Steam Box: Could Valve Make a Games Console?

Digital Foundry assesses the remarkable rumours surrounding an open games platform

Valve making a games console? That can't be right, surely? The Verge's recent story suggests that the creators of Half-Life and Steam are putting together a hardware spec with "associated software" and creating an open platform that anybody can use to make their own Steam-compatible games machine, an initiative described as being akin to Android for consoles. There's even the suggestion that Alienware's recently released X51 is the first of these "Steam Box" designs, and will be firmware-upgraded to provide support for the new platform once it materialises.

"Does the notion of a Steam Box actually make any sense? How well is Valve positioned to effectively take on Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo? What form could this machine take?"

Backing up its story, the Verge links to a recent Penny Arcade interview with Gabe Newell where he says that, "If we have to sell hardware we will" suggesting that the company would work in tandem with manufacturers if necessary. That interview is well worth a read as it demonstrates that Valve is clearly well up to speed with the latest advances in hardware, and the underlying ethos at the firm is clearly against the closed platforms favoured by the traditional platform holders.

But does the notion of a Steam Box actually make any sense? How well is Valve positioned to effectively take on Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo? What form could this machine take?

There is a sense that the unit being suggested by the Verge article is an "all things to all men" design that perhaps sounds too good to be true. The spec is described as a Core i7 Intel CPU, backed up by an NVIDIA graphics core and 8GB of RAM (which some believe is a mis-understanding derived from a test machine Valve lashed up to showcase its new UI). The Verge article makes mention of a fixed platform architecture as being the key motivator behind this endeavour, but that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense for an initiative based on the concept of an open gaming platform - and you have to wonder what the advantage would be for the hardware vendors actually manufacturing the device if there is only very limited potential for competition.

Perhaps more likely is that Valve is developing its own APIs that will allow PC games developers to run their wares on a range of different platforms. Already Valve has its own networking and online systems - why not expand that to include other elements such as graphics rendering, file systems and audio? These could sit on top of any current OS - be it Windows, OSX, or even a custom Linux kernel for a games console - and allow game-makers to gain pretty much instant access for their games across a range of platforms that far exceeds the PC on its own.

"Perhaps more likely is that Valve is developing its own APIs that will allow PC games developers to run their wares on a range of different platforms - which might include a console at a later date."

Moving beyond computers and into the realm of console gaming would obviously be an excellent means to expand the reach of Steam, has enormous benefit to developers, and would undoubtedly be a Good Thing for gamers too. Buy your game on Steam, play it on the Mac in the study, migrate seamlessly to the console in the living room and grab a sneaky lunchtime session or two at the PC at work, with game progress all synchronised via Steam Cloud. Valve's ethos is unashamedly platform agnostic, which should also mean that there would be cross-platform compatibility for online gaming too where appropriate - something we've already seen working in Portal 2 for example, where PC and PS3 owners can tackle co-op in the same game instance.

But is the whole concept of Valve designing an entire platform simply a step too far for the company? Can a software developer seriously take on the likes of Sony and Microsoft? Well it's safe to say that when it comes to talent at least, Valve is a remarkably well-stocked company. There's the perception among developers that the company hires the best people even if there is no clear, distinct position for them - Valve simply wants the best minds it can get. Indeed, one developer described the company to me as the place you end up "if you've been good in a previous life".

Clearly the company has a knack for attracting top-tier engineers and developers, encompassing a range of fields. For example, it's not entirely clear quite what ex-Microsoft engineer Bruce Dawson does day-to-day at Valve (optimisation and bug-fixing is all that's mentioned), but he's well known amongst developers as the man who wrote the book on extracting maximum performance from the Xbox 360's Xenon CPU. Also, as pointed out on Twitter yesterday by Sony Santa Monica's Director of Technology, Christer Ericson, "American entrepreneur and self-taught computer chip designer", Jeri Ellsworth, is also now employed by Valve, but isn't mentioned on the company website.

