Wednesday, January 15, 2014

By Jamaal Ryan

Two Steam Machine announcements came out today.

One, the popular Alienware Steam Machine – the glossy 8x8x3ish unit said to be priced competitively with the newly released consoles – is expected to release this September. The second piece of news indicates that that the Steam controller has undergone a slight redesign to a new prototype, dropping the touch screen and looking more like a traditional controller whilst keeping the touch bowls. Think of it as keeping the shape of the Steam Controller, but swapping the placements of the face buttons and the joy sticks on a Dualshock controller. Images of 3D rendering of the controller have been Tweeted online, and is said to have undergone some other changes as well.

Last week, I wrote a piece admittedly high on the idea of Steam Machines. However as the dust has long since settled, much of what Valve expects from their new hardware is still confusing.

Where PC and console gamers such as myself share a valid concern is that the Linux based Steam OS only supports 250 games at this time. While this is will likely be more than what the new consoles will have even until the end of the year (with plenty of “last generation” cross overs like Metro: Last Light and Assassins Creed IV), this is unacceptable for the now established 75 million Steam users who have access to the nearly immeasurable amount of games listed on what I’ll call “Steam Proper” through Windows.

There are ways to access Steam’s full library on a Steam Machine. Users will “simply” have to install Windows on their Box, provided that they have the correct hardware. From what’s been talked about at CES, it seems that the lower grade-lower priced Steam Machines: iBuyPower and Alienware, either cannot install Windows or aren’t built to make it simple for the casual consumer. To get access to that, one would have to invest in the higher end Steam Machines which break the $1,000 threshold. Looking at accessing Steam via Windows on a Steam Machine effectively turns the system into just another PC, which completely defeats the purpose of investing in a Steam Machine in the first place.

250 might be a decent number for a catalog; but in knowing that it’s but a small fraction of the full Steam software support and not knowing what the incentive is for developers to support Linux at this time makes the Steam Machines a little less appealing (though I’ll probably still get one anyway).

Outside of the Linux vs. Windows debacle, Valve’s messaging on who the Steam Machine is for is unequivocally disjointed. By simply looking at the hardware concept, Steam Machines are the answer to making PC gaming simple and accessible, which in turn will bring in new users such as myself. However, Valve has stated that they’re not looking to step into the market that Microsoft and Sony is catering to; instead, they’re looking to offer an alternative option for current Steam users, the very same Steam users that have a very comfortable PC gaming experience already, including making Big Picture Mode work on their own.

This makes no sense to me.

The act of bringing new products to the consumer market is meant to widen the audience. But this approach of looking at current Steam users is the very mentality that brought up the question, “Who are Steam Machines for?” I understand the hesitancy in talking to a market that has likely been imbedded in the console space for their entire gaming lives, but there’s nothing wrong with stating, “We are looking to give our Steam users another option along with offering newcomers a streamlined PC experience.”

Despite the confusion, split messaging and lack of conviction on who this new line of hardware is for, the fact that we’ve seen the idea of Steam Box move to hardened details of the Steam Machine line up is undeniably exciting, albeit not fully knowing what to be excited for yet. Some suspect Valve’s peripheral stance on not manufacturing their own hardware might be a sign that Valve isn’t fully confident that Steam Machines will be a success. However Valve is onto something here. PC gaming deserves to be more consumer friendly just as it is important for the gaming community at large to have easier access to PC software. This is an idea that will catch on, one way or another – even if we don’t see it yet.

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