Back in September, 2013, PC gaming powerhouse company Valve set the world on fire with a trio of gaming hardware announcements. These announcements included its own Linux-based free-to-use gaming operating system (SteamOS), its own controller which could mimic all the functions of a mouse and keyboard (the Steam Controller), and a custom-designed “mini PC” that could wirelessly stream games from a player’s gaming PC to their television. This last announcement was dubbed the “Steambox” or “Steam Machine” and it along with Valve’s other announcements made the company’s intentions clear: they wanted to give Microsoft and Sony a run for their money in the next-gen home console market.
While both Microsoft and Sony made impressive showings with the respective launches of their next-gen consoles, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, a few months ago, it cannot be denied that many gamers still prefer to do a majority (or in some cases the entirety) of their gaming on a computer. PC gaming certainly has its advantages: the ability to purchase and even customize your machine for a variety of price points, mobility thanks to the wide variety of gaming laptops that are available, modding support for many games which helps maintain their longevity, and, perhaps most importantly, the support of PC-centric companies like Valve.
However, one area in which the PC gaming industry hasn’t seen a whole lot of penetration is in the living room. When you think of the average gamer sitting on their living room couch, controller in hand, it’s only natural to assume they’re utilizing a home console such as an Xbox One or PlayStation 4. With their new trio of upcoming hardware and software releases, Valve is hoping to shatter that assumption by making PC gaming just as viable an option for couch-sitting living room play. But how well will they be able to compete with Microsoft and Sony, two companies who have dominated the home console market for over a decade?
Things are already looking good for Valve’s Steam Machine thanks to the large number (12 in total) of third-party developers and manufacturers who recently showed off their own customized (and customizable) versions of the Steam Machine at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2014). These manufacturers include Alienware, Falcon Northwest, Origin PC, Digital Storm, Zotac, Scan Computers, Next, CyberPower PC, Webhallen, Material.net, and Gigabyte. Another PC manufacturing company, iBuyPower, unveiled their own Steambox prototype last November, bringing the total list up to 14 if you count Valve’s own in-house Steam Machine..
Ever since the debut of Microsoft’s original Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation 2, there has been a noticeable divide between console gamers and PC gamers. Some could argue that Valve’s new push to bring PC gaming into the living room could be seen as an encroachment on Microsoft’s and Sony’s console-based turf but one could just as easily argue that Valve is simply trying to break down the wall of derision and segregation that has long separated these two different groups of gamers.
As someone who has been a long-time player of both console and PC games, I can see inherent advantages and disadvantages within both camps but, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll only talk about the advantages and disadvantages surrounding Valve’s upcoming Steambox. I think both Sony and Microsoft have made some impressive strides in the home console market and will continue to do so as we push ahead into a new year and a new generation of console gaming. But that doesn’t mean Valve can’t come in and take their own slice of the pie without ruffling Microsoft’s and Sony’s feathers too much.
I try to be as thrifty with my gaming habits as possible so naturally I was slightly disheartened when I first learned that Sony would be following in Microsoft’s footsteps by charging a monthly fee for online multiplayer on the PlayStation 4 (unlike Microsoft’s previous console the Xbox 360, online multiplayer on the PlayStation 3 was always free of charge). However, online multiplayer or PC gaming (outside of subscription-based MMO’s of course) still remains absolutely free and thus is a rather enticing option for gamers who’d rather not pay continuously in order to access the online portion of a game they’ve already plunked down $60 for.
On the flip-side however, playing your PC games in your living room will likely have a higher barrier of entry since you’ll need not only a capable gaming PC but also a Steam Machine to stream the games (or at the very least a second gaming PC you don’t mind installing Steam OS onto) and a Steam Controller if you don’t want to juggle a mouse and keyboard on your lap. Since most of the Steam Machines will be within the $499-$699 range (though some go as high as a whopping $6,000), it will likely be more expensive to get your PC couch-playing up and running than it would to simply buy an Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
Since streaming games from your PC to your television will be cloud-based, a constant internet connection will be required, something Xbox One fans weren’t too thrilled with back when the console first debuted. While PC games do often receive first-party support (i.e. they receive patches and upgrades before their console counterparts since they don’t have to go through Sony’s or Microsoft’s certification process), a majority of PC games today are only available in digital form which may be a problem for gamers who prefer physical copies of their games. Bearing all this in mind, it’s tough to say how much Valve’s Steambox will affect Sony and Microsoft but it is clear that Valve is committed to making PC gaming an equally viable option for those who prefer to game from the comfort of their couch.
Steam OS, Steam Controllers, and the already large variety (with more to inevitably follow) of Steam Machines will all be available at some point in 2014 which means we won’t have to wait too long to see how much turbulence Valve faces as they work to get their new PC couch-playing movement off the ground. Even for gamers who choose not to fully embrace Valve’s vision of PC couch-playing, now is an exciting time to be a PC gamer thanks to Valve’s efforts and hopefully PC players will be able to coexist with their console playing brethren without too much friction. Whether you’re an Xboxer for life, a hardcore Sony fanboy, a member of the PC master race, or maybe a little of all three, you’ll have a lot to look forward to in 2014.