Steam Machine + Steam Universe Impressions


Steam Machine: An Alternative to the Next-Gen?

Imagine a next-gen console that came in various consumer-chosen models, each with their respective tiers of hardware specs and price ranges, that ran through an intuitive open-source OS and a massive online distribution system  that offered access to nearly every major and independent title in modern gaming? For some, this is the fever-pitched dream of the all-too-hopeful enthusiast trying to keep the ever-encroaching tide of invasive DRM-laden gaming and closed-console dominance at bay. But with the introduction of the Steam Machine, Valve Corporation might just succeed in making that dream a reality. But will it take hold, and for how long?

Valve Software, game developer-turned-software-distributor and now turned hardware purveyors, announced their plans  late this past September to begin manufacturing and selling a serious of tailor-made gaming PC built to operate in a living room environment, powered by a open-source Linux variant and their juggernaut-distribution system ‘Steam’. Prototype models are projected to be sent to beta-tester some time in Q2 of next year (Between April, May, and June) with the final commercial-wide release projected to launch some time later that year, though likely early 2015 at the earliest.

The ‘Steam Machine’, as it is so-called now, is nothing if not ambitious. News of this console surfaces amidst the first salvo of the next Next Generation of home gaming consoles (Microsoft’s Xbox One, Sony’s Playstation 4, and Nintendo’s Wii-U). Similar console-variants, such as the recently released though perpetually-stifled Ouya, have come with just as lofty (some arguably loftier) ambitions with commercial success that has, without adding insult to injury, been found wanting months after launch.

But Where their predecessors may have lacked, Valve aspires to make up for. Having already established themselves as one of the premiere “Think-tank” game developers of the past decade, with a legion of loyal fans and a multi-armed host of commercial support systems dedicated to crafting a satisfying “Gaming as a Service” model, Valve just might have over the years knit themselves a safety net of commercial goodwill sufficient enough to cushion the Steam Machine’s uneasy landfall into the arena of home entertainment.


Steam OS: Bridging the Disconnect between PC Gaming and The Mainstream

This week, Valve has pushed ahead with a multi-pronged PR campaign consisting of large series of interviews with some of the largest online gaming publications on the Internet, with an exclusive first look/play of the first model of the Steam Machine by the folks at The Verge. One of the key features of this alternative “console” is that it runs on a proprietary-variant of the Linux operating system called “SteamOS”. The Steam OS works in tandem with the preexisting bedrock of Valve systems, such as the namesake-distribution system, the offline-focused cloud-computer system “Steam Cloud”, and other-affiliated Steam software both preexisting and yet unannounced.

Valve is consciously working to avoid the pitfalls of their immediate predecessors by building a system that is able to offer a comprehensive commercial experience without invading consumer privacy and putting undue stress on their bandwith. The company wants to make the offline version of the Steam OS more robust and self-sufficient, with minimal internet necessary only for buying, streaming, or downloading purchases directly to the console’s hard-drive.

The strength of the Steam OS will be the fulcrum as to whether the Steam Machine succeeds after launch or evaporates as sure as it’s namesake.

Valve’s Haptic Controller, one of many strange and exciting new technologies coming through the steam machine.

The Hurdles To Which All Tech Is Heir

It’s a long road ’til launch day, but Valve have made some pretty bold steps forward as to how they’re going to approach this whole “Bringing PC gaming into the Living Room” thing. For starters, there’ll be no console “exclusive” titles on the Steam Machine. For many of you out there who call themselves Valve Enthusiasts (including myself), this decision comes as both a surprise and not at all. Valve is taking a supremely iconoclastic turn when it comes to this one detail. For as long as console gaming has been established, exclusive proprietary titles have been the tipping point between consumer purchases, gamers having to puzzle over whether the new “Gears of War” is worth purchasing over the latest “Infamous”. Consoles and Exclusives; You’re buying one for the other or not at all.

Valve has one of the most robust and iconic catalogs of titles in contemporary gaming, and it just keeps on getting larger. Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead, Day of Defeat, Portal, and of course the Half-Life series all number among the shining examples of the intersection between commercial and critical acclaim. And not one of them will be made exclusive to the Steam Machine.

This is especially shocking when taking into consideration the prolonged hiatus and bated anticipation for the next installment in the Half-Life series, something many if not all privy to the console’s existence before announcement thought would be the “Killer-app” for a then-hypothetical Steam console. As I’ve said before, a policy like this is near downright heretical in the sphere of commercial electronic gaming but par the course for Valve. In an interview with IGN on the topic, Valve console engineer Anna Sweet stated,

“Whenever we talk to third-party partners, we encourage them to put their games in as many places as possible, including not on our platforms…Because we think that customers are everywhere, and they want to put their games wherever customers are. That would go against our whole philosophy, to launch something that’s exclusive to SteamOS or Steam machines.”

This comes as no surprise to long time customers of Valve, who have seen the company’s enduring commitment to transparency and openness (within reason)  throughout all their services to customers. “Gaming as a Service” may have its bugs, but Valve is actively trying to fix some of them seeing how it has already prevailed as the ruling model.


My Thoughts & Reactions

[Disclaimer: I love video-games, and I owe a lot of that love to Valve. Ask me sometime how many hours I’ve played of HL2 past beating it.]

I’m an avid PC gaming enthusiast. But I don’t own a Gaming PC robust enough to tackle many of the titles that I would love to play (and write about…) otherwise. I, like many in my age-group, have a small supply of income split between disposability and necessity, with the latter half constantly winning out in the long run.

I want to save up and buy a steam console instead of a larger PC. Here’s why,

I already own a sizable amount of games through my Steam account. The service regularly offers immensely favorable deals that consumers (including myself) clamor to annually, if only to purchase a long-sought after title that’s now 30% off. Of all the “next-gen” consoles coming out between this fall and next year, the steam machine is the one I’m most looking forward to besides the PS4.

I want to play my PC games without breaking the bank, using a system that I already use, know, and trust, from a company that I already know and trust. Valve has earned my enthusiasm, unlike the other big name companies who have only worked to turn my hopeful optimism inversely into disaffected cynicism. I want to believe that the Steam Machine might be the console of choice for me outside of Sony’s, but only the next couple of months will yield substance to that hope.

My advice: Approach with a cautious eye and an open mind.  Valve is first and foremost a company, and it’s your responsibility as a consumer to keep them honest through your attentiveness. You have my attention Steam Machine, but not my purchase. Not yet.

sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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