Steam Machines: Why I Remain Skeptical

ss_2834e44f9243cc749e81e18e5bb9961dbc6cd168.600x338“Valve are a difficult company to gauge”.

That’s a quote from a post of mine that was due to go up a few days ago. It’s since had to be rewritten, owing to new information fresh from this year’s Game Developers’ Conference, which, ironically, makes the sentiment behind it even more apt.

My central point was that Steam in-home Streaming was the future, not Steam Machines, as the latter will simply not offer their supposed target audience value for money. I still think that’s a fair assessment.

Why? Well, although building Steam Machines from off the shelf parts is prudent from a compatibility point of view, the seemingly overlooked downside of this approach is that it makes the bill of materials, and by extension, cost to the end-user, pretty much the same as a comparably specced run-of-the-mill desktop. That being the case, I just don’t see why anybody would ever choose a Steam Machine over a standard Windows PC and willingly bind themselves to the limitations of the Linux-based SteamOS.

This is where Steam in-home Streaming comes in. Modestly powered under-the-TVs PCs and HDMI-capable Windows 8.1 tablets are getting cheaper and more readily available all the time. Despite being somewhat lacking in the trouser department, most are amply capable of serving as client machines for streaming gameplay, and are far easier on the wallet than even the most frugally priced Steam Machines. What’s more, streaming from a Windows system offers full, unfettered access to everything in your Steam library, as opposed to a mere Linux-friendly slice. Clearly, this going to be the preferred entry route for PC gamers already in possession of adequately powerful hardware. Which, by definition, is all of them, right?

Valve seem to have implicitly conceded this point by revealing a slimline Steam Link streaming box designed specifically for that purpose – and for $49.99, no less. It’s pictured above.

But here’s where I got it wrong: I mistook the snail’s pace at which Valve were moving ahead with the project as a sign that they’d perhaps reached the same conclusion as me, and quietly shelved the actual Steam Machines themselves altogether. Clearly this isn’t the case, as many iterations were detailed at the aforementioned Games Developers’ Conference, with the first wave penciled in for November.

The fact that Valve are pressing ahead regardless doesn’t necessarily vindicate the concept, though, which begs the question: what would? By what yardstick could the success or failure of this endeavour possibly be measured? Valve’s near-monopoly of PC digital distribution will carry on for the foreseeable future whether 100 or 100,000 Steam Machines are sold. There’s little risk involved for the companies actually making them either, as the R&D costs of simply slapping something together from a load of, as I said earlier, ‘off the shelf parts’ and installing the free SteamOS on it are pretty much non-existent. In the past, there’s been talk of an overall goal of trying to wean gamers off Windows and Microsoft’s slowly encroaching endgame of a closed app ecosystem, but asking them to all but abandon their Windows-based Steam libraries is massively premature, at the time of writing. Steam Machines and Windows PCs aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but again, who’s really going to be willing to drop cash for both, or be bothered to install Windows on a Steam Machine, thereby making their choice to buy one in the first place completely moot?

So, while Valve’s Steam Machines may no longer feel quite so like vapourware, but gaping holes in their strategy, and ambiguity about just what the point of it all is, mean that a number of question marks still loom large over the whole project. Elsewhere, the Steam Controller looks usable, but the HTC made VR headset, like all such hardware, is unlikely to ever be anything more than a niché curiosity. There’s no telling quite how events will unfold, but watching them do so should be interesting, if nothing else. Anything could happen.

After all, Valve are a difficult company to gauge.

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