The Playstation 4 and Xbox One are in the spotlight right now, but Valve’s upcoming Steam Box may be a larger threat to traditional consoles than most people realize.
With the recent release of the Microsoft Xbox One and Sony Playstation 4, there has been a lot of buzz about the new consoles and the state of modern video gaming. Valve’s Steam Box and SteamOS were officially announced a couple of months ago, without the fanfare of the Microsoft’s or Sony’s consoles but they are still quite relevant to the conversation.
In the decades-long war of PC gaming versus console gaming, the pros and cons of each option haven’t changed much. Sure, online gaming is much newer to consoles than it is to PCs, but for the most part the advantages of each are as follows:
Consoles are a much cheaper option, they are guaranteed to “just work” out of the box, and they provide a standard platform for developers to optimize games for.
PCs are much more powerful than consoles, allowing them to provide much better graphics and higher resolutions than consoles. PCs are also modular and upgradeable, though while that is a positive for some, it is a negative for those who do not want to deal with the variety of parts and configurations available in the PC market.
A familiar OS
A reason many console owners eschew PC gaming is due to the fractious nature of the PC game market: too many distributors, too many ways to play, too many drivers, too much to think about. (Though this has been improved upon by Nvidia’s GeForce Experience). They just want to buy their compatible game and play, and consoles allow them to do just that. So does SteamOS.
SteamOS won’t only be available on Steam Boxes either. Users will be able to install it on their existing PCs if they choose to do so, and the OS improvements will hopefully provide better gaming performance than the default Windows installation.
The other primary reason console gamers avoid PCs is due to the massive variance in PC hardware available for purchase. Some configurations work better than others, the graphics drivers also matter greatly, and there is too much to fiddle with and customize for the gamer who wants to just play. Steam Boxes provide a compelling alternative. They will release at multiple price points with easy designations to differentiate their performance capabilities, run SteamOS, and will provide a platform that can be upgraded, but does not need to be upgraded.
Steam Boxes are designed to take the best of the console, and apply it to the PC world. The consumer wants a cheap gaming box that will play the games they want to play? Buy a Steam Box. The consumer wants a high end gaming box that will play their games at high resolutions with graphics settings cranked up to the max? Buy a Steam Box. The consumer wants a gaming box that can eventually be upgraded over time but still provides a unified experience that’s good for their living room and has a solid library of games to choose from? Buy a Steam Box.
The best of both worlds
An important feature of the Steam Box will be Valve’s new controller. Steam Boxes and SteamOS will run just fine with a mouse and keyboard or any USB gamepad, but Valve’s new gamepad is designed to address the mouse and keyboard versus gamepad issue. Rather than use traditional analog sticks, the Steam Controller uses two circular trackpads. There is no D-Pad, and the buttons are towards the middle of the controller rather than on the right side, and there is a large touchscreen in the center as well. Also, it has a couple large triggers on the top and back of the gamepad.
The Steam Controller is designed to allow for the sensitivity and accuracy of a mouse when aiming using high resolution clickable trackpads utilizing a new form of haptic feedback, as well as the freedom of motion and easily accessible buttons of a traditional gamepad. Even ignoring the implications of SteamOS and Steam Boxes, the Steam Controller has the potential to revolutionize the way PC games are played and make them more accessible to gamers accustomed to traditional gamepads.
Steam Boxes will have a major advantage at release compared to their new console brethren: the Steam store and its massive library of games. At the time of this writing, there are approximately 400 game titles available for Linux on Steam (all of these will run on SteamOS). Compare that to the 22 launch games available to the Xbox One and the 26 available on the PS4. Having close to 20 times the number of launch titles available is a compelling reason to buy a Steam Box rather than an Xbox One or PS4.
Improving every year
Steam Boxes will also have the advantage of constantly improving year after year, whereas the life cycle of the consoles is likely to be at least seven years. A platform that can constantly evolve and improve while still providing a top notch unified “plug-n-play” experience will be hard to compete with. Valve certainly has a winner with their new controller design, and a game-focused OS with potential PC capabilities will definitely be appealing to consumers.
The one big question will still be whether or not Valve can compete with the massive marketing campaigns that Microsoft and Sony are running for their consoles. Public perception will determine how this battle turns out, but from a specifications and features perspective, SteamOS and Steam Boxes provide a serious threat to traditional consoles.