Thursday, January 23, 2014

What the Hell is a Steam Machine? by Kyle Johannessen

I find myself with more time on my hands these days, so I feel that it’s time to jump back into the Ace of Geeks. Even though Mike and Jarys have never invited me back to the podcast, despite the fact that I’m charming and witty and have a great baritone voice (jerks).  (Editor's Note: He is none of these things.)

Anyway, I’m going to talk about Valve’s Steam Machines today. Let me start off with saying that I’m primarily a console gamer and I lean heavily towards the Xbox. I am not a fan boy. I think the Playstation 3 and 4 were great systems and even had a Wii for a while, I just lean towards the Xbox because I’m a huge fan of Halo, I like the controller better, and I find the user interface easier to manage. I used to be an avid PC gamer as well, as I was a sucker for Real Time and Turn Based Strategy games. I just couldn’t keep up with the cost of maintaining a gaming PC.

So let me tell you why the Steam Machines confuse the hell out of me. From what Valve’s own mission statement, they are trying to bring PC gaming into the living room. And I think that’s silly for a number of reasons. First, the living room has been pretty much claimed by Microsoft and Sony. And let’s be honest here, there isn’t much that the PC can do that the consoles can’t. Sure, they can’t match the horsepower of PCs, but you can still play some good looking games on them. And watch Netflix and Hulu and even use the internet if you really want. And again, let’s be honest, there are fewer and fewer companies making big PC games. Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing PC titles out there (Gone Home is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had playing a “game”. See my article about that back there somewhere) and if you want to play an RTS, a PC is just about the only way you’re going to do that. But a Triple A shooter? Xbox and Playstation. A great RPG? Xbox and Playstation. Racing and sports games? Do they even make those for PCs anymore?

Valve has been great at one thing as far as its games go, and that’s the Indie market. Playstation has been good, Xbox is lagging behind horribly, but Steam has been a great platform for independent developers to release games to a mass market. But do you really need another $300 box to play them on? The answer is most likely no, because you don’t need the horse power to play most of those games. So getting a Steam Machine isn’t going to expand your gaming catalog all that much, and having a gaming PC in your living room isn’t going to get you a whole lot of extras that the major consoles don’t offer. And on top of that, the mouse and keyboard have never really caught on in the living room setting. Oh, “but Valve is developing a controller!” you say? Have you seen that thing? It looks like the most poorly designed, difficult to use controller made. Maybe you can plug in an Xbox 360 controller into the thing to alleviate that problem, but wow, does that thing look uncomfortable to use. And it has about a dozen buttons. My thumbs can’t contort that much.

 And that’s not to mention that the install base of the living room entertainment machine has been pretty much split the most it’s going to. It’s all Microsoft and Sony from here on out, with Nintendo’s constant misunderstanding of the market pretty much dooming them. There’s nothing a Steam Machine really has to lure anyone away. And with the economy the way it is, and the increasing price of games and the consoles themselves, there really isn’t much there to warrant another machine in your living room. I really just don’t think that they are going to lure the console market over to Steam Machines. I’m sure some of the more hardcore gamers with some disposable income will purchase one, but not enough to warrant the kind of sales they are looking for.

What about the hard core PC gamer? Well. Most of them already have a gaming rig. If they were going to buy a Steam Machine, they certainly wouldn’t be purchasing the lower end, $300 dollar machines. They don’t have enough power to entice the hardcore PC gamer and the majority of those configurations are not upgradable. A hardcore PC gamer would more than likely buy one of the $1600 dollar configurations. But… why would they do that? They ALREADY HAVE THEIR GAMING RIG. Hell, the most expensive Steam Machine is going to be around $6000! Even the most hard core gamer is more than likely not going to shell out that kind of cash for a Steam Machine. Hell, you could build TWO water cooled, top tier gaming rigs. And if you want to put one of those in your living room, there is really nothing stopping you from doing so.

Maybe it’s just me. I just don’t see the value in what Valve is trying to do. I really do appreciate their constant drive for innovation and changing the way the industry operates, but I think getting into the hardware game is really the wrong move for them, even if they won’t be building the machines themselves. Maybe I’m also afraid that Valve is spending so much time with their Steam OS and the Steam Machines, that they will continue to neglect making Half-Life 3 and shutting all of us up once and for all.

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