Valve and the Steam OS – Brilliance or Arrogance?

I wanted to wait until today before I posted anything on Valve’s new idea because they kept saying there was going to be more information leaked, and then there was information on the Piston revealed yesterday, which we’ll cover later. I cannot stress enough that leaking barely enough information for an article over the course of a week is incredibly frustrating, and I’m not thrilled that Valve decided to do it. Anyway, Valve announced the Steam OS over a frustratingly long period last week. It will be a linux-based gaming OS to be used in Steam Machines, which is apparently what they want us to call Steam Boxes now. On top of this announcement, Valve also released information about their new controller, which is replacing analogue sticks with strange, touchpad-styled trackpads. Both the Steam OS and the controller are fairly major news in the gaming world as Valve continues to buck tradition in favour of innovation. It’s a bold move to be sure, but I want to look at whether it is going to be a commercially viable move for the company.

Because basing something on Linux, the least popular legitimate OS is a smart move.

Valve is one of the major players in the video game industry. Prior to the popularization of Steam, I would have told you that PC gaming was a lumbering beast with no chance for survival. Steam breathed new life into it, and made PC gaming far more possible than it ever had been under a secure, cheap banner. Valve is also know for its games including Half-Life, Portal, Left 4 Dead, and Team Fortress. The Valve faithful will tell you that these are some of the best games and sequels ever made, but, truthfully, Valve’s tiny release schedule makes it hard for these games to outshine the infrastructure they designed with Steam. As such, increasingly, I have been seeing Valve not as a video game developer, but as something larger, something more akin to a Microsoft/Sony/Nintendo.

People would kill for this game. Me? I didn’t think the first two were special.

The Steam OS allegedly allows you to use and access any steam game through a Steam Machine and play on a television in the same way you can with a console. It’s probably best to ignore the fact that you can already do this through your PC. The idea is that Valve will open up PC-only games to a wider audience who might not be able to afford, nor desire a gaming PC. It’s supposedly a way to make a PC console. Despite the fact that Valve has said nothing about the big three console developers, it is inherent in their message that they also wish to compete with and dominate them as well as the PC market. They have one massive advantage with their OS and that is Steam. Unlike the new console generation, which, with the lone holdout of Nintendo, is bucking off backwards compatibility (Unless Sony’s promises with the nebulous Gaikai are true), Valve will launch the Steam OS with thousands of games playable from the get go. It is a massive advantage in any market.

This is what Steam Machines bring to the table. But if you already have a PC, there isn’t anything new here for you.

That being said, Valve is almost certain to come out on top because they aren’t taking any of the risk of console development. All they’re doing is providing the controller and OS, while other companies can take on the massive costs of actually making a console. It’s a smart move from a cost standpoint, but it also highlights Valve’s greatest weakness: they are the most arrogant video game company I’ve ever seen. They are completely willing to give up control of manufacturing and development of individual consoles because A. they want to force the cost onto other companies; and B. they are so sure of their success that giving up control isn’t a problem. The issue with the Steam OS is Valve’s assumed success. They don’t seem like they care to try and sell the product, only to reveal it and wait for the money to come in. Much of the internet is full of people frothing at the lips for anything Valve related, but if Sony or Microsoft tried this, they’d be attacked on all sides due to the announcement and plan’s lazy nature.

But they can’t be lazy. They gave us hats.

Valve’s controller is an unknown variable. We’ve gotten hands-on impressions from various developers, but I would trust their highly publicized first look opinions as much as I’d trust someone telling me they found a talking dog. It is a radically different control scheme that allegedly works with all games on Steam, and it’s so effective that all games that weren’t ever designed for a controller work perfectly. I’m skeptical to say the least. Lacking physical feedback on your main camera and movement controls feels to me like a surefire way to imprecision. However, I do value what Valve is trying to do. Innovation is smart even if it’s stupid. If their controller works and works well, then we could see a revolution in controller technology. However, if it doesn’t work as well as they claim, or is no better, then other developers won’t have to waste research dollars into looking at trackpads.

I’m not buying the trackpads at all, but my opinion is worth nothing until I actually try it.

Finally, I want to look at the Piston to highlight Valve’s biggest problem with the Steam OS. The Piston is not in anyway affiliated with Valve, though it’s developers strongly hinted at it awhile ago. However, the Piston is set to do the exact same thing Valve is promising they will do, but it isn’t encumbered by a blind fanbase. It’s a thousand dollar machine that is supposed to bring PC gaming to the living room. Here is my question: who wants that? PC gamers have PCs, which can be superior, and can already hook up in the living room. Console gamers have their cost-effective consoles with unique games that you won’t find on PCs. Casuals are attracted more by gimmicks and Grand Theft Auto than Steam, and they actively fear the word Linux. What market is there for these machines? This is something that is actively questioned for the Piston, but Valve’s getting a pass even though they are doing the exact same thing. I don’t think it’s possible for Valve to sell this system to PC gamers, who are their primary customers, and there is no value in it since all of its games are already available on the PC. That leaves console gamers as the only real target market, because nothing Valve has can sell to the casuals more than Mario and Master Chief. The problem with targeting the console market is that it’s already overcrowded and nobody is particularly interested in having to spend more money. That is also ignoring the stranglehold the big three have on the industry, which they will use to try and prevent a viable fourth option. As such, I see two non-existant markets for this thing, and one, which is already completely overcrowded and highly competitive.

If anything we should praise the Piston for doing what Valve is planning way earlier.

Of course because of Valve’s shoddy work on announcing this thing, we don’t know enough about their Steam Machines in order to really determine how viable they are in the market. If they went the way of the Ouya and priced their machines at one-hundred dollars, they could actually make significant headway by undercutting the market and forcing everyone else to radically drop their prices. Of course, Valve isn’t making the hardware so I doubt they can control the cost at all. I really think it does all come down to cost. People will buy it if it’s cheap, and laugh at it if it costs anywhere close to what the Piston does. Really, unless it costs less than the PS4, I seriously doubt we’re going to see Valve striking gold here. That being said, Valve has turned impossible markets around before, so I wouldn’t put anything past them, and they have a much better chance of breaking in and becoming a runaway success than either Apple or Google.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer


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