Thoughts on the Steam Machine

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Valve is here to save the day! Or are they? Can they? Should they?

This week Valve made their first shot announcing their SteamOS which is expected to run the long-rumored Steam Box console. On the surface it sounds like a hardcore gamers dream but will the Steam Box really solve the problems that have plagued PC gamers for years? As a former PC gamer, I hope so but I’m not sold just yet.

Why the consoles won

After the NES, my family got a PC and that’s where I stayed until Playstation took over my life. And even then, the PC lost only because it became a pain in the ass to maintain. Games got bigger and better but my PC did not. Upgrading was expensive (and still is). There was a point where I seemingly needed to buy a new part with every new game. It got stupid and I was done. The Playstation had a ton of great game and promised to run every game I bought without problems…which is what consoles do best.

The problem today is that consoles want to do more than just play games. In many respects I’d say that games now rank low on their list of goals. As a gamer that makes me sad but I understand the business. Valve seems to want to bring the flag of PC gaming and stick it directly into your television. And that’s a good thing.

Plug and play, for real

I admit that if I had a little extra cash that I’d love to build a PC with the sole purpose of being a TV machine to play games, stream movies and whatever else. But even then that’s a hassle. I don’t want to build my computer. I don’t want to worry about graphics, RAM or drivers. I want to (literally) plug-and-play. I know what you’re saying…that’s what the Xbox and Playstation do! And you’re right but as they diversify to do more than games that whole notion of “play” gets lost in the shuffle. I’m not sure the Steam Box solves that problem but it sounds promising.

SteamOSIf there’s anything the Steam Box can offer that makes it special is their distribution and game collection. I mean, Steam is the go-to for PC games now and it works great as-is. Take that formula and slap it on your TV with a plug-n-play box and yes, I’ll be very happy. Steam has big titles and little titles. You can get your fill of Call of Duty but you can also easily find great “indie” games like Jamestown. Indie development has more or less been given the kiss of death from Microsoft and Sony, so if Steam keeps that support going then I’ll be a happy camper.

PC games also offer player modding and customizing that consoles just can’t offer. Making a game on a PC (regardless of platform) is easier than making a console game. Less hardware to worry about and probably less hoops to jump through. If Steam can support the modding community through the Steam Box then you have yourself something special. None of this is real unique or new but if they can make all of this easy and accessible via a console then it will make a difference.

Another player in the game

And lets not forget that Valve has their own library of great games! Portal and Half-Life just to name a few that I’ve played before. Huge games. Popular games. If the rumors prove true that the next releases of these franchises will be exclusive to the Steam Box then you have one hell of a carrot to get people to buy your hardware. Millions upon millions of people use Steam right now so I don’t see the Steam Box as a real hard sell as long as the price point is right. They’re not selling anything new or vague (like the Ouya) so their risk is pretty low.

In the end, Steam Box console will be just another console. It’s a powerful computer in a small box that’s ready to hook up to your TV. The same as your Xbox, Playstation or Nintendo. What will make the difference is accessibility and games. And where the “big boys” are pitching us Twitters, Facebooks and cable channels, Valve seems to really be about the games. That is their business so I have no reason to doubt them. They know they can make, sell and distribute games. They got the hard part done. Building a console that can take advantage of that is an easy win, but I don’t think a Steam Box will rise up as a major competitor. It will be a machine for core gamers and little more. The Steam Box will be a high-end sports car while the Xboxes of the world will continue to be big SUVs trying to be all things to everyone.

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Brian is a staff writer at TMA. He races Hot Wheels at RedlineDerby.com while watching cartoons with his kid. You can follow @morningtoast on Twitter.

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