Games journalism has borne a striking resemblance to 24-hour news channels recently. With the onslaught of a new console generation, they’ve camped outside the consoles’ homes and reported on every move and subtle peak from behind their curtains.
Articles have flooded in detailing the outside of the consoles, the insides of the consoles, the launch titles of the consoles and how the consoles react in a microwave; it’s all been a little taxing. However, I don’t think the relentless coverage is taxing – it’s just covering something that I’ve lost interest in.
My interest has been subsumed by another console announcement that has really piqued my interest. That console? Valve’s Steam Machine. Not a lot can be said about it because there’s not much known about it yet. In fact, there isn’t even a confirmed console, just a prototype – but I’m excited about it nevertheless.
First, I need to explain why I’m enamoured by Steam. It’s a digital distribution platform for games – that means, basically, it’s like a shop where you can buy games, and the shop keeps the discs there for you for when you want to play with them.
You can probably sense a problem here – why would you want to keep your games in the shop instead of bringing them home with you? This is where we trudge into the muddy waters of digital rights management (DRM), where Valve sells us the right to use software that they still own, stored on their server as digital copy. What that means today, not just in gaming but in all forms of culture, is an article in and of itself, but suffice to say DRM is a controversial matter.
Microsoft was pilloried at the recent E3 game show for the DRM policies on the Xbox One, but somehow Steam has risen above this (no pun intended) to the point of managing to build a monopolistic grasp on the PC gaming market. I think this is due to how Valve does things – I mean, look at this delicious propaganda. It’s a company proud to do things differently.
The main reason Steam has maintained this hold is because it provides a great service. The draw of the digital market is that with one click you get your content, without a fuss. Steam makes this even easier by automatically downloading all the patches and updates associated with a game in the background. It’s a lazy person’s dream. “But consoles have digital markets like this as well!” I hear you say. Yes, but Steam – despite effectively being a monopoly – doesn’t act like one.
Games are competitively priced, especially during the annual Steam Summer Sale. This is even more impressive when compared to the console alternatives, where the latest games can cost up to £62.99 through their digital distribution channels. This doesn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever. Why would a customer pay an inordinate amount for something they may not even fully own? The console digital markets can do this because they are in fact monopolies; if you don’t like the pricing, there’s no other way to own the games digitally, it’s like it or leave it. With PCs, however, there’s real competition out there with other digital sellers like Good Old Games, Amazon and the Humble Bundle Store.
Valve is also extremely forward-thinking seems to want to do good by the gaming community. They’re pioneering digital sharing methods, and yesterday even announced a new review system that includes user play-time, to help others choose between critics when buying something new.
Steam Greenlight – a system for picking indie games that would be added to the storefront – may have launched with problems, but it was a step in the right direction. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the resurgence in indie games has been in a large part due to the success of Steam, and indie games are the ones I’ve been getting most excited about recently. The only part of E3 that put a smile on my face was Sony’s showcase of indie developers (well, that and Metal Gear Solid 5 – I’m a long-time Kojima fan). Octodad looks surreal. The Witness looks beautiful. I’m pretty sure these games will eventually end up on PC, though, and that’s where I’ll play them, thanks to Steam.
Now, to the Steam Machine. After having lauded Steam, I’m sure you are as intrigued as I am to see what Valve has come up with in terms of hardware. Right now, that’s not set in stone – they’re still meeting up with developers to see what they can improve. What can be said is that there will be different consoles by different manufacturers, and in line with Valve’s three-tier system of “Good”, “Better”, and “Best”, all budgets should be accounted for.
There are rumours that that at the bottom end there will be a device that allows a game running on a PC to be streamed to a television, whilst at the top end there is Valve’s prototype that may or may not go into production. That prototype, though, is very powerful – its graphic card, the Nvidia GTX Titan, is worth £770 on its own. That single component is worth more than the PS4 or Xbox One by itself. You’ll be able to change the parts of the Steam Machine as you see fit, making it essentially a PC masquerading in console clothing.
There are two key problems with the Steam Machine, however. First, its operating system, Steam OS, is Linux based, and at the moment the library of Linux games isn’t huge, to say the least. Second, everyone who has Steam already has access to hardware – they probably don’t need anything new. The beauty of a PC is that you can upgrade it as you want already, but with the Steam Machine, it could end up being rendered obsolete.
So, who is the Steam Machine for? Well, me.
I don’t have a PC. I play my “PC” games on a MacBook Pro and it isn’t that great. Also, I love console gaming, my first love. Consoles were created because they are plug-in-and-go, and the Steam Machine is directly aimed at those of us who are too lazy or too scared to build a gaming rig for ourselves. I trust Valve to provide me with something that is competitively priced and that will fit on the shelf in my living room. We can be pretty sure, too, that the Steam Machine will be able to boot Windows on to it as well, in order to play those non-Linux games.
But, who know, perhaps the Steam Machine will spark off a generation of Linux developers too. I probably won’t be able to afford the high-end variation but I know I’ll probably be pleased to have a Steam Machine in my house. After all, how can you not trust a company that encourages you to do this in its FAQs?:
Can I hack this box? Run another OS? Change the hardware? Install my own software? Use it to build a robot?