I was extremely excited when Valve teased their plans for the future. A controller that could prove a credible alternative to a Keyboard+Mouse set-up, a Linux based OS based around their Big Picture Mode and Steam itself, and the news that they’d be working with hardware manufacturers to create ‘Steam Machines’ – essentially small form-factor PC’s that would run SteamOS and ship with a controller. Why was I excited?
Ok, it wasn’t so much about the SteamOS. I’m not a ‘hardcore’ PC guru by any means, and I probably wouldn’t touch Linux with a barge-pole for fear of breaking the world, or something, but I’ve been enjoying the slow emergence of ‘couch gaming’ on my PC. The Steam Controller could open up more options to more genres of games. Obviously, there are some games that you just NEED a keyboard and mouse for, especially playing competitively online. That’s fine, that was always going to happen, but I still think once people get used to it the Steam Controller will still be a useful and widely-used device. If gamers can get used to motion control, they can get used to this.
I spend A LOT of time on my PC. I work here, I play many games here now (especially strategy games), I write my novel here… When I leave my computer, it’s usually to go eat, to go to sleep, to go out, or to spend time with my girlfriend. None of these things involve me hooking up my 360 or my PS3 (sometimes we game together, but not often). As the years have passed since I first acquired my 360 and PS3 (I think 2008/9 and then 2010, respectively), I’ve been using them less and less. And now the ‘next’ generation is here and I can’t get excited about it. I like console gaming, I have a bit of console gaming in me from my Nintendo days, but more and more I’ve become entrenched in PC Gaming. But I don’t like that I spend so much time in my office.
Imagine then a device that lets me take my Steam Library to my couch, instantly accessible, and thanks to the Steam Controller and SteamOS, almost as user-friendly as the current home console. I know, I know – you can do that already. Many dedicated PC Gamers do but I don’t think I’d be able to build my own machine for cheaper than a home console and the size of a home console, which is the point here. Plus, I’m not hooking up my current PC downstairs because my office is my office, and my living room is my living room. The Steam Machines, as I envisioned them, represented an affordable small-form factor PC which could play most, if not all of my games, and would complement my gaming habits and allow me game on the couch once more. Steam gets so many games you’d never see on a home-console, and even the ones you do are generally cheaper (especially compared to current XB1 and PS4 games). Plus there’s the steam sales, so long term you can buy and acquire more games for your money. Before Valve started making noises, I was actually considering buying a PlayStation 4. If I could spend £500 on that, I could spend £500 on a Steam Machine instead.
Perhaps I was expecting too much.
At CES this year, thirteen Steam Machines were announced and given details. Out of those 13, only four were competitively priced against the home consoles, and the specs vary (although thankfully the cheaper machines still seem competitive). IBuyPower’s (which was actually talked about in December 2013) seems similar, if not a tad better, as does CyberPower’s. Valve have also come out and stated that AlienWare’s offering, which hasn’t been giving any official details or prices yet, is supposed to be ‘embodiment’ of what a Steam Machine is, so unless I’m utterly wrong about what Valve were expecting, then that’ll be similar to iBuy and Cyber’s machines, I imagine.
Apart from three that are still ‘Price TBD’, the rest were all over $1000, including one ridiculous behemoth from Falcon Northwest that could cost up to $6000.
This is not helpful.
It’s now that I say “You’re doing it wrong”. I know this is just one guy’s opinion, on his own blog no less, but there’s been a lot of confusion and scepticism coming from different markets over the Steam Machines. Hardcore PC guys don’t see the point in a separate machine, as they all already have decent rigs that they’ll be happy with. Maybe they’ll try out the OS and the controller separately, but they probably won’t buy a new machine until upgrade time, and even THEN, there are already plenty of decent, respectable high-end pre-built PC’s on the market. A lot from the same manufacturers who’ve offered up some Steam Machines as well. They seem to be marketing these things as just another bespoke high-end PC, which is not really helpful to anyone. It’s nice, but not what we need. I can’t remember who it was, but one of the companies making the pricier machines, when asked about their high pricing, replied “We’re not trying to compete with console pricing”.
To you sir I say, “Then what’s the point in you?”
You see, I have a suspicion that I might be the perfect target market for this product. I’m a PC Gamer at heart, but I have a healthy respect for the console gaming experience. I just lack the dedication, funds and know-how to go down the DIY route. Given my job and the current economic climate, money is the most important factor for me. I don’t have a problem with the next-gen consoles per say, but given some of the measures they’ve taken and the cost of games, the Steam Machine could become a credible alternative to the console experience – the fourth console. But that means next-gen prices and specs. Zotac’s offering, which I included in the ‘good’ list, is actually $599, but I’d happily pay a bit extra against the fact that I wouldn’t have to buy any games with it straight away, and even if did, they would be way cheaper. I also think that curious or dissatisfied console gamers would also be a perfect market to target, for many of the same reasons although again, it’d require a competitive price-point.
It doesn’t help that Valve are being incredibly passive about all this. They’ve not put out any direct messaging about who they really want to target with these machines. They’re trying to open and flexible and “hey man, chillax”, and that’s fine, but its lead to what we’ve got now. Considering Gabe Newell himself made a quip about Valve’s 65 million accounts versus Xbox One’s 3 million sold units, they could go a little further to position these machines as console alternatives. I don’t mind the existence of the high-end specs; I just would prefer they’re not the majority, as I worry how that will affect the future of this idea.
I want to take my Steam Library/PC Gaming in general to my couch, and I should be able to do it for the same price as the console boys and girls (not counting game prices etc…) . Am I being unrealistic? Maybe, but a man can dream.