At $499-$999, the Steam Box is Worthless
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Thanks to the sudden surge of activity and speculation surrounding a few currently unannounced projects, Valve has had a torrent of attention thrown their way. A Reddit-leaked photograph of Valve’s project list, taken during a tour of their Bellevue facility, revealed a project title that referred to both ”L4D3” and “[Source 2].” As expected, this immediately spawned the notion that both the long-awaited sequel to Valve’s famed co-operative zombie-fest Left 4 Dead 2 and its presumed framework, the Source 2 engine, were now in development.

A recent update from RockPaperShotgun states that multiple anonymous sources have confirmed the photo’s allusions to be genuine. In addition, a report from ValveTime, a community-managed information site, has showcased a list of project groups taken directly from Valve’s internal “Jira” archive, the company’s project management and bug-tracking software. Among the 791 items mentioned, “Left 4 Dead 3” and “Source 2” can be found, furthering the credibility of their recent appearance. Arguably more important, however, is the mention of projects “Half-Life 3” and “Steam Box.”

Although the mere mention of Half-Life 3—Valve’s personal unicorn and one of the most wanted sequels in gaming history—is enough to stir any gamer to take up arms in the speculative forces, the reappearance of the Steam Box is a bit more substantial. After all, Half-Life 3 has been the stuff of legend since 2007, while the notion of Valve’s console has only recently been fleshed out, although many aspects of the hardware remain obscured. However, because it represents one of the more dominant (and obvious) platforms for the potential release of Left 4 Dead 3 and the plausible Half-Life 3, Valve’s console is back in the crosshairs.

In no small part thanks to their multi-platform distribution, games like Left 4 Dead 2 and Portal 2 have garnered unanimously positive reception and instilled an unbridled sense of anticipation regarding any future sequels. Aside from inducing uncontrollable ear-perking, the suggestion that heralded games such as these will finally be receiving new installments—or that Valve may have new IP planned for the next era of gaming—asks the question of where the games will hit. Valve is clearly a PC-centric company, but it’s also looking to break into the console business with their Steam Box line and has already begun putting titles on current-generation systems. Therefore, we can safely assume that Valve isn’t opposed to releasing on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The merit of the Steam Box, however, is a slightly touchier subject.

Of course, this isn’t a matter of the Steam Box; it’s about a Steam Box. Valve’s console line won’t conform to the console structure of releasing only one model. Sure, we’ve seen hardware rereleases boasting minor tweaks and a shiny new chassis for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii, but that’s not on the same matter or scale as what Valve has in store. The Steam Box line will feature entirely disparate hardware divided, as Gabe Newell defines it, into tiers of “good, better, and best.” As expected, the varying price tags are divided respectively, with lower-range Steam Box’s starting at $499 and the highest-quality models reaching up to $999. Specific quartiles within that range have yet to be defined, but those values are representative of the Box’s final price tag.

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It’s more important to clarify what Valve intends to accomplish—or at least what it looks like they’re thinking about trying to accomplish—with the release of its console line. Fundamentally, the Steam Box has a very simple agenda: Provide console gamers with access to the Steam Network and its impressive gaming library, offer an unrestricted hardware outlet to any manufacturer who’s willing to throw their hat in the ring, and, presumably, improve the general quality of home console gaming. The first goal, I can see. The second sounds doable as well. However, the notion that the Steam Box, whatever form it may take, will in some way improve or shake-up the console market—much less kill consoles, as Techradar previously claimed—is wholly fallacious.

Although Xi3, a manufacturer of form-factor PCs, has shown a veritable prototype of what their version of a Steam Box will look like, Valve has yet to nail down any exact specifications of their own beyond a Linux operating system (though it will support Windows). However, the fact remains that the Steam Box is designed to put PC games in the hands of the everyman console gamer for an affordable price. As it stands now, it can do approximately one of these things, but not without proving that it is little more than an entirely needless intermediary between console and PC gaming that brings absolutely nothing new to the table.

For a minimum of $499, Valve intends to market a piece of hardware that plays Steam games. That’s it; that’s all it does. Guess what else you can buy for $499? A proper, full-form, multi-task ready, and more easily upgradeable gaming PC that also functions as a computer. When paired with the simple fact that next-gen consoles are starting at $399 (i.e., the PlayStation 4), this dissolves the Steam Box’s foundation entirely.