Were NVIDIA and Intel directly involved in the Steam Box - neither of whom seem fated to be working with Microsoft or Sony on their next consoles - that is also an immense wealth of technological potential. Intel's CPUs are the most powerful in the business, and they have access to the best chip fabrication technology in the world. NVIDIA is also set to make a serious statement of intent with its new Kepler GPU architecture - something I'll be dissecting on GamesIndustry International next week. By getting hardware manufacturers and component suppliers directly involved, as opposed to merely licensing a single design (as is the case with current console manufacturers) there is perhaps more motivation for ensuring that this project is the best it can possibly be.

The Verge report also discusses controllers that measure player biometrics - something that none of the platform holders have really explored yet, but have had a fundamental impact on gameplay in Valve's own in-house experiments, something it has made no secret of.

"When you look at the kinds of experiences we try to create for people, having access to [the] internal state of the player allows us to build much more interesting and compelling experiences," Valve's Gabe Newell revealed in a Steamcast last year.

"So we don't really think that that's in doubt; the question is really about when and in what forms that takes. Even very simple noisy proxies for player-state, like skin galvanic response or heart-rate, turn out to be super-useful and they're very much at the beginning of the kinds of data that you can gather."

"Biometric inputs have had a fundamental effect on gameplay in Valve's in-house experiments - something it has made no secret of."

Valve produced a special build of Left4Dead that mapped biometric data (referred to in-house as the 'arousal state') to each player and displayed it on the in-game HUD.

"When you were playing competitively we found that people were incredibly aggressive towards highly aroused players on the opposing team and were very defensive about highly aroused players on their own team," Newell said.

By mapping the feelings of the player into the game, Valve had managed to fundamentally impact the way in which players were interacting. It's big stuff, and clearly just the tip of the iceberg into the kinds of research the company has been carrying out in its R&D labs. Consoles have been launched on far less compelling concepts.

If this all sounds rather exciting, it's worth noting that there are plenty of stumbling blocks in the path of this dream project - assuming that it is a console in the accepted sense (the Verge article talks about it taking on a games-enabled Apple TV). For a start, there's a matter of compatibility. Backwards compatibility with the Steam library would clearly be a major selling point: all existing titles on the Steam platform would work on the new machine according to the Verge report, which presents us with an interesting puzzle - in theory, the embedded Enterprise version of Windows 7 would be up to the job here, but what are the chances of Microsoft providing the kernel powering hardware that would be competing with its own console?

Secondly there's the concept of producing a financially competitive piece of hardware to challenge the boxes from Microsoft and Sony when there would be no revenue streams for the manufacturers from game sales. Historically, this is what has allowed platform holders to sell their machines at a loss.

The Verge article talks about i7 CPUs, NVIDIA graphics cores and 8GB of RAM - now that encompasses a pretty enormous range of potential parts across a large spectrum of power, but to provide competition for a next-gen Xbox or PlayStation using off the shelf parts, we're looking at something along the lines of the Alienware X51, which costs the best part of 800 - I'd be surprised if we see any next-gen console launch at a price-point north of 299, so there's clearly a value issue here.

There's nothing to stop Valve using cheaper PC parts in their own design of course, and as the Xbox 360 and PS3 demonstrate, addressing hardware more directly can result in substantial performance gains. However, if backwards compatibility is a key component, that means Windows, DirectX/OpenGL and all the issues that come with them. A dual-boot system supporting both the Microsoft OS and a dedicated, performance-orientated kernel is of course an option but would be a bit messy.

"To provide competition for a next-gen Xbox or PlayStation using off-the-shelf parts, we're looking at something along the lines of the Alienware X51, which costs the best part of 800."

There's also the small matter of exclusive games. Where would the Xbox be without Halo, Forza and Gears of War? Would a PS3 purchase be as compelling if it did not have the developmental might of studios like Sony Santa Monica, Guerrilla Games, Naughty Dog and Evolution Studios providing gameplay experiences exclusive to PlayStation platforms? What would make customers choose a Valve console if all of its games were also available on other, perhaps cheaper consoles?

Never mind the console exclusives, could a Steam Box succeed without the support of Electronic Arts? With EA looking to take on Steam with its own Origin platform, the chances of future Battlefields, FIFAs and Need for Speeds coming to a prospective Valve console are obviously diminished - dependent entirely on the hardware being able to run as a PC on an OS supplied by a competing console manufacturer. It's a pretty grim scenario.

