gerber mentioned in an RPS interview:
“The consistent OS helps,” she added. “That at least gives developers a consistent target in some ways. And then we think there will be a place for reviews on how various hardware configs work for various games. [Some kind of feature] where, when you go and look for a Steam Machine, you’ll have an idea of how certain games will perform on possible configs.
[my bolding] ( )

Pretty much every PC game out there has config files, auto-exec files, preferences files (some, like Skyrim, have multiple, in different locations). A system like Steam's already-proven auto-update feature, where you could just search for a config file based on your Steam Machines name/manufacturer/spec, click a button, download and play at optimum settings would be of huge benefit. (And not just to Steam Machine users, either - sometimers I spend more time finding the best graphics/frame-rate set-up than I do actually playing).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 10th January 2014 9:54am

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Andrew Animator 4 years ago
The goal of a steam machine should have been to remove the need for the end user to have to worry about compatibility and setting the game up to run on the hardware. This would have attracted console gamers to the PC market and made PC gaming seem less of a tech niche for hardware enthusiasts. If this hasn't been achieved then I really do not see the point of it all.

At best there should have been 3 steam boxes from a single manufacturer, these would be the "official" machines. Each one would have a different power output, price point, and end user in mind. Every steam game which can run in big picture mode with controller support would be rated to run on one of the machines. The end user then would simply pick the one which supports the games they want to play. As games move on and hardware cheapens the cheapest one would be phased out and a new top end one introduced. The option to build your own and run SteamOS would always remain.

The only people the current model will attract are hardcore gamers with tons of disposable income, is that a viable business model? This does nothing for PC gaming and in all probability will harm it by making an already confusing deck of cards even worse.


I would also like to add that I am very excited by the home streaming feature, so I can stream games from my gaming rig to my HTPC under my telly which can't play games well.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Andrew on 10th January 2014 10:18am

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As a PC geek I'd consider giving up my desktop if it meant I could play Total War through the projector in the living room. Call me shallow but a superfat spangly screen size absolutely will overcome decades of habit.. Now I have an ipad, the PC is mainly just a fat gaming machine anyway so the idea of a Steam machine really does appeal to this PC gamer of 20 years - controller permitting of course.
But then when you see the design of the boxes; the crappy way Valve choose to reveal them; the clearly random hardware specs of a bunch of totally different machines... I get put off. The project right now looks like an empty feint by Valve against Microsoft & W8, a paper idea that they wont put any weight behind because its now clear MS won't be locking the world and its wallet into W8 any time soon. Hence the "Hey ask the manufacturers man" attempt at distancing, subtly suggesting the whole thing isn't that big a deal. Valve need to look like they mean it otherwise Steam Box is just a novelty project for a rotund rich chap. I wish them best of luck.
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Andrew Animator 4 years ago
As a PC geek I'd consider giving up my desktop if it meant I could play Total War through the projector in the living room. Call me shallow but a superfat spangly screen size absolutely will overcome decades of habit.
For the most part I agree entirely with this. There are some staples of PC gaming that don't fit this scenario though. Strategy games instantly come to mind, I know that comes down to the developer and the UI, but the keyboard / mouse combo is still superior in many situations. I just can't see myself sat on a cough wrestling with a keyboard and mouse. God games, world builders, and MMO's also spring to mind. I suppose it depends on the games you play, but I don't see evey gamer trading their desk based monster for a steam machine.

For me the end game is to have the PC in the study where I can play the games which suit it and stream "living room" games to a ***cheap*** low end PC. This way I only have one PC to maintain but the benefits of both scenarios. Having two PC's capable of playing high end games seems expensive and wasteful, and getting rid of the current gaming PC would limit how I play. I suspect many others would feel the same.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Andrew on 10th January 2014 11:57am

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Daniel Hughes Studying PhD Literary Modernism, Bangor University4 years ago
"If I sound disappointed, it's because I am. I'm disappointed on an entirely personal level, I confess. 2014 was going to be the year I got myself a gaming PC again. I've missed too many games and experiences through not owning one, and I'd love a reasonably small, low-profile box with enough grunt to play PC titles comfortably."

This is exactly the case for me. A Steam machine at the right price with the right specs would give me access to multi-platform games and a great range of PC only games in my living room, which would have, at least for now, negated the need for a PS4 or Xbox One--neither of which have a particularly appealing line up of exclusives for me. Obviously that's a case of those machines just being launched, but it's a window Valve could have exploited if they were truly behind Steam Machine as a platform rather than as a hobby.
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@Andreas - Easy in a technical manner is not the same as pleasurable in the sensory manner. Setting up a PC to use while sitting on the couch is not a nice or easy experience. The mouse / keyboard is just awkward full stop, never mind the silly amount of space a desktop PC takes up under your screen. This is why I think so much of the Steam Box's appeal to current PC gamers will be if the controller allows them to play traditionally PC games like RTS/Strategy types without that annoying setup. As it stands the console / couch / TV experience is so much more easy and joyous than the PC / couch / TV experience is. For me Valve really have to do something marvellous with the controller to change this - it really needs to be new and great.
If they can do that, Steam Box may be in the most enviable position of all the consoles - it will be home to the best of console and PC games for the first time since... well ever really.
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Mihai Cozma Indie Games Developer 4 years ago
I am the advocate of custom rigs built at home which I now do for years, it is not hard. You can keep that somewhere and eventually just stream your game from it if you really want to play on a big screen TV. I play with controller on my PC using a standard monitor and it is a very nice experience anyway.