Consider this--who is Valve selling the Steam Box to? It’s clearly not PC gamers. Not only does Valve rule PC gaming with an iron fist (and rightfully so), but the Steam Box has nothing to offer anyone who owns a PC because that individual already has access to the Steam Box’s key feature—the Steam Network. That is the pivotal fact here: If you own a gaming PC, the Steam Box has nothing for you.

Jason Sullivan, CEO of Xi3, an early investor in Valve’s system, illustrated this himself in a March press release (via Kotaku): “We believe there is a crying need for a machine that captures the best of both worlds,” Sullivan stated, “with the upgradeability of computer gaming rigs and the design and form factor of consoles. We believe our Piston Consoles do exactly that—deliver the beauty and small size of consoles with the upgradeability of computers.” This statement translates to: “Our Piston ‘Consoles’ are actually gaming PCs—but they’re really tiny and attractive, and therefore worth buying.” Xi3’s core selling point—what they expect console gamers to pay upwards of $499 for—is a cosmetic improvement.

All of this is to say nothing of how woefully outgunned the Steam Box will be alongside the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Xi3’s Piston, the initial and unofficial incarnation of the Steam Box, is slated for a holiday release alongside the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Evidently, this pseudo-Steam Box is one of the higher-end models, as it will be retailing for $1000.

Let’s put this in perspective. The reveal of a $100 price gap between the two dominant next-gen consoles, in favor of Sony, has frequently been, and will continue to be, cited as a turning point for the two systems. What does a gap of $600 mean for the Piston? What sort of decision can we expect from avid console gamers when faced with the option of purchasing the next installment in an established and trusted brand of gaming hardware, or picking up a $1000 pseudo PC?

Of course, money isn’t the only deciding factor here. Although it’s sitting precariously at double the price, the Piston will also be considerably more powerful than its console contenders. This echoes the undeniable hardware superiority of gaming PCs. However, because the Piston isn’t a full-fledged gaming PC, this advantage is no longer viable. Sure, Watch_Dogs may look better on the Piston than on an Xbox One, but the same result could be achieved by playing it on a proper gaming PC. And with a budget of $1000 to compare to and a full-size chassis to work with, the resulting PC would undoubtedly trounce the Piston and any other Steam Box.

The question—by which I mean the Steam Box’s only saving grace—then becomes, how does (or can) the Steam Box distinguish itself from PC gaming? What credible advantage does a condensed, Steam-only, Linux-based machine that only runs PC games have over traditional PC hardware?

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The obvious implication is operating system choice. As Extremetech reports, the default OS for the Steam Box line will be Linux, a free and open-source OS that a very small percentage—less than 5% of the PC population, according to Netmarketshare—uses. However, there is still an advantage here in that this dodges the limitations of Windows, which could hinder the system’s ostensibly free design.

You could also argue that removing the operating system from the equation entirely somehow improves the accessibility of PC gaming. Then again, if you’re incapable of operating an operating system, to the extent that you can’t navigate the Steam Network on a traditional machine and instead need to purchase a separate device, you’re probably incapable of navigating the web pages necessary to purchase that peripheral device in the first place.

The second and quite possibly biggest redeeming factor would be the implementation of gamepad support for Steam games. While both the Steam interface and many games—particularly multi-platform releases—can be played with a custom-mapped Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 controller, the prevailing majority of Steam’s archive requires a mouse and keyboard. Being able to play PC games with the familiarity of console controllers still in hand (excuse the pun) would bolster the Steam Box’s appeal immensely. Whether or not it amounts to $600, however, is much more debatable.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. If the game itself doesn’t innately support controller mapping, then all the gamepads in the world are collectively useless with it. And although I wouldn’t put it past Valve to come up with an innovative solution to this problem, they’ve made no mention of such a feature, nor have we seen any prototype controllers in their frequent hardware showcases. This leaves the default input devices for any Steam Box at the standard keyboard and mouse, or, comically enough, a 360/PS3 controller.

As it stands now, a Steam Box, be it from Valve or Xi3, is an overpriced and incomplete emulation of PC gaming with the ever-powerful factor of price dragging behind it. It’s an egregious oversimplification, but I’d venture to claim that the Steam Box literally does nothing—nothing for PC gamers, nothing for console gamers, and nothing for the games industry as a whole.

But, I’d certainly like for Valve, a company I both trust and love, to prove me wrong.

Austin Wood
Austin Wood
@fanofrootbeer

Social Media Manager
Date: 08/08/2013

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