Experience Points: Is Valve’s Steam Machine A Viable Console Competitor?
To answer this aptly, it depends wholly on how you look at the Steam Machines and what they’re setting out to do. I think as the Steam Machine prototypes will be released into the wild and we see the varying options for possible purchase, we can have a far more conclusive idea of what this Steam Machines will be aiming for in their target markets. However, although Valve’s official Steam Machine may not be that cheap with units costing between estimates of $700 to $1800, taking into consideration specifications and hardware costs, there may be potential. But the official Steam Machines will not be the only SteamOS game consoles hitting the market.
A company called iBuyPower have revealed a prototype Steam Machine which will go on sale for $499 next year. iBuyPower’s Steam Machine will be retailing at the competitive price-point of an Xbox One, and will accordingly offer a multicore AMD CPU, an AMD Radeon R9 270 graphics card and will come standard with Valve’s Steam Controller as part of the overall package.
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From all accounts, this Steam Machine is much smaller than the Xbox One but bigger than the PS4. The console comes standard with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a 500GB hard drive (which is perhaps a tad too small for all the digital content and games available through Steam). The standard offering will be available at retail in a glossy white finish with a fully customisable light bar running down its center channel, and the console also has an integrated power supply which is a vast improvement over the power brick that Xbox users are accustomed to.
Ultimately when purchasing iBuyPower’s Steam Machine, you’ll not be receiving Windows with the console, but rather Valve’s SteamOS which is a Linux-based operating system. This may lead to a number of teething issues when the console is first launched as all games on Steam will need to be Linux compatible in order to be playable on the console. But Valve promises that AAA games will be making their way to SteamOS, and compatibility of their already extensive digital library will be improved vastly over the next year or so. iBuyPower promises that existing Linux compatible games for Steam will run at 1080p and 60 FPS with no trouble at all. This is something which the Xbox One is struggling with at launch, and is retailing at the same price point as iBuyPower’s offering.
Furthermore, there are some pertinent issues with the viability of Steam Machines when you take into consideration the compatibility of the SteamOS in its initial release phase. The compatibility of the extensive Steam library may not match current-gen consoles already out on the market, and next-gen consoles. While it’s great to hear that Valve are working closely with AAA developers to bring AAA games to the SteamOS space, the time frame for this to be a true reality and something meaningfully competitive in the console market is difficult to discern.
Truthfully it feels like Valve are not targeting console gamers exclusively with Steam Machines but initially PC gamers who want to bring their gaming into the living room with ease, and making gaming freely available to those around them. Steam Machines are still PCs, and with SteamOS being totally open, customisable and the hardware configurations following the same trend, it is easy to see Steam Machines appealing to a variety of gamers. Console gamers will still buy Xbox Ones and PS4s, and give no second thought to Valve’s Steam Machines. But PC gamers looking for a console-like experience may take a chance with Steam Machines. Steam Machines seem largely experimental and are by no means yet game-changing consoles.
In contrast though, there are some exciting features that Steam Machines and SteamOS will bring to the table for gamers, especially in the living room. SteamOS will allow in-home streaming of both Mac and Windows games on a SteamOS machine (like iBuyPower’s Steam Machine) from a PC running running Steam, which can all be achieved wirelessly. SteamOS promises to bring music, TV and movie services into the fray with ease of access, and this is always a warm welcome in any new platform. SteamOS and Steam Machines will have family sharing where you can share games with members of your family, and you can take turns playing one another’s games with everything being saved to Steam’s cloud service. SteamOS will have many different family options with what can be shared from your own private Steam library and will allow everyone within your family to get the best Steam experience. One cannot forget mentioning the quality of Steam’s digital distribution itself which is vastly superior to the likes of Xbox Live and PSN when it comes to content delivery, and should work seamlessly with SteamOS and Steam Machines. This is another added bonus for gamers looking to get a Steam Machine.
If all of these services are streamlined and easy to use Valve could hit gold with the PC crowd by changing the way in which gamers see PC gaming, making entry into PC gaming far more attractive. Steam Machines could offer ease of use in the living room that is not afforded by the costs and knowledge of setting up a high-end PC rig. This is where the market potential may lie and aiming for a particular segment of the gaming market may be the best choice. Why does Valve need to compete with the Xbox One and PS4 directly? That in itself would be suicide. But I think Valve is far too intelligent to attempt that.