Thought Bubble: Rage Against the (Steam) Machine


steam os

The Steam Machine has been the subject of enthusiastic speculation because it promised to combine Valve’s exemplary customer service and peerless development standards with the muscle of Valve’s billion-dollar bank account. Valve’s mystery box could be the machine to unify the living room, a benthic leviathan circling the deep waiting to devour unsuspecting manufacturers of hardware.

Now that Valve has finally gone ahead and announced the damn thing – along with a new OS and a new controller – those expectations appear more than a little extravagant. The Steam Machine was never going to be the console equivalent of Wyld Stallyns. But I was expecting something more revolutionary, so forgive me if I’m disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Valve is making a mistake, nor do I think the Steam Machine and the Steam OS will be bad products. Valve has an incredible track record and I expect the new hardware to live up to the company’s exacting standards.

The problem is that it’s not going to fundamentally alter the current gaming landscape. I look at the horizon and I see more of the same.

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Somewhere between the Steam OS and the Steam controller, it became apparent that Valve isn’t making a console as we traditionally understand the term. It’s making a PC for the living room, a move that prematurely limits the Steam Machine to Valve’s existing PC audience.

That PC audience is obviously substantial given Valve’s success, but it’s much smaller than the console market, especially when fans have to petition Rockstar to release the PC version of a game made using PCs. If Valve is targeting that niche it won’t threaten Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo.

Modern consoles are ubiquitous because they’re simple. If the game says PlayStation 3 on the box, it will work when you insert it into a PS3. A good gaming PC, on the other hand, demands knowledge of graphics cards and processors and optimization. Keeping up with the latest specs can be exhausting, and that insider trading seems to comprise Valve’s entire strategy.

Throughout the week, Valve’s theme was modularity. We were repeatedly told that Steam represents the most customizable gaming console ever. The Steam OS is built with Linux so you can hack and modify to your hearts content. The Steam Machine will come in a half-dozen distinct flavors with a controller that can be tailored like a keyboard. The Valve experience is all about giving consumers more tools, more variety, and more options for modification.

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I just don’t think consumers want to make those choices.

Don’t believe me?

There’s anecdotal evidence to suggest that the next generation of kids is actually going to be less computer literate than the one that came before it, and it’s not all that surprising. In the early days of DOS, you had to know a bit of code to get games to run. Since then, the tech industry has consistently simplified the end-user experience to be intuitive rather than flexible. We want our stuff to function when we open the box, but when it comes to the how and the why, we don’t want to be bothered.

Steam controller

Gaming is no different. We download our updates automatically and Sony and Microsoft tout a new feature whenever they reduce the number of steps we have to take to enjoy our games. We no longer want to know what happens behind closed doors. We only want Grand Theft Auto V and the Xbox to fornicate when we put them together.

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Valve is trending in the opposite direction, offering more complexity with the user interface and at the point of sale. That’s likely to create paralysis of choice amongst all but the most tech-savvy gamers, and Valve already has that market cornered thanks to the ubiquity of Steam.

In all likelihood, the Steam Machine will integrate into the living room better than a desktop PC. Valve will get positive feedback because its customers will get exactly what they want. There just won’t be much crossover with Sony and Microsoft’s clientele because GTX 770 and i7 3770 read like incomprehensible gibberish unless you speak Nvidia. I’ll end up buying an Xbox or a PlayStation if they offer all the games for half the hassle.

That’s why Valve’s biggest selling point – modularity – will ironically limit its appeal. Sure, a Steam-exclusive Half-Life 3 would move units. It’s also antithetical to Valve’s open source mission statement, and Valve has more invested in that reputation than it does in any one piece of software.

More options are genuinely appreciated, so I’m more than willing to give credit to Valve for trying something new. The intriguing controller in particular could be the sort of innovation that immediately gets co-opted by the rest of the industry. But console gaming beat out the competition because it standardized gaming tech, and a variable PC-lite isn’t going to change that.

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