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FalconNorthwest_Tiki_03-980x1313Last night at CES, Gabe Newell of Valve spoke for about seven minutes about the new SteamOS/Steam Machine initiative. 13 different Steam machines were shown at the conference.
The controllers would be sold separately by Valve, and other companies could make their own controllers too. Newell said that beta testers say the Steam box is "the best thing since the beginning of time," and that Valve would be pushing them harder to say what was actually wrong with it so they could improve it further.

Valve currently has 250 games compatible with SteamOS so far, with 65 million users on Steam and 6 million simultaneous logins. ("We’re at 65 million; it’ll take Microsoft and Xbox One a while to catch up with 3 million in 1.5 months.") Valve says that the SteamOS initiative is about openness, they see themselves as an enabler, setting up the system and then getting out of the way. Then he dismissed the talk with, "Rather than talking to me, go talk to the hardware manufacturers."

You might wonder what all this has to do with e-reading, but in the broader picture, it’s part of the ecosystem musical chairs we’ve been playing with our devices. As people have moved to doing more of the stuff they used to do with PCs on tablets and smartphones—not just reading books, but reading news and the web and interacting with their friends and relations—Valve is hoping they can get people to do the stuff they used to do on consoles on home-theater/gaming PCs instead. (I don’t doubt that PC manufacturers would love to open up this new market given how their old one is rapidly going down the tubes.)

This morning, Ars Technica has a photo gallery of the 13 Steam Machines being shown at CES, and a more varied bunch of hardware you’ve never seen. Many of them look PCs in custom cases, some like consoles, a couple like subwoofers, and a couple like a Roku or wireless router. The hardware specs are all over the map—i3s, i5s, i7s; 8 or 16 GB of RAM; nVidia or Radeon graphics cards, even one with Intel Iris. And their prices (for those which are known) start at $500 and go up to $6,000(!) depending on hardware configuration. Clearly these are high-end gaming PCs thinly disguised as consoles.

Many of Ars’s commenters aren’t terribly impressed. They see the boxes as too expensive to compete with Microsoft or Sony’s consoles which have similar prices but a lot more “AAA” quality games—most of those 250 titles Valve touted were either indie games without much mass appeal or older titles like the Half-Life games, Left 4 Deads, and Portals. The Steam Machines aren’t even any cheaper than equivalent commercial gaming PCs—which they effectively are—even though the commercial PCs come with Windows for about the same price thanks to OEM bundling deals. And there are so many of them, with so many different appearances, that consumers could be confused about which one (if any) to buy.

And while individual users or small shops can build their own whitebox Steam Machines just as they can whitebox Windows or Linux PCs, it isn’t clear there’s a lot of incentive for gamers to cripple their gaming experience by foregoing Windows—especially since they could hook a Windows PC up to their TV and use Steam’s “Big Picture” mode and Steam controllers in the same way.

The biggest reason more games haven’t gotten Linux support in the past is that Linux support is worse than a moving target. It’s a whole wall of moving targets, and the game companies have to decide which target or targets they even want to aim at before trying to hit them. In terms of driver support, Linux is all over the map—you don’t have any way of knowing which graphics or sound engine or whatever any given Linux gamer’s PC will have. Windows and OS X get all the game ports because they’re just one version of one operating system, or a handful of versions that all share most of the same things in common: the same graphics engine, the same sound engine, the same drivers, etc. Linux, historically, has been too horribly fragmented for most commercial developers to bother with.

With SteamOS, Valve is giving game developers the same thing: one single target to aim at, with a specific graphics engine, sound engine, drivers, etc. So instead of porting to Linux being like trying to hit a target through a kaleidoscope, it’s just as much a single bullseye as Windows or OS X. If Valve can prove there is an audience, that might just attract some companies to start porting their AAA games over, which will grow the audience further. The question is whether there is that audience. Getting more chickens will cause more eggs to be laid, but those chickens have to come from somewhere.

It’s also worth noting that Valve hasn’t come out with a new “AAA game” of its own since Portal 2. (While it has launched Dota 2 (which Newell claimed at the keynote was now “bigger than Monday Night Football,” though he didn’t say by what criteria), that’s not exactly a game with great mass appeal.) It has been keeping extremely mum about developments on future games, such as the much-sought-after Half-Life 3—though that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been working on it, as Valve as gotten really really good at keeping quiet about things until it’s ready to announce them.

Might Valve be planning to launch its next AAA game to coincide with, or come soon after, the console launch? Perhaps with some kind of extra benefits from playing it in SteamOS? (Valve has said it doesn’t plan to withhold games from other OSes, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be some kind of “extras” for SteamOS players.)

In any event, it’s probably premature for people to look at launch pricing and decide it will flop. Prices will come down after things are out for a while. Indeed, there’s nothing at all stopping companies that aren’t partners with Valve from making their own off-brand beige box Steam Machines and undercutting the big players’ prices. What if a big PC maker like Lenovo or HP, who could take advantage of huge economies of scale, got into the game? (For that matter, Alienware is a part of Dell, and the Alienware box’s price hasn’t been announced yet though it’s supposed to be “very competitive” with current consoles. Though given Alienware’s rep for selling overbuilt devices at sky-high prices, I’m not holding my breath.)

I must admit, I hope SteamOS takes off. I’d like to live in a world where one of the most popular consoles could be put together from scratch at a fraction of the cost of a commercial version. It would be nice to see refurb and cheap-PC shops offering boxes with SteamOS on them rather than Ubuntu. And it would be a great thumb in the eye of Microsoft and Apple, who are trying to move the PC away from its open architecture into their walled gardens.

One thing’s for sure: as Ars forum member heartburnkid noted:

Nobody ever seems to have any idea what Valve is aiming for. And yet they usually hit their target.

They’re kind of like Amazon that way. I remember how people thought Amazon was insane for coming out with a $400 e-ink reader when no one had made a really successful one yet. For that matter, I remember people originally thinking the Steam video game store/manager platform was a ridiculous imposition to begin with. But they made them work. And I also remember people pointing and laughing at the iPad when it was premiered, asking who needed a big iPhone anyway—but then they actually got their hands on it and the tablet revolution was born.

So maybe pointing and laughing at the current spate of Steam Machines is a little premature, too. Time will tell.

 
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