What Does the Steambox Mean?

Last week, Chris wrote an article about the next generation of consoles, and his thoughts on the quality (or lack thereof) in their launch line ups.  I’ve mentioned before that I don’t own a current gen console, and while I won’t be saying that for much longer, the PC has had a firm grip on my gaming soul for years now.  With the recent announcements made by Valve – Steam OS, Steam Machines, and the awesomely weird Steam Controller – I’m starting to wonder if “traditional” consoles are in for a battle they didn’t expect.

First off, here’s the ten-thousand foot version.  A vast majority of PC games get their games via Steam, a downloadable game service operated by Valve software.  Valve makes it’s own games of course (Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Left 4 Dead, etc…), but the Steam service seems to Valve’s focal point recent years.  Much like the services offered by Sony and Microsoft, Valve’s service allows players to purchase and download games straight from the service, as well as manage their libraries, friends lists, etc…  In the past the Steam service was only available as a PC oriented service. but Valve is changing all that.  As of 2014, Valve will be releasing it’s very own operating system (a Linux offshoot), releasing it’s own hardware, and even creating it’s own controller.  It seems that Microsoft isn’t the only company that wants to own the living room.

Eight years ago, when the PS3 and the XBox 360 made their debut, these Steam announcements would have meant all but nothing.  PC’s and consoles were still very different devices.  But this isn’t eight years ago, and consoles have been inching ever closer to being PC’s since the last generation came out.  Adding apps like Netflix, Twitter, and Facebook to an XBox may have seemed ridiculous a few years ago, but now it’s commonplace.  It used to be that “patching” games was a PC thing, and was thought of by console gamers as a crutch so that PC developers could release buggy games without working out the kinks.  Patching is a regular part of console gaming now, as is installing.  The recent release of “Grand Theft Auto V” required an 8gb install before the game could even be played on console.  The days of popping in cartridge and playing a game are fading fast.

Valve sees that consoles are becoming trimmed down PCs, that consoles are moving away from being devices meant solely for playing games.  They see that the way people are using consoles is more and more like using a PC.  With Steam’s vast catalog of games, coupled with the Valve’s undeniable pedigree in virtually everything it does, the Steam console could actually make some noise.  The biggest wildcard here comes in the form of the hardware.  Unlike Sony and Microsoft, Valve is choosing not to release a pre-defined piece of hardware.  Steam Machines will come in all types of configurations and prices.  If you’re the type of player who just wants to play a few indie platformers and watch a little bit of Netflix, there will be an option for.  If you’re the type of player who wants 3 monitors, all running ultra quality graphics at 60 fps, surround sound, and all the other bells and whistles, there will be an option there too.  Maybe you want to build your own Stem Machine.  That’s also an option.

The size and complexity of modern games is forcing console manufacturers to make more complex, more PC-like hardware.  And PC’s, in turn, are starting to breech the living room.  Home built DVRs are becoming more popular.  Microsoft’s own Media Center software comes prepackaged with Windows now.  So i’m going to go out on a limb and give you my exact prediction.  We’ll check back together in eight years and see how close I was.  Steam OS and the Steam hardware will emerge on the scene with little fanfare, but over the next several years it will begin to carve out a larger piece of the market, especially as the hardware in the consoles begins to age and Steam machine hardware continues to move forward.  By the end of this console generation, I believe we’ll be talking seriously about the end of consoles altogether.  Instead, what I believe we’ll start to hear about are things like Xbox-OS or Playstation-OS.  Instead of losing money on every console that Microsoft and Sony make, the biggest take-away they’ll get from Valve is idea of simply releasing an OS.  By the time the XBone and the PS4 die, we’ll be looking at buying PC’s powered by vendor specific operating systems.  Instead of paying $400 for a PS5, you’ll pay $150 for PS-OS, and you’ll install it on whatever you want.  Given everything I’ve laid out, I believe all of this to be true because consoles and PCs are starting to approach that gaming singularity, where there is no difference between them.  Once that happens, the age-old fight between console gamers and PC games will die and we’ll all become part of the same hive-mind.  I just hope Half-Life 3 is finally out by then.

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One thought on “What Does the Steambox Mean?

