Valve has been stepping up its game lately. For years the company has been dominating the PC gaming space, and now it wants to take a leap into your living room with Steam Machines, SteamOS, and the Steam Controller. Valve has lined up some great partners and supporters so far, including Nvidia, Paradox, Double Fine, and several others.
Will you buy a Steam Machine? I will, and if these had been available a year ago I would have bought one of these instead of the PlayStation 3 that's hooked up to our TV right now. I know for a fact that I am the target audience for this thing: a PC-only gamer who wants a good way to play on my TV and share games with my girlfriend without us fighting over my PC. I know I can't be the only PC gamer out there who has bought a console for reasons similar to this, and I really think that these Steam Machines will be a huge thing for people like us.
SteamOS, which is based on Linux, will revolve around Steam Big Picture Mode. While Linux has become a lot easier to use and install in recent years, this is aimed at being a good entry point for people who don't want to enter lines of code to install programs.
While Linux hasn't been associated with gaming in the past, it has been gaining a lot of ground with modern indie developers since Steam began supporting it. Steam has an ever-growing selection of games that run on Linux, and Valve's push with SteamOS will help the selection of available titles grow.
Even if the native selection of titles isn't as big as Windows at the moment, the Steam Machines will have a feature that will allow you to stream games to them from another computer. So basically, my expensive gaming rig will be sitting upstairs in my office running Windows and doing all of the heavy lifting, and my little Steam box will be hooked up to the TV just streaming the game onto my big television.
The ability to stream games to it -- along with sharing games with family members -- is the big selling point to me. I have a pretty beefy Steam library, and allowing my girlfriend and roommates access to it without having to re-buy the games on another system is fantastic.
While we don't have a lot of details on the actual machines yet, the drawings used for the announcements show some of them being relatively small -- maybe Roku-like in size. Something the size of a Roku or an Ouya in the $100 price range would be a big contender for living-room space, and it would almost be a must-buy for anyone who relies on their PC for gaming.
Speaking of the Ouya, that's who will take the biggest hit from these devices getting released. Microsoft and Sony will always have their core audiences who don't cross over into PC or indie gaming, but these new Android-based boxes are trying to grab a more casual audience looking to game in the living room for cheap, and that market will be stepped into by Valve.
Android games may be cool on phones, but from what I hear most of them don't carry over well onto the big screen. Android's cousin Linux has a decent -- and growing -- amount of indie games available for it. Even without the ability to stream games, if the Steam boxes can run some basic indie games on a hundred-dollar device, it will be a contender in this market. Adding the streaming only makes it a killer device.
Along the lines of little boxes like Ouyas and Rokus, one other thing that I think will have a huge impact on the success of Steam Machines is how they will handle media playback. Being able to run games is great, but these days any good device you hook up in your living room has to be able to play Netflix. Right now Linux can't play Netflix because of the dependence on Microsoft's Silverlight technology, but Netflix is beginning to transition to HTML 5 so in the near future we could easily see it running on SteamOS.
Beyond being able to support media steaming, it will also need an interface that can be controlled with a gamepad to make it easy to operate from the couch. Ideally, I would put Netflix access right into Steam Big Picture mode. I'm sure the mega-brains at Valve are thinking of some solution to this problem.
While to me the ideal price point for something like this is one- or two-hundred dollars, I can also easily imagine them rolling out something in the four- to six-hundred-dollar range, a rig that doesn't rely on another computer to play the big games.
Right now is an awesome time to roll this stuff out too -- people are considering buying a PlayStation 4 for $399 or an Xbox One for $499. Valve could easily make something with similar hardware and performance for around the same price. I don't think a box like that would take away from the sales of consoles, but it would be neat to see it as an option for people who don't already have a gaming rig.
It would do a lot for PC gaming to have a few standard options of machines to get with pre-configured hardware. Steam could show you simply if a game will run on your box or not, and people who don't understand any of the jargon used in system requirements would have a much easier time. It would essentially get rid of all the complicated bits and make a gateway to PC gaming. This doesn't take away from the complicated stuff for the nerds who want to get into the technical stuff (like me) -- it just adds more options, which is always a good thing.
I was originally thinking that this thing would be great for certain games that I'd want to play with a controller -- something like Tomb Raider or Saints Row: The Third -- but the Steam Controller looks and sounds really exciting to me.
Unsurprisingly, some people think it looks ugly. But I personally like the design. Regardless of what you think about the form factor, the functionality is pretty incredible. Being able to switch to a mouse and keyboard emulator mode is pretty sweet, and opens up the types of games you can play with it. The trackpads look infinitely better for gaming to me than using thumb sticks. It seems like a controller from the future, something designed specifically for PC gaming. I will definitely be getting one of these as soon as they become available.
Valve's new hardware and operating system could appeal to any number of people, but to me the biggest audience will be PC gamers who also play in the living room. Right now, most of us have a console for the handful of titles we want to sit on the couch and play.
This setup will replace that and be much better for us since we'll have access to our existing library of games. Being able to share our library with family is another awesome feature. If you have kids who want to sit at your PC and play your games, this will be a great way to let them do so without having to buy the games again as well as a console.