The mere concept of Valve's Steam Machines are enough to excite me in ways that few technology teases can, setting my jaded heart aflutter. When most technological progress these days essentially means faster speeds and feeds or a few fractions of an inch shaved off a laptop silhouette, Steam Machines stand out as being ambitious in ways that would've made Gordon Moore proud. Valve's diminutive gaming PCs have vision.
Where most gaming PCs are hulking, heat-spewing behemoths, Steam Machines will be tiny—and for good reason. While PC gaming has long played second fiddle to consoles in the mainstream mindshare, Steam Machines are built for living rooms, entertainment centers and TVs. Yes, Valve is taking on Xbox and PlayStation. Valve is taking on Microsoft, too, tossing off the shackles of Windows 8's walled garden (in Valve boss Gabe Newell's words) and powering Steam Machines with a custom SteamOS operating system built around—wait for it—Linux. Yes, Linux. Worried about the keyboard-centric design of most PC games? Fear not: Valve's crafting a revolutionary gamepad for that.
It's all so ambitious, so audacious—at least on paper.
But reality has had trouble matching that vision. Deep trouble. This week, Valve pushed the expected Steam Machine launch date all the way back into 2015, and even that may not be enough to right Valve's increasingly wobbly Steam-powered ship. A delay? Bah. If Valve doesn't assume more forceful control over the Steam Machine ecosystem, it may be better to cut losses and scrap the plan altogether.
The invisible hand
The delay is ostensibly tied to giving Valve's Steam Controller more time to gestate. If our hands-on impressions of the gamepad are any indication, that's a very welcome decision indeed. The thing's uncomfortably giant, and the circular, haptic-enabled trackpads central to the experience are jarring to use. All in all, "it's neither as precise as a mouse nor as easy as an Xbox 360 controller," writes Hayden Dingman, and that's a problem considering the Steam Controller is central to the entire Steam Machine experience.
But even if Valve manages to fine-tune the Steam Controller, the biggest problem with Steam Machines still lingers, because the biggest problems with Steam Machines are the Steam Machines themselves.
Steam Machines are confronting powerful incumbents in the Xbox and PlayStation consoles. Two of the key selling points of those consoles are price and simplicity—two distinct weak points for traditional gaming PCs. That is the bar Steam Machines have to match to succeed. Period.
Early indications suggested Valve is certainly aware of it. Shortly after the Steam Machine concept was announced, Gabe Newell told the Verge that the itty-bitty boxes were being built around a "good, better, best" ethos: "Good" machines are affordable and more of a low-spec receiver for Steam's in-home game streaming, "Better" systems pack dedicated CPUs and GPUs for traditional gaming, and "Best" machines… well, there are no-holds-barred on Best machines. Newell said Valve would provide baseline requirements for "Better" PCs for the good of the greater Steam Machine ecosystem.
It sure sounded like a smart way to bring order to the chaotic world of PC gaming while maintaining its vaunted open architecture!
But since then, there has been nary another whisper about the "Good-better-best" system. Since then, a slew of PC makers unveiled their versions of the Steam Machine vision at CES 2014. Those boxes were cute, and there were a few truly console-like models, but for the most part, the horde looked to be a repeat of the "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" mish-mosh so prevalent in mainstream PCs, rather than a cohesive vision for Steam Machines. A wide array of PCs with various shapes and sizes and components and prices and designs, and some are upgradeable, and how do you know which is right for you, and oh-geez, why would a casual gamer pick this over an Xbox?
Heck, some Steam Machines aren't even that small.
I won't digress too far, because I complained about the state of Steam Machines shortly after their launch. But recently, Valve's own Steam Machine launch partners have started griping about the mess.
Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, iBuyPower's Tuan Nguyen expressed concern about the wide range of varied Steam Machines soon to be on offer. "It's like the Android phone marketplace," he said, "You have phones all over the place with wild specs and pricing." Would-be customers will wind up confused, Nguyen said—and iBuyPower's $500 SBX Steam Machine is one of the most console-like models of the first wave.
Trying to make money on pint-sized PCs ain't easy either, especially with so many Steam Machines slated to launch in short order, and all without the ability to load up the SteamOS-based machines with revenue-generating bloatware, per the norm with Windows PCs. Alienware's Frank Azor said its Steam Machine "will absolutely be the least profitable system we ever sell"—no doubt a necessary move when competing with $400-$500 consoles.
If even Steam Machine manufacturers are calling the frenzy of disparate hardware confusing, do Valve's living-room PCs really stand a chance of going mainstream as-is?
Steam Machines need to go at least moderately mainstream to succeed. Sure, Steam is huge in PC gaming, but SteamOS is nowhere near as entrenched as Windows. PC makers need to sell those "least profitable" systems to justify their efforts in the endeavor, and Steam Machines need to sell to convince game developers to make native Linux ports for SteamOS—but there's a solid chance Steam Machines won't sell well if there are no native games to play first. It's the classic vicious circle. (Steam for Linux grew fast in its first year, but it's still woefully understocked compared to the deep selection of Windows games available.)
Valve can tread water by porting its own games to Linux and offering the cross-platform Steam in-home game streaming as a stopgap measure, but it's hard to imagine the SteamOS ecosystem thriving unless Valve exerts some control over the hardware experience to deliver a more streamlined message to consumers about why they should buy Steam Machines. "Because Gabe hates Windows" isn't enough to convince Average Joe to drop $500-plus on a glorified toy.
Bow before GabeN
But it is enough to convince a small army of PC makers to give Steam Machines a fighting shot. "If anyone can do this, Valve can do it," Falcon Northwest president Kelt Reeves told WSJ.
And my heart tells me he's right. If anyone can spit in Windows' eye and drag PC gaming into a wide-open new era—one set in the living room, no less—it's Gabe and Valve, who brought Half Life and Portal and the Source engine and Steam itself into the world.
But faith alone can't breathe life into the Steam Machine dream. Valve has to execute in promotion as well as product to avoid letting the goodwill of PC makers go to waste. Success demands the complete package, and hopefully this delay can help Valve hone its marketing and its Steam Controller alike. To do otherwise risks a repeat of the failed CD-i or 3DO gaming "platforms."
"SteamOS had one of the worst-communicated launches I've seen a while, and I see a lot," says Patrick Moorhead, founder at Moor Insights & Strategy, and before that, a long-time PC industry executive. "There was uncertainty on just about everything from hardware supported to controllers to platforms. Then they let AMD and Nvidia float on what was supported and what wasn't, which caused even more uncertainty. In the end, it's better to delay a launch than launch a bad product and service, so I'm glad Valve did delay. The titles, experience, and hardware just [aren't] there."
They can be, but only if Valve wills it. The message matters when you're sparking a revolution. Get your shit together, Valve. Please?