  1. I think another wild card in your theory – and one you are unfairly overlooking – is Nintendo. I don’t see Nintendo ever giving into a future like that. But it’s also hard to imagine Nintendo ever completely going away, either. Even if the Wii U ends up failing, I still don’t think that will be the “end” of Nintendo. The Gamecube was kind of an overall commercial failure and a distant third place in that generation’s race, but Nintendo still soldiered on and answered back with the blockbuster success of the Wii (which, despite it’s standing the last couple of years, was still an overall huge commercial success for Nintendo and will always be one of the biggest-selling consoles ever released). And Nintendo is very different from Sony and Microsoft in that it is still very much an active game maker as well as a hardware manufacturer. Sony and Microsoft have first and second party companies making games FOR them. Nintendo just makes games themselves. And great games, too. It’s hard to argue that Nintendo isn’t still one of the greatest game makers in the business, and among the most consistent. How many other game makers who have been around as long as them have had such a steady track record for truly great games that continues today, with no real stretches of “bad years” where the quality of their games dipped for a long period of time? They’ve never gone more than a year or two without a truly great, among-the-best-of-its-era (if not all time) game. Maybe they are few and far between, but when a new core Mario or Zelda come out, you know they’re going to be fantastic. And they’ve done a great job revitalizing franchises like Donkey Kong and Kirby in the last few years as well.

    The point of all this is, Nintendo doesn’t put their games on ANYBODY else’s hardware. Not on PC, not on cell phones, nowhere. And I really feel like it would have to come down to going multiplatform or going doors closed, everybody is laid off, 100% out of business before they even considered that option. They’d just be a strictly handheld company and continue putting their games exclusively on their dedicated handheld instead of putting their games on a platform that isn’t completely owned by them. They have always followed their own trajectory, with mixed results to be sure, but they aren’t automatically going to adopt whatever approach Sony and Microsoft end up taking at the end of their next console’s lifespans. I really can’t see them every going the “Nintendo OS” route. And as long as they are still making money, even if it’s mostly through Pokemon and well-timed Mario releases near Christmas and in Japan by having Monster Hunter on Wii U and 3DS, I think they’ll continue going it alone for as long as they have the cash to keep that up. And THEN, if they continue to survive as a dedicated console, it might make Sony and Microsoft want to stay in that realm to and try to get a piece of it, too. It’s hard to imagine Nintendo out there being the only traditional console without anybody attempting to compete with them directly.

    I just feel like people are always ready to count Nintendo out as soon as they stumble and declare them over and done, and they always end up persevering. The iPhone was supposed to make dedicated gaming handhelds obsolete years ago, and the DS said “Nah”. And the Vita may be struggling, but it is still hanging on, even with both the 3DS and competition from iPhone, Android, and Windows Phones. So we STILL have two dedicated, traditional gaming handhelds in the marketplace years after they were supposed to be extinct and pointless. Not saying it’s never going to happen, but it hasn’t yet.

    Plus, you don’t get to be a company that has existed for over a century without having a little mojo on your side, and proof that you know how to succeed as a business. Maybe it’s the Nintendo fanboy in me, but I’m not ready to declare the Wii U an outright failure. In a week from now they are going to have a second Mario platformer already, and by all accounts the new one is incredible. Then there’s a new DK Country coming, plus the inevitable Zelda and hopefully Metroid. Let all of those games come and go, and THEN we’ll see where we’re at and if the Wii U is still just the forgotten step child of this generation. Until then, to just leave them out of the conversation altogether when discussing the current and future state of consoles as viable, sustainable platforms is a little short sided in my opinion.

    Also, it should be noted that the GTAV install is only required on PS3, not on 360. In fact, no Xbox 360 games REQUIRE an install. But I guess what’s going to be the most relevant to your point is how installs are handled on Xbone and PS4. I would also like to point out that typically consoles games aren’t “patched” for performance. In the current gen at least, games are made with the possibility that your console isn’t even connected to the internet and therefore patches aren’t an option, so games that you buy are made to work and run fine even if you never patch them in any way. Not that there is NO precedent for console games having performance issues that need fixing (see PS3 Skyrim, Fallout New Vegas, et al), but I feel we’re still a long way from how it is on PC. A debacle like Sim City wouldn’t be acceptable on consoles – the game simply wouldn’t be released until it was ACTUALLY done and ready. That’s the only option. But again, time will tell. When PS4 and Xbone discs are buggy, choppy, glitchy messes until they are patched, then I feel that your particular point on THAT front will be more valid as far as the closing gap between console and PC. Again, I’m not insinuating that this is a prevalent issue on PC, but it is still there in a way that it isn’t on consoles, at least not so far.

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