All of which perhaps suggests that the rumours are just that, and that Valve aren't developing a console at all, and that The Verge got it wrong. Doug Lombardi, talking to Kotaku and choosing his words very carefully, told us not to expect anything soon, certainly not at E3 2012.

"We're prepping the Steam Big Picture Mode UI and getting ready to ship that, so we're building boxes to test that on," Lombardi said, discussing the new front-end designed primarily for PCs attached to living room displays.

"We're also doing a bunch of different experiments with biometric feedback and stuff like that, which we've talked about a fair amount. All of that is stuff that we're working on, but it's a long way from Valve shipping any sort of hardware."

All of which sounds pretty conclusive, but the question is - what did actually happen at those "behind closed doors" meetings at CES 2012 which were the basis for The Verge's story? Lombardi is playing down the hardware angle, but well-placed sources at GDC suggest that there's perhaps more meat to the story than the firm is perhaps willing to admit...

Latest comments (20)

Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 7 years ago
Someone has to seriously nip this nonsense in the bud. The reality is that the investment needed to make a viable console in this day and age would have Gabe bankrupt within months.

They could make a specialist PC along the lines of the shuttles i.e. small, compact and able to play steam very well. They couldn't by even the longest stretch of anyones imaginiation make an actual dedicated games console. If they attempted this they would very quickly become the sega of today and correct me if I'm wrong here but, valve haven't made an actual game for a while now.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 7 years ago
@ Peter

Valve have actually produced 1 game a year (minimum) since 2007. It's just everyone just thinks of the perpetually delayed HL3 when they think of Valve.

I do agree that this kind of rumour-mongering isn't "good", but as long as it's not being passed off as fact (something the Verge article almost does, imho), it's an interesting thing to debate academically.

"Never mind the console exclusives, could a Steam Box succeed without the support of Electronic Arts?"

Valve have repeatedly said they want to work with EA. EA's issue (I believe) is to do with external retailers selling DLC. If that's the case - and given Valve's opposition to closed platforms - I would be very surprised if EA weren't actively interested in such a machine. Indeed, there could be a very nice quid-pro-quo there involving EA DLC coming to Steam, in exchange for closer
communication regarding it.

Regarding exclusive games, Steam (or rather, the PC) already has some number of them. The Witcher 2, for instance, is PC only until the 360 version releases next month. Anno 2070, StarCraft 2, WoW, TOR... In fact, mostly any RTS, MMO or strategy game is PC only.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 14th March 2012 8:59am

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Nick Parker Consultant 7 years ago
I think that all publishers, including 1st party console publishers will one day want to see their IP available wherever there are meaningful communities, of which one is Steam. Walled gardens can't remain forever so I would expect to see even Mario on tablets one day. Publishers can't argue with the numbers in communities even if they overlap sometimes which is why a Steam Box doesn't make sense.
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Show all comments (20)
Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 7 years ago
To bring a conventional console to market requires achieving critical mass in many areas. So you are talking about over a billion dollars of risk. And you can lose this money, just ask Sony about the PS3.
But there are other routes as GoLive have proved with their MicroConsole, which is just a device to access the cloud.
Or even just a innovative controller that works with other platforms.

We will see. Gabe is nobody's fool.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
They would do far better to bring Steam to multiple products than to release their own product.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 7 years ago
@ Bruce

My money is definitely on an all-platforms controller. It fits in with Valve's philosophy of improving the user experience, and with his comments about hardware.


@ Jim

The iOS/Android release of the Steam app is their first step, I think, to doing that. And it makes you wonder what kind of deal they struck with Apple - the Steam app allows you to buy anything on the Steam store, which is a surprising amount of freedom from Apple.

Also, they were mooted as a possible partner of Nintendo with the WiiU download store awhile ago. Again, it makes sense, and I see Valve being far more in-tune with Nintendo's sensibilities than the other mooted partner (EA).

