Ask Gamasutra: The future of Steam in the living room
Valve's Gabe Newell said earlier this month that his company would be making some big announcements about Steam, Linux and the living room, and the company followed through with a trio of announcements that will collectively be one of the biggest news events of the entire year.
SteamOS, Steam Machine hardware and the Steam Controller is the three-pronged strategy that Valve will implement to invade a space that has been owned by console manufacturers for decades.
The question for this edition of Ask Gamasutra: What are your predictions (or prediction) for Valve's future in the living room?
prediction is that Valve will be very "Valve" about its move into the living room. Whereas Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony created their consoles behind closed doors and used big events to reveal near-finished consoles, Valve is trying to make as few presumptions as possible when it comes to any potential market for Steam in the living room. Valve is launching hardware in a way similar to launching software, which shouldn't be too much of a surprise.
Like a modern software company, Valve is putting its product in front of the public before the product is finished. Valve will run into problems, and it will likely make public mistakes. But the crucial factor is that Valve does typically try to learn from those mistakes, then reposition for improvement. Steam Machines, its OS and Steam Controllers may well be flawed at first, but you can already see how Valve is giving itself the space and flexibility to rapidly iterate and improve.
Will Valve simply crush
the traditional console makers with its Steam expansion? That's the more provocative question to ask. Of course, we don't really know. Valve stands a chance not just because of Steam's large user base, but because the company isn't simply launching a game console to take on the entrenched "Big Three." Rather, it's working to create the framework for hardware, software and services in which anyone who chooses to be involved can potentially benefit. If Valve is successful, that's a powerful position to hold.
Steam has always been an interesting beast to me - the way in which PC gamers are always claiming "Death to DRM!" and in the same breath adding, "If this game isn't on Steam, I'm not buying it." I'm intrigued by how the platform went from being a nuisance, to acceptance, to a cult, to essentially the very definition of what someone means when they say "PC gaming." The rise and monopoly of Steam will no doubt be part of case studies for many years to come.
The conclusion I'm slowly veering towards with this ramble is that the Steam platform can now do no wrong, and has millions of sheep who will follow it wherever it goes - even if that includes a "Linux console," two words which many PC gamers may have never bought into before. I'm not trying to be condescending when I call Steam users "sheep" - I'm one of those sheep myself. The fact is that when SteamOS launches on whichever devices, all forms of traditional gamers - PC, console or otherwise - will no doubt eat it up. I think the more interesting battle we'll see will be between Valve's own hardware, and its SteamOS-wearing living room competitors.
The culture of prediction and prognostication in games is tricky -- with so many variables, who can tell what will happen?
It's hard to know what the future will be for Valve until we know more details about the company's strategy. I once asked a console executive (can no longer remember which) what he thought of the Ouya, and the exciting microconsole disruption in general, and he took a pause, and replied: "It's verrrry hard to launch a console," with something that looked like a smile that I now understand was self-restraint.
He was right: So many things have gone wrong for Ouya, and it's barely on the market yet. The developer relations, the controller. As for Valve, it has quietly gone from boutique game developer to massive platform-holder over a relatively narrow window of time, and now it's adding hardware into the mix.
For one thing, it'll be interesting to see how (or whether) Valve, accustomed to a relatively niche, savvy PC owner, will bridge the communication gap with more casual console buyers who aren't familiar with its brand. Valve has never taken a step that leads us to suggest anyone there doesn't know exactly what they're doing, and I can't wait to get a Steam Machine into my living room, but we'll see.
As a digital platform, Steam has built the most significant alternative to console retail -- now we'll see it move into the space where the consoles are. I'd say get ready for sparks!
Where are all these fabled living room entertainment centers we're told we're all supposed to have these days? Do you have one? I sure don't. I use my TV set so sparingly I converted it into a second monitor instead, the better to keep my Twitter feeds visible while I'm playing a PC game. Even if I felt like using it for other purposes, I don’t exactly have the space.
