If you’re confused about the new lineup of Steam Machines, which range from $500 to a whopping $6,000, you’re in good company. As I said before in “The Amazing Valve Strategy” Part One and Two, this is a unique and long-term strategy for keeping PC gaming alive and hedging against the possible failure of the Windows platform, not a “monkey-see, monkey-do” attempt to rival the existing console market.
Here’s some reactions I’ve seen already, with my rebuttals:
1. Steam Machines are going to bomb
How is that possible, exactly? Steam Machines are sold by OEM’s — the people who already create, sell, and distribute custom PC’s under their own brand names, such as Gigabyte and iBuyPower. They’re not going to be sold at WalMart next to the PS4 and Xbox One, because you’ll have to order them from the place you want and have it shipped to you. (Actually, there’s a very good possibility that certain ones will be sold in stores, just as Dell computers or laptops usually are, because Alienware is owned by Dell and are making their own affordable Steam Machine. This is a bonus, not a requirement.) The OEM will make profit off of each one they sell, but they won’t lose anything by making it available on their websites either. Unlike the PS4 and the Xbox One, there’s no way “Steam Machines” can “bomb” — they can only succeed to different extents.
2. They won’t disrupt/dominate the console market
The real goal is not to destroy other consoles, but to ensure Steam’s ongoing success by untangling their fate from the Windows platform. Sure, it’s a double kick in Microsoft’s ass, by taking a seat in the living room, while also pushing developers toward Linux, but that’s just a byproduct of their plan. Valve earns hundreds of millions of dollars of profit from Steam each year, and that number is rising steadily. The only danger they face is the abandonment of Windows by gamers and developers, which his why they’re creating a free alternative. It’s a power-play with zero risk to Valve. And in the meanwhile, we know that Xbox loses Microsoft billions of dollars a year, and their own investors want them to dump the brand! When the new CEO is appointed to replace Ballmer, the pressure will be on to decide what to do about the sad, unprofitable, and confused “Xbox”. Who is really under the gun, here? Steam Machines are a very real disruption, simply by proving that Steam does not need the traditional Windows desktop environment.
By the end of this “generation”, I wouldn’t be surprised if both the Xbox One and the Wii U were considered failures of the industry, while the Steam Machines, SteamOS, and the Steam Controller became more powerful, flexible and popular than both “rivals” combined. Publishers and developers may find Steam a more reliable long-term partner; more ready to evolve, while less likely to break what already exists, and with a gigantic existing user-base to count on. As developers migrate toward Steam and embrace their strategy, a snowballing effect will naturally happen. Disruptive? Maybe not… Until the “Big Three” face the end of another “cycle” and can’t figure out what they can do next that Steam isn’t already doing better.
Also, keep in mind we haven’t seen the full roster of Steam Machines that will be available by the end of the year, including the PC-to-TV streaming devices. These will most likely be sub-$200 devices, and they’ll let you play your current Windows Steam library on your TV, compatible with the Steam Controller.
3. The Steam Controller sucks, and it will never replace “normal” gamepads
Less than a few hundred people have tested the Steam Controller in a meaningful way, but those who have tried it seem to think it has a lot of potential and could change the way we think about PC gaming. I seriously doubt that it “sucks”, although it’s obviously not going to be the best for every type of game. Then again, no input method is the best for every type of game; imagine playing Gran Turismo 6 with a mouse and keyboard, or DOTA 2 on a DualShock 4. The question is whether it will be “good” with enough games. We already know that every single Steam game will be compatible with it, and Steam itself will allow users to customize and share their favorite control configurations on a game-by-game basis, which is brilliant.
From a developer perspective, think it through. If you were publishing a game on Steam and you knew users were going to be using the Steam Controller and sharing different control schemes with each other, you’d be able to see raw data about what people think works best with that type of game. Next time, you could implement that control scheme as a default setting, or be inspired to tailor some of the features of your game to the Steam Controller to begin with. Don’t be surprised if at least a few developers (whether indies other bigger companies) start to take the Steam Controller into account if they know their game will end up of Steam, and especially SteamOS. It will only take a few great examples to get the ball rolling, and then you might even see PC game developers migrate toward the Steam Controller. What we call a “normal” gamepad is up for grabs.
SteamOS, Steam Machines, and the Steam Controller are revolutionary, thoughtful steps toward a future I’d like to see. Now that I’ve seen the initial options, I know I’ll be getting a PS4 while I wait for Valve’s plan to fall into place, but I’m no less interested. It would be amazing to see Windows and the Xbox One continue to fall behind the competition while Sony and Valve race ahead with things like PlayStation Now and SteamOS. Developer support will be the key to them all.