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 14th March 2012 9:45am

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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
Morville, I agree. The upcoming consoles, starting with Wii U, could be that open door Valve needs to expand Steam in ways they couldn't otherwise do on their own. With Nintendo already stating they plan to partner with others on their online services and Valve openly stating they want Steam on Wii U...just make it all happen, fellas.

Origin could also move in that direction and given that Riccitiello himself made a stage appearance at Nintendo's E3 media briefing last year (a very rare 3rd party stage appearance I might add) talking about how they wanted to support Wii U pretty heavily, it too is possible.

E3 will hopefully give us answers to those questions. But spreading the service, to me, is an infinitely better direction for Steam than trying to lock itself into a new console box. Design costs, marketing, manufacturing, distribution, wharehousing, etc...all elements largely alien to Valve and incredibly expensive.
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Rodney Smith Developer 7 years ago
The technology is lot easier for new entrants to console market:

AMD Fusion Cpu (up 8 cores and 7000 (DX 11) series graphics)
Glue logic

Plus you get pc isa which would suit steam.
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Adam Campbell Game Manager, Azoomee7 years ago
I think one of the biggest ideas for a 'Steam Box', that's licensing some form of Steam IP for consumer electronics companies to use is a good one and one of my earlier suggestions for the future of Xbox. Physical hardware designed and developed by one company seems incredibly outdated, even if that has been the status quo for many years in consoles..
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Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve7 years ago
No-one here seems to have mentioned the fact that Valve have flat out denied that they're developing any sort of commercial hardware...
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
Thomas, I was actually waiting to see how long it would go before that was brought up. 4.5 hours.
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Patrick Frost QA Project Monitor 7 years ago
Surely it would make more sense for there to be a Steam OS rather than hardware? This could be loaded on to lots of different hardware, rather than limiting themselves (as others have already mentioned).

@Jim Webb - I hope your thoughts on Wii U's services prove true. Having a semi-open console to allow people to distribute and host in their own way is going to be extremely appealing to publishers. Tie all of these log ins to 1 Nintendo Network account and your laughing.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 7 years ago
Incidentally, biometrics is a fancy word for "formula". It's just psychological manipulation. Any artist from another medium knows that sooner or later the audience picks it up that they are being manipulated.

The only route for true creativity is to let the creators take the lead. Initially the audience may find this unfamiliar, possibly uncomfortable. But that's normal. Eventually either new creative risk doesn't pan out or the audience then gets it and the new form you've created becomes an accepted new form.

But the point is this: you can't expect the audience to do your creative innovation for you. YOU have to do it.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 14th March 2012 4:34pm

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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada7 years ago
It's been flat out denied for days now. Example article: here
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Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve7 years ago
A SteamOS sounds nice, until you get to the issue of porting over the entire library of steam games. Almost all of those games are made for DirectX, which runs on windows. SteamOS would basically have to emulate windows for it to work, which I imagine would be a drastic last resort and only if MS wouldn't allow Valve to use Windows on the device.
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Rodney Smith Developer 7 years ago
'All' valve need to do for SteamOS is take some flavour of linux and create an api that mirrors windows and direct x api's then create some kind of binary re-compiler (like the one apple used for 68000 transition) to move all the window games to the new platform.


Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rodney Smith on 14th March 2012 6:55pm

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Micaiah Stevens Owner & Freelance Game Designer, Haven Studios LLC7 years ago
For a closed software platform, they are not going to be an open hardware platform.

OF course I laud the efforts of making a OS that is lean, unlike windows and has the capabilities of Steam, but its going to be near impossible to run DirectX without Windows or an underlying OS.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Micaiah Stevens on 14th March 2012 7:20pm

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Adam Campbell Game Manager, Azoomee7 years ago
I think its because most people are looking at this hypothetically.
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Finally... that's a good idea. Although depends on how it's implement. Anyways, I second the "open console" idea. :)
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Michal Bayerl Blogger & Critic 7 years ago
I'm very surprised, that any of the articles rumouring "Steam Box" didn't think of it as a streaming console, rather than a classic console with a lot of powerful components. Streaming games is much cheaper in terms of hardware capabilities. Valve is a software firm and that's why I think this would make more sense for them, because streaming is about software and server optimizations, where Valve has plenty of experience in.
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