Uninformed Opinion: the Steam Machine

It was rumored that Valve would reveal their plans for the Steam Machine at this year’s CES, and, lo and behold, those rumors were correct.  Polygon has a full run-down of the third party manufacturers, and their respective Machines, right here.

As I look over that rundown, I find it increasingly difficult to know what to think about all this, because the difference between what I thought a Steam Machine would be, and what it apparently is, is so vast that I fear that I might have had the wrong idea from the very beginning.

What I thought we were getting was something meant to compete – not necessarily in ideology, but at least for literal, physical entertainment-center space – with the PS4 and the XB1; a console-sized box for the living room, competitively priced, that would allow me to hold on to my vast Steam library and play new titles with good, shiny tech.

You know what – while I was writing this out, Polygon’s Ben Kuchera basically took the words right out of my mouth.  I’m glad I’m not the only one having this problem:

It’s easy to describe the platonic ideal of what a Steam Machine should be. It should be shaped like a console and offer the same ease of setup and use. It should be able to offer roughly the same amount of power as a PlayStation 4, while costing around $500.

I don’t just want to play Battlefield 4 at the fidelity the PlayStation 4 offers, I also want to be able to try early access PC hits like Starbound, as well as something as niche as the latest Twine game on a fully-functional browser. These systems should play every game available on Steam, with no exceptions, and do everything a standard computer can do in a form factor and price that puts pressure on consoles.

What we have instead are 13 vastly different machines, ranging in price from $400 to $6000, with tech specs that are pretty much all over the place.  Furthermore, it’s now very unclear to me what the advantage of this machine is.   Again, as Ben says:

SteamOS itself, and this fact was somewhat glossed over during the press conference, is based on Linux, and only a percentage of the current Steam library is currently compatible. Why would you buy an able gaming PC only to take away a good chunk of your game selection and functionality by installing a gaming-specific OS?

It’s not a rhetorical question.[…] Newell may brag about the 65 million users Steam enjoys, but many of the games that brought those players to the platform won’t run on SteamOS unless Linux compatibility is added by the developer. Which won’t happen until the market is bigger. Which won’t happen until more games are added. You see the issue.

Jessica Conditt, in her Joystiq editorial, further addresses the sudden overcrowding of the Steam Machine market, without a clear “ideal” with which to base anything on:

“The consumer’s going to look at this landscape and ask, ‘What’s the difference?’ and, ‘Why? Why should I even buy a Steam Box?'” Nguyen said.

He offered an answer, suggesting Valve pick or make one box to be the ultimate Steam Machine, the epitome of what a Steam Machine should be, and market it as such. Give the customer an easy, obvious choice. It’s exactly what Google did with the Nexus phone to clarify the overcrowded Android market.

“They just totally disagreed with that,” Nguyen said. “They very much disagreed.”

Valve envisions a future of openness – open living rooms and open PCs and open code – and that’s a beautiful idea. Or it’s a junk pile. I’m sure Valve believes in what the Steam Machines can be, but the fact that it hasn’t thrown its own hardware into the ring to me demonstrates a lack of confidence in the idea, or at the least a lack of clarity.  (emphasis added)

That last bit is key, for me.  The fact that Valve itself is holding back – at least for the time being – sends an incredibly vague message, and it certainly doesn’t do the concept of the Steam Machine any favors.

At this point, the Steam Machine makes no compelling argument for me to wait.  Indeed, if anything it’s given me more of an incentive to get a better graphics card and leave it at that, and get a PS4 when they finally come back in stock.

 

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