Valve’s Steam Box: The plot thickens for PC-based game consoles

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For a product that's received so much attention from the technology press, it’s astounding how little we actually know about Valve’s Steam Box, the half-PC, half-console hardware concept that could potentially redefine the video gaming landscape.

Sure, Valve boss Gabe Newell has offered some vague descriptions of his company’s plans, along with grand statements about the games industry and Valve’s place within it. Valve has also laid the groundwork for the Steam Box with the launch of Steam for Linux and Big Picture mode.

The former would serve as the new hardware's lean-and-mean OS. The latter would make it easy-peasy to control Valve's Steam service on big-screen, living room TVs. But what Valve hasn’t done is talk specifics about hardware features, tech specs, and pricing. There’s no release date for the Steam Box either, though Newell has said that prototypes could ship within four months.

The picture got even murkier last week, when Valve and modular PC maker Xi3 Corporation had a public spat. Despite having invested in Xi3 last year, Valve said on Tuesday that it has “no involvement” in any Xi3 product, including the Piston, a $1,000 gaming PC that many had believed to be some sort of Steam Box reference design. In response, Xi3 suggested in a press release Wednesday that the Piston’s use of Windows, rather than Linux, was a source of disagreement between the two companies.

To get to the bottom of things, we spoke with Xi3, and tried to parse all of Valve’s previous statements about its game console plans. (Valve did not respond to a request for comment.) Read on, and we’ll try to clear the air.

Many Steam Boxes, few details

Valve hasn’t come out with a solid definition for the Steam Box, though the company has outlined its plans in broad strokes. The term may refer to a Linux-based game console made by Valve, but it can also refer to a range of products, built by other PC makers with Valve’s approval.

In an interview with The Verge last January, Newell described three categories of devices: “Good,” for boxes that cost around $99 and could stream games from another networked PC; “Better,” for machines that cost around $300 and whose specs are tightly controlled by Valve; and “Best,” which would describe more powerful PC gaming rigs with no spec restrictions. Valve’s own box would belong in the Better category, Newell said.

What must other PC makers do to earn Valve’s blessing? That’s still not clear, and so far, no other companies have said that they’re working on anything that meets the Steam Box criteria.

Steam's new Big Picture Mode lets you more easily run PC games a big-screen TV.

Newell has also talked about some unique Steam Box bells and whistles, such as biometric feedback built into game controllers and the ability to use Steam Box hardware as gaming servers for other screens in the house. But again, it’s unclear if these are specific plans for all Steam Boxes or just aspirations.

In any case, Xi3’s Piston—a full-blown gaming PC with a console-like form factor—hasn’t been anointed to any category.

“Gabe Newell is quoted in the press as talking about a Good, Better, Best, but are we that? I don’t know,” David Politis, Xi3’s chief marketing officer, said. Piston will be “optimized for Steam,” Politis said, but he wouldn’t explain exactly what that meant. Regardless, instead of relying solely on Steam’s Big Picture mode, Piston will have its own user interface that supports other services for gaming and video, not just Steam.

Is Windows welcome?

Because most PC games aren't available on Linux, a key question for third-party Steam Boxes is whether any of them will run Windows out of the box. Newell told Kotaku in December that he expects other companies to sell PCs for the living room in 2013, and they'll be designed to run Steam, but he avoided using the word “Windows.” (He was, however, less cautions when speaking to The Verge, calling Windows 8 a “giant sadness.”)

Nonetheless, it would seem that Valve is open to letting Steam Boxes run Microsoft’s operating system.

Why, then, does Xi3 point to its use of Windows as contrary to Valve’s vision? Politis wouldn’t say, but maintains Xi3 is committed to basing its machines on Windows. “At the end of the day, the vast, vast majority of installed operating systems and applications today run on Windows,” Politis said. “Why would you not want to support that?”

Despite last week's blow-up, Xi3 hasn't ruled out working with Valve. “It's always going to be up to them what their relationship is with us,” Politis said.

The Xi3 Piston was all the buzz at CES 2013 in January.

One line of speculation says that Valve doesn’t want to promote a “Best” category of Windows-based devices right now, at least not until Linux-based Steam Boxes are available, including Valve’s own hardware. Xi3, however, is currently taking pre-orders for a holiday launch, and Politis said the company may have a hard time meeting demand based on the response so far. Perhaps Xi3 just didn’t want to wait for Valve to be ready.

Why a Steam Box matters

Although many of the specifics are still a mystery, it’s clear why the Steam Box has caused such a frenzy among gamers and the press. Partly, it’s because of Valve’s loyal users, who are deeply invested in Steam’s downloadable games platform and online network. The idea of bringing your existing PC games library, achievements and friends list into the living room is an intriguing proposition.

Jesse Divnich, Vice President of Insights and Analysis for EEDAR, said Steam has been able to lead the way on digital distribution because the company isn’t hamstrung by retail stores and disc-based games. Whereas traditional console makers need to think about physical inventory, and work with retailers to mark down prices, Valve can work directly with game publishers to offer huge discounts and promotions. These kinds of sales have helped cement Valve’s status as the “people’s company,” Divnich said. (Valve’s status as a celebrated game maker, having developed Half-Life, Portal, Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead, arguably helps as well.)

“It really comes down to the basics of business,” Divnich said. “[Valve has] a very strong, and large, and loyal consumer base, so they’re going to want to offer—not necessarily exploit—a greater range of services to their consumers.”

While Big Picture Mode let's you more easily navigate the Steam interface with a traditional console controller, gamers will still have to face the reality that most traditional PC games are designed for keyboards and mice.

The interest around the Steam Box is also about timing, Divnich said. Right now we’re at the end of the current console hardware cycle, which has already lasted longer than previous cycles, so anything new is going to attract more attention.

“An increasing amount of consumers become disengaged, but it’s tough for them to entirely disengage from video games,” Divnich said. “They still want to play video games, they just want something different, they want something new.”

Will some of that interest die down once Microsoft and Sony release their next game consoles? Maybe so, but the Steam Box could still be a serious contender with its huge audience, its seamless downloadable game store and its embrace of indie games, mods and free-to-play titles. All we need is some solid evidence that the Steam Box actually exists.

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