At CES, Gabe Newell sat down with The Verge and disclosed the first concrete pieces of information about Steam Box, Valve’s upcoming entry into the PC hardware manufacturing space and evolution of the Steam software distribution service. If you’re not familiar with PC gaming, Steam is a service where gamers can purchase and download digital games or applications, and interact with other gamers in a unified ecosystem. Steam provides tons of content at reduced prices, while also keeping gaming libraries highly organized. It’s been a tremendous success for Valve, which boasts that the platform has over 40 million users.
The PC gaming distribution giant has come to fame with its excellent and innovative games (Half-Life, Portal, and Team Fortress series) and seems keen on taking over the entire PC gaming market. What makes the Steam Box intriguing is that it will attempt to broaden PC gaming’s reach. It’s being marketed toward console gamers, a demographic that has been difficult for PC companies to capture. Steam Box details are vague, but enough was discussed in the interview to give us an idea of what to expect.
We know that Valve will let multiple hardware vendors and manufacturers to make their own Steam Box much likehow Google allows different manufactures to use the Android OS. That’s a very wise decision on Valve’s part, as the more Steam Boxes there are on the market, the greater the likelihood that Valve will see more Steam users. Either way, Valve has its hand in the pie. This means that we’ll probably see different Steam Box variations. There will likely be high-end models, which will be more expensive and able to run PC games with the best visual fidelity and performance. It’s also likely we’ll see budget models that run PC games at lower settings.
Valve has partnered with hardware manufacture Xi3, a company known for its small PCs that typically fit in one’s palm. These range in price from $400-$1000 depending on the model. The Steam Box prototype shown at CES is fittingly named Piston and continues the trend of Xi3′s other products. No details have been mentioned about the type of hardware inside the little machine, but Newell stated that Piston wasn’t the only Steam Box shown at CES. Still, Newell has also made it clear that every Steam Box must adhere to Valve’s standard — meaning they’ll each need to have dedicated CPUs and GPUs — to ensure quality. This is a good thing. The lack of standards for Android OS has created an over saturated market with incompetent devices everywhere. Valve doesn’t want this to be the case with Steam Box. This, however, doesn’t restrict gamers.
“We’ll come out with our own and we’ll sell it to consumers by ourselves,” Newell told The Verge. “That’ll be a Linux box, [and] if you want to install Windows you can. We’re not going to make it hard. This is not some locked box by any stretch of the imagination.”
Although the Valve-branded Steam Box will have Linux pre-installed, Newell has made it clear that any operating system can be installed including Windows. This does raise some questions. Will Steam for Linux have an extensive library like Steam for Windows? It’s too early to tell, but if Steam for Mac is any indication then there might be an issue with lack of support from developers. Anyone with Steam for Mac can tell you that the gaming library is minuscule when compared with Steam for Windows.
Steam Box will be an open platform. That’s an obvious attraction for content creators, but the openness doesn’t come without obstacles. There needs to be compatibility tools that will allow games to run on both Windows and Linux without issues. It’s more than a debate about DirectX and OpenGL and more about developers being able to make their games cross-platform for multiple operating systems.
Surprisingly, Newell also mentioned a Steam Box server. Anyone who’s ever had a LAN party knows the potential convenience and ease this brings. Imagine playing multiplayer gamers on multiple internet-ready televisions throughout a home using only one Steam Box. This is something Valve is striving to achieve. There’s a bubbling enthusiasm and excitement surrounding the Steam Box, but Valve must dance a delicate dance.
Valve would demand a change to console gaming culture that’s been around for over 30 years. Steam Box units, in all likelihood, will ditch optical drives and use digital downloads as an exclusive delivery method. Some, if not all, will let the hardcore upgrade their machines’ components. These are elements that traditional consoles have lacked.
That said, Steam Box needs no-hassle playability from both hardware and software — and operate like a console in some ways. Take the input, for instance. Gaming with a mouse and keyboard is a difficult leap for console gamers to make, and there’s also the less than comfortable proposition of using a mouse and keyboard while sitting on your couch. Big Picture Mode promotes gaming away from a desk and console-like controllers. A bundled multi-function controller can alleviate this issue.
“I think you’ll see controllers coming from us that use a lot of biometric data. Maybe the motion stuff is just failure of imagination on our part, but we’re a lot more excited about biometrics as an input method,” Newell told The Verge. “Motion just seems to be a way of [thinking] of your body as a set of communication channels. Your hands, and your wrist muscles, and your fingers are actually your highest bandwidth.”
Valve also plans to introduce its virtual reality technology and its VR version of Team Fortress 2 at this years GDC which begins on March 27. Not much has been divulged about that tech, but considering the resources that were likely poured into VR device, it’s probably a safe bet that it will find its way to PCs including Steam Box.
Newell and Valve continue to emphasize wearable hardware that uses biometric data, but the gamer in me doesn’t yet buy into anything that disconnects me from an actual piece of hardware in my hands be it a controller or keyboard.
Nonetheless, it’s an exciting time to be a gamer. Droves of gaming hardware is coming in the near future, including powerful smart phones, gaming tablets, and PC-friendly handhelds. Steam Box may be the most exciting device of all as it has the most potential to shake up the gaming industry. E3 2013 is shaping up to be one of the most amazing in recent years.
Now all we need from Valve is Half-Life 3 as a Steam Box launch title.