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.