Coming out of GDC one question keeps circling my mind ‘who exactly is the Steam machine for?’ It’s a puzzling question, one that has continued to roll around my mind since Valve revealed just what a Steam Machine was. For those not in the know allow me to explain. Steam machines are basically ‘Steam: The Console’ – they are PC’s running the Steam operating system which plug directly into your TV. No differently from a traditional games console or set top box. In a way they’re a half way house between consoles and PC. Unlike a traditional games console Steam Box’s are not proprietary hardware nor do they all share the same technical specifications. It’s entirely possible to have an awesomely powerful box, or just an okay one. So we’re back to square one: a Steam Machine is effectively a PC that runs the Steam operating system.
By this point you may have noticed that I keep saying Steam Machines plural rather than Steam Machine singular. That’s because a Steam Machine is a piece of hardware, and not in itself an official device. Valve doesn’t have any plans to manufacture a Steam Machine of their own. Instead third party hardware manufacturers partnered with Valve are free to build their own machines using a range of technical specifications and then licence the Steam OS. Equally you could build your own and do the same. At this point I already think the fact Valve isn’t dedicated to making their own official Steam Machine is fishy, are they as unsure about this venture as I am? Or are they happy to sit back and profit off the licenses the other companies will be required to use, and the extra software sales should Steam Machines be a hit? At this point I’m not sure.
Regardless I’m not convinced this is a device the market demands. More to the point I don’t believe there even is a market for the Steam Machine. Let’s start at the most basic level. Right now they’re are two big home video game system markets. On the one side there’s the home console market. Occupied by Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony they develop proprietary machines that plug directly into TV’s, fitted with bespoke hardware every machine has exactly the same specifications. Consoles are simple, buy one, plug it and buy games – everything will work with little hassle. Console gaming is widespread and has a dedicated following, it’s ease of use is clearly it’s advantage – in addition the home consoles recent diversification into offering TV streaming services have only strengthened their worth.
On the opposite side of the fence there’s PC gaming. PC offers the widest variation in experiences on the market, with anything from Java based MMO like Runescape that will run on any machine all the way up to games visually implausible on console like, at the time of it’s release, Crysis. Today the smaller more casual experiences have thinned out because of the rise in province of mobile gaming; regardless PC still has a good deal more than consoles. Comparative to their home console counterparts PC gamers tend to be more concerned with visuals and technological horse power. PC gaming takes a little more time: there’s more optimization, more understanding required to figure out components and a lot more updates. PC gaming requires a knowledge that console players simply don’t need to worry about.
Those are our two markets. The Steam Machine fits neatly into neither. instead it breaches the gap between the both. My question is this: is there a market existing between that gap? And I think the answer is unanimously ‘no’. Do you want a box that plugs directly into your TV that allows you to play games with no bother? Yes. Then buy a console. Do you want a more varied machine with the possibility of upgrading? Yes. Then buy a PC. Where is the answer Steam Machine? Do you want a machine which plugs directly into your TV, but runs a PC OS that supports keyboard and mouse as well as a traditional gaming remote and is upgradable? Then why buy a Steam Machine instead of building your own media PC? And why run Steam OS over another? The type of person who’d be interested Steam Machine is surely capable of figuring that out.
It’d be a damn sight cheaper too. The machines might start out at as low as $400 from Alienware, but to get one that surpasses its traditional console brethren you’ll be pushing up to $700. If your in the market for a console what would make you pay for one that’s technically more powerful that PlayStation 4 and Xbox One but lacks the exclusives and costs twice as much? Even if you did want a powerful machine why not just build a PC? Then if you wanted a one for the same price as the PS4 and Xbox One then why not just buy one of those? What middle ground exists? I don’t get it.
I think this between PC and console market doesn’t exist. The two do their jobs just fine, if there is a place for a middle ground I don’t think a branded PC that plugs into your TV is it. Steam Machine feel like a cast off, the weird cousin of PC whose too lame to hang out with PC but doesn’t fit in with consoles. Valve seems to have decided there’s a middle ground to be breached, but me? I’m just not convinced.