Today, Valve revealed their second announcement for total domination of the living room: Steam Machines. Like the rumored 'Steam Box' we all expected, Valve has been working on their own prototype hardware, but is also letting other manufacturers in on the fun. The company is touting a number of boxes are different sizes and price points. And just like PCs, users will be able to build their own Steam Machines.
Overall, this announcement was far more vague than the SteamOS one. There were no specific hardware specs or even a picture of Valve's prototype box. There will be PC hardware for you to put your SteamOS on. SteamOS is the king of the show and Steam Machines are just the all-purpose throne.
Valve has been talking about taking over the living room, but with the Steam Machines announcement, we don't have something aimed at consoles. Steam Machines aren't like the Xbox 360, Wii U, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, or PlayStation 4, they're like the PCs millions of Steam enthusiasts already use. The spin points towards a console competitor, but the product on display so far is a Windows PC competitor.
The console business - much like Apple's successful smartphone and tablet business - is based on streamlining choice. Very few systems out there to confuse the consumer. Consumers head to the store and ask, "which one of these things does what I want in the simplest way possible?" Then they pick something, maybe a PlayStation 3 or an iPad; they like the simplicity. For the mainstream consumer that games only in their living room, the device is the tool they use to get to the content; the choice of Xbox or PlayStation doesn't matter as long as they can get at Netflix and Call of Duty. They don't want to choose between a bunch of different systems, they just want it to work. This has always been the strength of consoles over PCs.
Valve's Steam Machines are aimed the living room, which leads a lot of us to think 'consoles', but really it's evolving the PC market in a different direction. Most likely away from one company in particular: Microsoft. Microsoft has had a hold on the PC gaming market for years, but recently they've been trying to migrate in a few different directions in their own evolution. The Xbox One is their living room play, in the same way the Surface is their mobile play. Microsoft is trying to spread Windows across your entire life, but Valve thinks being in just your home is good enough.
With multiple manufacturers and do-it-yourself boxes, Valve is aiming at replacing Microsoft's PC gaming empire with a different one. That's years off in any major way, but Valve is good at thinking long-term. Steam first launched in 2002 during the Counterstrike beta and it was two years later was when fans lost their minds because Valve forced them to pick up Steam to play Half-Life 2. It wasn't until 2007 when other developers and publishers really started getting in on the fun and further beyond that when everyone needed their own digital distribution service. Valve plays the long game.
Valve's SteamOS and Steam Machines don't attack the console market, unless they plan to distribute their prototype in large numbers as the flagship box. Today's announcement downplayed that idea, sticking close to the Linux idea of open and build-your-own. Even with a leading Steam Machine on store shelves they'll mirror Microsoft's current PC situation: the Surface as the flagship with a bunch of devices from other manufacturers clouding the waters and making things harder for consumers. What Valve has outlined so far doesn't replace consoles, it just mimics and supplants the current PC market while moving towards the televisions; a spot many enthusiast gamers have already taken their PCs.
And on the last day, Valve said..
There are days when the Magic 8-Ball is an ambiguous oracle and there are days when it prints answers in flaming, neon-pink letters. What is Valve going to announce next? A Steam Controller, more likely than not. Unless Valve decides to do the old switch-and-bait and hand Half-Life 3 to us, instead. (Not that anyone'd complain if that happens.)
So, why a Steam Controller? The most glaring evidence sits in the upcoming Steam Machines' Beta Test Agreement. It's rather clearly stated there that 'Valve Corporation ("Valve", "We", "Us" or "Our") has developed and produced prototypes of entertainment system hardware and software, including a set-top box running custom software and a game controller (collectively: "Beta Products").'
This isn't the first forceful-elbow-to-the-ribs-wink-wink-OY hint. As Mike mentioned five days ago, Valve filed a patent for a 'video game controller' with 'swappable control components' sometime back in November 2009 and was granted said patent a little over a year ago. And since we're officially on the conspiracy train, let's kick it up a few more notches. Less than a month after they acquired the patent, CVG reported Valve had put up a job listing. The position? Industrial Designer. The requirements? '6+ years of professional experience shipping world-class, high-tech hardware products'. Hmm
If that wasn't enough to erase a sizable chunk of doubt, there's also the fact that Valve has been rather candid about wanting to make their own controller. In a 2008 interview with IGN, Doug Lombardi said,
"It's actually something that, I mean there's nothing to announce yet, but it's something we're definitely looking at. You hit the nail right on the head; there's a lot of games coming out right now on Steam that might be better [with a controller]. Everyday Shooter is a perfect example, right? It's something that we're looking at. It's something that these games are showing us there's a need there. They're proving to us that, oh wow, this is pretty cool. If there was a controller set for these things, they'd be even better. It's something we're looking at and something we're going to start talking to those people who specialize in those areas about."
Heck, Gabe Newell himself told 4chan in a group interview that three different controller prototypes were already in circulation at the time. This, naturally, tallies with Jeri Ellsworth's comments about building a 'hardware solution to the control barriers found in many Steam controllers.' /
Or it might be Source 2.0 and a game. (Holding your breath, in this situation, is not advisory.)