thinking inside the steambox

A week ago, the idea of a Valve-designed games console seemed to be little other than a science fiction “what if?” scenario for bored games journalists. Today, it seems like it’s actually happening, in some form. There’s been no official word, but equally nothing that amounts to a denial from the company itself – and more and more sources are crawling out of the woodwork to say, yes, this is happening.

But what’s happening? It’s pretty obvious that Valve isn’t about to start building consoles. The company isn’t in the hardware business and has no plans to be in the hardware business, which it has (politely, politely) implied to be a bit of a mug’s game. Right now, Valve laughs its way to the bank by being the dominant distribution platform (with a tasty 30% cut, or thereabouts) on hardware which is made by someone else – which must inspire green-eyed jealousy at Microsoft, Sony et al, since these companies have to sell expensive hardware at a loss in order to get that kind of cut off software.

So it seems that instead, what the company wants to do is to create a base specification for a system, and partner with existing hardware manufacturers – like Dell – in order to provide it. It’ll be a pretty decent PC system made from off the shelf components and packed into a box that’ll look attractive under a TV. Hardware manufacturers will be able to innovate on that baseline, creating their own boxes, price points and even deviations from the specification, within reason. If it’s going to run everything that’s distributed over Steam – and that’s presumably the whole point of the exercise – it’ll run Windows, probably with a new layer of Steam interface software over the top to make using it on a TV a nice experience.

It’s a PC, in other words, and lots of existing PC gamers will roll their eyes and point out that they can build their own system for less money than whatever the eventual box costs, or that a system like this isn’t good for upgrading or overclocking. Which is absolutely true, and totally misses the point. Valve doesn’t want to sell a Steam Box (or whatever it’s called) to existing PC users. It wants to sell them to, well, me.

I’m a lapsed PC gamer. My whole history with gaming was PC-centric – RTS and FPS were what I grew up with. Doom 2, C&C Red Alert, Quake, Tribes and Counter-Strike defined my formative years. I owned my first console (a PlayStation) long after I’d become devoted to PC games, and for years it was something I only really played as a side interest. Yet today, well… Honestly, my PC hasn’t been booted up since Christmas. It’s a reasonable spec and it plays even the most recent games just fine, yet with the exception of a brief re-engagement with World of Warcraft last year, and a few games of Starcraft II here and there, I’ve barely touched it since I got back from Japan last August. I’ve lapsed, wholly and truly. I don’t want to play games at a desk any more. I don’t want to fiddle around with software issues, and I never, ever want to have to unscrew the case of a computer again. I’m not a PC gamer any more, and oddly, I feel an indefinable guilt about that.

That’s why I’m Valve’s target market. They want to create a design for a system which will sit alongside my consoles and let me enjoy PC gaming in the same relaxed, hassle-free way that I’ve come to appreciate about console games. They want me – and who knows how many others like me – to re-engage with PC games, and they want me to use Steam as my platform of choice when I do it.

Well, colour me interested, I guess. I’m already interested in Alienware’s X51 low-profile gaming PC, which I now hear is actually an early fruit of Valve’s discussions with manufacturers about the Steam Box. It’s not quite there yet, though. The hardware isn’t enough – it needs Valve’s weight thrown behind this idea of a minimum spec, a standard at which games must run acceptably and which takes more casual PC gamers out of the upgrade rat-race, taking away the need to wonder if our machine is still good enough this week or if it’s time to read a load of utterly impenetrable jargon on the Internet to try to work out which new graphics cards don’t suck. It needs similar weight thrown behind a default controller which all games will support (yes, keyboard and mouse are great – unless you’re sitting on a sofa). Finally, it needs software – specifically, it needs a nice, living room, full-screen mode for Steam.

Will it work? As I said, I’m interested. I’m definitely the target market. I’d probably buy one. For the wider market, though – well, I find it hard to estimate what size the market for this kind of device would be, but there are a few things to bear in mind.

Firstly, it won’t be cheap. Valve won’t subsidise hardware – why would they? – and nor will the manufacturers. Worse, because it won’t be manufactured by a single company, economies of scale won’t kick in on the Steam Box like they do for other products. Game consoles can eventually be sold very cheaply because the economies of scale in building 50 million of them really add up. PC manufacturers don’t have access to that kind of advantage – witness how hard they’re finding it to compete with Apple on pricing for things like Ultrabooks and tablets at the moment, because Apple has huge scale economies and ordering power, which no PC builder can rival. The Steam Box will hit the same problems. It won’t be cheap.

Secondly, getting developers to stick to the baseline spec will be hard. Yes, everything will run on that spec, but how well will it run? If you buy a Steam Box, probably costing you well over £500, you’ll want a guarantee that new PC games will run well on it for at least three or four years – but four years is a long time in PC hardware, and by that stage developers may well be throwing poorly performing, poorly optimised versions at the Steam Box and reserving their real efforts for users on more recent PCs. That’s a risk, not a certainty, but it’s a bit worrying. Caveat Emptor.

Finally, controlling this system might be tough. It’s a marketing challenge, more than anything else – the Steam Box would need a significant marketing push behind it, because advertising it in the usual places, i.e. the PC gaming press and community, is a pointless waste of time. That’s not the audience. They already have PCs and they enjoy tinkering with them, for the most part. Valve would need to reach a wider audience of lapsed PC gamers or interested gamers who own other systems. It’s doable, but it’s expensive – and once it’s done, I’m not sure how Valve would prevent other PC manufacturers from piggy-backing on their success and flogging lower priced set-top box style PCs which don’t match the Steam Box specification to unwary users. That’s a tough one to crack.

Will the Steam Box happen? It seems an odd proposition, but if Valve can get the PC manufacturers on board, I can’t see why they wouldn’t do this. It’s a natural extension of their business – building out the size of their potential market for Steam. Will I buy one? Yeah, probably. Will it work, though? Long term? I remain to be convinced. I don’t fancy betting against Valve, but in a marketplace where they’re squeezed by console manufacturers on one side, Apple on the other, and forced to work with manufacturing partners with their own agendas and their own profit motives, the company would face a very tough challenge indeed. Still – if it can rid me of the lingering guilt I feel about being a PC apostate, I’ll be there on day one.