I keep hearing this death of PC in favor of Ultrabooks, but Ultrabooks ARE PCs! So are Macs! So are laptops! You can install whatever operating system on any of them and it will still work as expected. Saying they are not PCs just because of their form factor is a non-sense to me.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Mihai Cozma on 10th January 2014 4:28pm

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 4 years ago
I am the advocate of custom rigs built at home which I now do for years, it is not hard.
I agree it's not hard, but then...define hard. Picking the right components, making sure they're decent price/value. PSUs can make or break your machine, and how many people know to buy 80+? Time spent building, which is fine for some, but not if you're a working parent (unless your child is a teen or older, can help and then it's a family project). And if you cock-up? Static electricity on the RAM. Or you don't fit the heatsink/fan right, and it overcooks your CPU.

"Hard" when you're talking about £400+ worth of components, and the possibility of something going wrong, is a subjective term. :)
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 4 years ago
None of this surprises me.

If you've ever done level design with Valve's Source SDK, you'll know how slipshod their engineering standards are. Their tools are outdated and cumbersome to use, many of the documented functions are broken (the Source SDK wiki entries are full of "BUG... won't work" "BUG... won't work", "BUG... won't work). and for some reason they relied heavily on the self-funded efforts of small developers to provide supporting tools... (Could they not afford to make them themselves?) When you work in Source you get the sense you're working on an SDK that was created by committee.

They are an artistic company, but they don't have that mentally-tough character that you need to do solid engineering.

This is actually a shame, because if they could make that common platform, it would solve a lot of these problems.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 10th January 2014 4:50pm

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Chris Hunter-Brown IT / Games specialist, BBFC4 years ago
The main disappointment for me is the cost and possibly Valve should be doing more to guide the manufacturers. Surely the sweet spot is going to be a decent enough GPU to run modern titles at 1080p60 at *reasonable* settings with enough CPU and memory to boot. It shouldn't be impossible to put together a box that can do that which doesn't cost the earth. Manufacturers flogging $5000 configurations are entirely missing the point! They really need to be at least in the order of the consoles price wise for me.

That said I suppose the PC manufactuers have long since traded on something other than "good enough" hardware so it represents a big change in tact for them.
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Felix Leyendecker Senior 3D Artist, Crytek4 years ago
RTS/Strategy games will still need a bigger HUD with larger fonts in order to play them on TVs. Even then, anything real-time and/or competitive will likely not be an ideal match.
As good as the controller may be, I don't see it becoming competitive with a mouse/kb setup.
If you look at the most played games on steam, they are almost all competitive MP games, either FPS or RTS. Makes me wonder if Valve will provide SteamOS-only servers that are restricted to controller players only. Otherwise, console gamers who buy a steambox in order to play one of steams top10 might be in for a disappointment...
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Mariusz Szlanta Producer, SEGA Europe4 years ago
I don't think it's a hobby. It was and it is a great bet that just received very serious blow.

Steam Machine is the hardware to run Steam just like iPhone/iPad is the hardware to run Appstore/iTunes.

Fully agreed that gaming Windows PC as created (accidentally it seems) by Microsoft, is outdated.

At least this is what I thought until last presentation that runs against everything I expected Steam Machines to be.

Subdued performance of Gabe Newell suggests he is probably well aware of it. If he truly is, then maybe he can also reverse this.
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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada4 years ago
I've no interest in the Steam Machines personally, but I was hoping that they'd do a simple, easy-to-market tiered system so that more console gamers could be brought into the PC fold. I'm pretty disappointed in what was on display - it's just a bunch of PCs with a different OS, which doesn't provide any advantage to me, or most consumers.
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Chris Taylor General Manager, Wargaming.Net4 years ago
I'm bullish on the concept. Even if they get off to a slow start, I still stand behind this as great idea. It's almost like they are doing what they did with Steam in the early days, building up from a small core and growing it slowly. The capital risk is small when they approach it like this, and when they work out all the problems, a wider audience can jump in. We're kind of judging the idea the way we might evaluate a new Google or Apple product, and Valve just doesn't work this way.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 4 years ago
They made Steam because they were disappointed that users were hacking Counter-Strike keys and CS was a huge hit... It wasn't some grand vision. It was that, plain and simple. The whole community vision part came later.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 4 years ago
Honestly, i really dont see too much differance in price when it comes to purchasing a PC or a steam machine. It would have been great if the steam machine was marketed as a "less costly alternative to PC gaming, but with such a huge range of machines and price ranges it sort of defeats the purpose.

I wont comment on the steam OS simply because, I dont see the point of it. I mean if all the games you like run on steam OS fine, otherwise it may be best to stick with windows.

I just see very little reason to switch from PC to steam thats all. Im not saying the product is bad. But you know if I can get a steambox for around $300 that can run all the high end stuff on PC that might have been attractive. However a decent spec steam box will run you around $600. n that case I might as well stick to consoles.

Steam boxes are not bad products, but I find little reason to buy them over a PC or console.

And seriously, I havent played with the steam controller, but my impression is that, I wouldnt like playing on it. If anybody here has used it please post your thoughts on it.

The only thing I want from Valve is Half Life 3.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 12th January 2014 10:58pm

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Gary Davies Lecturer in Computing (Games/Programming), St Helens College4 years ago
Where does all this hardware sit when cloud computing starts to float the games market. You can have your no-nonsense hardware spec (most of it free of charge by this time) always on and available to you at the flick of a switch.
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unless Valve is willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for advertising and marketing, I doubt this will get any traction with the average consumer.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 4 years ago
@Todd. Well, I bet if they slap an Oculus Rift into that Steam Box box... ;^P
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 4 years ago
@ Greg

They're almost there... There's apparently an announcement coming Wednesday/Thursday at the Steam Dev Days Conference where Valve are releasing tools to make conversion to VR-compatibility easier. Soooo close to just announcing a OR/Steam Machine bundle. :D

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 14th January 2014 8:13am

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