I’m not alone, either. I'm sure somewhere out there in the mythological Demographical Average Land, a family here or there still gathers around to bask in the cool glow of the LCD hearth, but it is not any of the families that I know. As a single professional, the idea of stacking yet another console under my repurposed TV to collect dust is absurd. As a consumer, I can perceive absolutely no benefit to Steam Machines -- or any of these other experimental forays into the living room space -- that I can't match or exceed with my desktop PC. And WASD controls are just fine for the sorts of games I play, thanks very much.
But let's take it outside my direct experience and hypothesize based on what we know of the market. Kids are getting exposed to smartphones at a younger and younger age. Mobile games are continuing to explode. Console games aren't dead on arrival, as GTA 5
has more than made clear, but chances are good they'll become to games what blockbuster movies became to television: good for a splurge or a night with friends, but not the media consumption of the everyday.
Perhaps Steam Machines will retool that dynamic, revitalizing the 'big game' and bringing PC libraries to the living room. I doubt it, though. There are economic forces at work much bigger than even Valve, and most of them are trending toward more atomized entertainment and smaller screens, the byproduct of our thinner wallets.
Director of online community, GDC
I think Valve has a better shot than anyone else.
While Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo were battling over the living room, Valve basically built themselves a powerhouse PC platform, and now they're poised to basically copy that success from the desktop to the couch. I doubt they'll get it 100 percent right on the first try, but their decision to jump into this with beta programs speaks to an attitude towards openness and iteration that I think is going to be incredibly threatening to major console manufacturers, and the breadth and depth of Steam's library will trounce any Android-based microconsole. (For comparison's sake, my own Steam library has approximately half as many games as Ouya's entire catalog, and I've already paid
for those games.)
It helps, of course, that I already spend most of my time and money playing games on a PC, and I realize that it might take a while for Valve to win over the mass market (as in, the people who called all consoles "the Nintendo" and then "the Sony" and now "the Xbox"), but it seems like their approach will get them there over the course of this next console generation without risking nearly as much as Microsoft did when they entered the console market with the original Xbox.
Sr. Contributing Editor Gamasutra; Independent game developer
All these announcements seem to be part of an existing plan, and it stands to reason they're going to spend the foreseeable future executing on this plan. My prediction is kind of boring, but I imagine Valve's next move will be to have a bit more of a public face, and engage in more outreach than before. Valve has thus far been content to let the people come to them, but when targeting a more casual consumer, it's going to have to find ways to get more eyeballs on their products.
Valve could potentially start going the platform holder route, and try to fund and secure some key exclusives with which to advertise their new home units. If the company is hoping to be the platform of choice above all else, even with their "open" ideology, it'll still need to tell Halo
players why they don't need an Xbox.
Right now, Valve doesn't do a lot of PR, and doesn't explain itself much to the masses. Valve may have to change its tune, now. Or Valve could just shrug its shoulders and hope for the best - that wouldn't surprise me either!
I think that the ubiquity of Steam as the destination for PC gamers speaks to Valve's tenacity and capacity to provide services people actually want to use. Part of what makes getting on Steam a must for game developers is that players want them to! That, more than anything, suggests the ability of the company to effectively serve the needs of consumers.
I think savvy players are well aware that Steam is a better way to play most games than game consoles at this point — certainly more flexible, usually earlier, and certainly often much cheaper. But it strikes me that this same audience, being more savvy, is more likely to be wait-and-see about how this whole Steam Machines thing shakes out. Or maybe that's just me.
The question isn't really, in my mind, whether Valve will be successful. It will. But how successful, and how fast? Who will be displaced — or will there be a market expansion, instead? These are fun to ponder but harder to predict. With few details (price and availability of Steam Machines is still highly TBD) it's a bit rough to predict much.
I remain skeptical average consumers — the "buy two games a year" Madden
types — will jump on the Steam Machines bandwagon quickly. Sometimes I think knowing too much about a topic is a handicap. We can see the obvious advantages. Can Valve convince consumers — the ones who don't already love the company, or even know it exists — of those advantages?