Valve is taking the Windows approach to gaming in 2014. Rather than build one gaming console for all, the company is partnering with more than a dozen hardware manufacturers who will adopt its new Linux-based SteamOS and support the company’s unique Steam Controller. And now we can finally see what they look like.
At its CES press conference Tuesday evening, Valve unveiled its first 13 Steam Machines, even though the company initially partnered with 14 different hardware manufacturers—Maingear, a late addition to Valve’s list, was unable to bring a working model of its own Steam Machine to this year's CES.
Valve’s first wave of Steam Machines, created by the likes of Alienware, Origin, Falcon Northwest and Gigabyte, all differ in specs and range from $500 (the cheapest system from CyberPowerPC) to $6,000 (Falcon Northwest’s Tiki console is currently the highest-end offering). Beyond the first 14 machines, Valve CEO and co-founder Gabe Newell said (via Re/code), the company will make future hardware decisions “as we go along.”
(You can see all the machines in Valve's Steam Machine brochure (PDF), though there isn't much more detail there you'll get in the images below.)
“We really view our role in this as being enabling, so [we’ll do] whatever we can do that’s going to be helpful to other hardware manufacturers, whether that’s with controller design or with building specific kinds of boxes,” Newell told the CES crowd.
Why Valve Turned On The Steam
Newell said his team first dreamed up SteamOS and Steam Machinesa few years ago when they realized how Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s Playstation had instituted a closed, almost-monopolistic grip on the gaming space. Indeed, Microsoft and Sony completely control which games are played on their popular consoles, and they can set the prices of those games, too—a model first pioneered to great success by Nintendo almost 30 years ago.
Compared to traditional gaming consoles, Valve understood the freedom offered by the PC ecosystem. Anyone can develop for PCs, and consumers, over time, can upgrade their PCs to increase their system’s power and longevity. Plus, PC graphics are typically better than console graphics, which is a big hook for any gamer.
“We started to get pretty worried that maybe that openness was going to be challenged, that there was success in proprietary platforms in the living room and in mobile, and that was going to pause our entire industry and sort of step away from the opportunity of openness,” Newell said on Tuesday. “So we started to think, ‘What could we do?’”
So, Valve sought a solution that could empower manufacturers, developers, but also unite gamers across PC and console lines with PC-based architecture but none of the complexity associated with PC gaming.
"The PC is successful because we’re all benefiting from the competition with each other," Newell said (via VentureBeat). "If Twitter comes along, our games benefit. If Nvidia makes better graphics technology, all the games are going to shine. If we come out with a better game, people are going to buy more PCs. That has been the engine of this growth.”
What the company came up with was a three-part solution comparable to a car: SteamOS is the oil, the Steam Controller is the steering column, and Steam Machines are the distinct vehicles that make it all go.
A Steam Machine For Every Gamer
Steam Machines won’t be cheap, but their variety will allow gamers of all ages and experience levels to purchase a console that best fits their needs. Furthermore, Valve makes up for its expensive hardware by offering cheap games—most Steam titles cost between $1 and $20—and occasional sales periods that allow users to purchase popular, already-cheap titles at greatly discounted prices.
Steam also offers a lucrative pay model for developers to take part in its platform. Instead of splitting the pie 70-30, giving the developer the short end of the stick as major console makers do, Steam pays its developers 70% of proceeds while 30% goes to Steam. And since developers can ultimately price their own games, Steam Machines will offer developers a true console experience that better resembles the easy and fluid mobile structure for submitting and publishing applications.
SteamOS and Steam Machines are promising, but it's obviously not clear whether Valve’s new ecosystem can actually compete with mainstream living room consoles. After all, Sony and Microsoft have deep pockets for advertising, game development, and much more.
But with so many different Steam Machine configurations and 65 million customers currently on the Steam network, gamers looking for a compelling alternative to a PS4 or Xbox One most definitely have some serious options.
Images via Valve