December 21 2012
Rumors about Valve Software getting into hardware business have been circulating for months, and co-founder Gabe Newell confirmed their plans in an interview with Kotaku not long ago. Valve, as you are probably aware, is the maker of the extremely successful Steam game delivery service, which currently enjoys a dominant position in the digital distribution of PC games. Valve is betting that people want hardware designed specifically to bring Steam games to big screen TVs in the living room.
It's not a far-fetched idea, and they're not alone. The OUYA console had a successful Kickstarter earlier this year, and TVs themselves have an increasing number of integrated media features. Combined with the growing popularity of mobile gaming, the continued dominance of the "big three" consoles isn't a sure thing.
Steam definitely has an appeal, especially in terms of game prices, but the hardware market presents a variety of potential pitfalls. Microsoft and Sony have traditionally sold their consoles at a loss for many months after launch in order in increase market share, and subsequently, game sales. That probably won't be an option for Valve, so they will have to sell the hardware at a profit. Subsequently, it will be difficult to compete on price with next generation consoles.
We don't have many details or even a name for the "SteamBox" yet, but it's safe to assume that it will essentially be a PC running Linux and Steam in it's recently released Big Picture Mode. I've tried Big Picture Mode with an Xbox 360 controller plugged into my PC, and it worked without a hitch. If the system ran Steam on startup, and the games you wanted to play had full controller support, is would be possible to get away from the mouse and keyboard, which few people seem to want to adapt to the living room.
Of course, you don't need Valve hardware to make this happen. Even today, it's possible to buy a PC with an HDMI port, plug in a TV and a controller, and set it up to run Steam in Big Picture Mode. It would, however, take a little fiddling, and you would probably need a mouse and keyboard occasionally. It remains to been seen how many people are willing to pay for a completely turnkey solution.
Valve isn't impressed with the direction Microsoft is going with Windows 8, and using the Linux operating system also comes with significant challenges. Windows is still by far the OS of choice for PC gaming, and only a small fraction of the games on Steam have native support for Linux. Convincing game developers to get onboard the Linux train, which is relatively miniscule, won't be easy. That said, Steam for Linux is now in open beta, and it could be the catalyst needed for more widespread adoption of Linux among gamers.
There is also the prospect of cloud gaming taking off sometime in the future, making it possible to play high-end games on any device that can stream a movie. We have the technology, but it looks like it could still be years before the average Internet connection, in North America and Europe at least, is up to the task.
At any rate, it's safe to say the next generation of gaming devices, SteamBox included, will look quite a bit different than the current generation, and it may also be the last generation of hardware built specifically for gaming. We can only wait and see if PCs in some form are finally going to carve out a coveted place in the living room next to the TV.