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Steam Box Madness: Questions We Need To Be Asking

Will The Future Really Be Televised?

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In the span of a week, the Steam Box went from a taut, near-undetectable assemblage of whispers on the wind to the talk of the town. (It is a humble, off-the-map town called Internet. You’ve probably never heard of it.) Xi3 announced a thing, Valve hinted that other folks would soon announce other things, and then Gabe Newell talked up Valve’s own thing. There is, in other words, a lot going on here. But there’s also still quite a bit we don’t know, and that’s as good of a place to start as any. So right then, let’s put on our sleuthing hats, start speaking in horrifically nonsensical noir-isms, and get to work.

Is this still PC gaming? — This is the elephant in the (living) room, but by and large, I think the answer’s yes. Between expansions to both Workshop and Greenlight, mods and indies – two of PC’s most formidable modern cornerstones – are solidly represented on Valve’s flagship. Moreover, Gabe apparently wants to turn the whole thing into some zany user-driven wonderland, which is pretty much the opposite of console/mobile/tablet gaming’s generally closed-off, proprietary approach. And hey, speaking of open and closed…

Will there be one Steam Box to rule them all? Does that matter? — This one’s a toughie. On one hand, Valve’s initial push seems to be aimed at spreading Steam’s reach far and wide, like a parade of infinitely multiplying bunnies or a plague. But, on the other, Valve’s Linux-based, biometrically controlled sci-fi dream machine is waiting in the wings, and it very well could be a game-changer when it finally decides to pounce. Really, it depends on how open Valve is with the tech it’s developing in-house, as well as how much it continues to push other boxes as viable alternatives. So basically, are Piston and its ilk just appetizers for Valve’s main course, or is the aim to create a menu so expansive that everyone will be belching in satisfaction when it’s all said and done?

Are Steam Boxes even for us? — Yes and no. I mean, speaking personally, I’m not super-interested in owning one. I already have a fairly beastly machine (I mean that; it has cooling spines), and it’s become fast friends with my television. Admittedly, the small form factor’s enticing, but not $1100 enticing. However, therein lies the rub: I don’t see 14-Year-Old With Profound Rage Issues or Mom Who Accidentally Became A Halo Addict After Son Went To Bed shelling out that kind of cash for a gaming device – even if its mighty graphical muscles and dazzling array of options make Sony and Microsoft’s offerings look like an abacus that catches on fire anytime anyone counts higher than three. That goes double for the numerous folks who mainly use these things for Netflix or some other TV/movie streaming equivalent. Odds are, however, some other manufacturer will introduce a more affordable low-end option. Then things will get interesting.

Is this even competing with consoles at all? — Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3? Pfft, no. But that’s because those two may as well already be snug inside their Viking coffins, wreathed in unquenchable flame for all eternity. They’re from a different era – before PC gaming was reborn and mobile/tablet devices surged – and it shows. The real question here, then, is what Microsoft and Sony will offer up next, and whether their soon-to-be-announced devices will embrace the cyberfuture we now inhabit or flee into the safe, un-circuited arms of What’s Always Worked. Even then, though, the next PlayStation and Xbox will presumably be flying solo. That is to say, Microsoft and Sony will manufacture them, and that’s it. No third-parties on the hardware side. So it’ll be a vastly different type of horse race – more akin to Android vs iPhone than the classic console wars of yore.

What about the cloud and other streaming tech? — Ooooo, good question. Gold star for you. Steam’s embraced the cloud, but only for saves and things of the like – not full games. I think Valve would be pretty foolish to ignore that still-not-entirely-paved pathway to the future, though, and – since Valve’s a smart company – I doubt they are. But right this very second, Steam’s not called Stream for a reason, while rumblings from console land suggest a big time focus on streaming for this go-around. I mean, let’s not forget that Sony owns Gaikai now. I’d hop on a plane and find a way to ingest a real cloud if the next PlayStation didn’t incorporate David Perry’s cloud service in some way or another.

What about mobile and tablet tech? — Another good question! I will now name a real star after you, pending expense and my ability to forge a certificate of authenticity. Assuming Valve’s as intent on turning Steam into a kind of game-centric OS as it seems, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t expand to mobile platforms and tablets. I mean, a Steam mobile app already exists, though it doesn’t actually sell games for those platforms. But in the future? Who knows? I certainly wouldn’t rule out the possibility.

Linux? Really? — Here’s a potential stumbling block. Yes, Valve’s doing its damndest to bring Steam’s crazy, penguin-obsessed cousin up-to-speed with our gamerly ways and customs, but pickings are still pretty slim at the moment. Obviously, that will improve over time. But how much? It’s tempting, after all, to claim Valve is offering living-room-bound miscreants the sum total of PC gaming’s expansive bounties, but that’s simply not true yet. Will it be by the time Linux-based Steam Boxes enter the big picture? Well…

What about Valve’s other hardware projects? — Let’s not forget that the Steam Box is far from the only thing lurching through the darkest depths of Valve’s laboratory, still slick with gelatinous mucus after its birth from some pulsating mega-brain. Wearable computing, especially, has been a hot topic in Valve’s less Steam-clouded regions, and the mighty PC overlord’s pointed its peepers in virtual reality’s direction as well. When/where will these projects be applied? Honestly, it’s anyone’s guess at this point. But obviously, the crossover potential’s quite tantalizing – though potentially riddled with unforeseen complexity. I mean, Oculus Rift’s demonstrated the potential of VR with games, but what about wearable computing? How will that even work? Could we take our games on the go in some fashion and then beam them back into the living room using R2-D2 space magic? The future’s exciting, definitely, but it’s also very, very confusing.

Do we really need biometrics and whatnot? — As far as crazy hardware projects go, this one’s at least a bit more concrete. Gabe Newell’s explicitly stated that Valve’s working on a biometrics-based controller, and that he’s hoping to see it enter our hearts (hopefully figuratively, possibly literally) around the same time as the One True Steam Box. Once again, though, it’s tremendously difficult to say where games will factor into this equation. Most recently, Newell mentioned eye-tracking as one key element of his controller that knows you better than you know yourself, but in the past, he also touched on skin galvanic response, heart rate, and EEG implants inside human skulls. Mainly, though, the goal seems to be a highly detailed measurement of player feelings, which in turn allows both games and other players to react accordingly. Is someone outrageously pissed? Maybe the game will subtly shift its own difficulty or – if it’s multiplayer – alert nearby friends, family, and tropical natives that you’re about to blow your top. Those are only ideas, though. Who knows what mad science Valve’s got weaving wires through its veins?

Moreover, there’s the matter of simplicity. Valve has so many big plans. That’s not necessarily a bad thing by any means, but bringing new people into the PC gaming fold means easing them in – not tossing up a fluorescent forest of signs that read “You must be this much of a cyborg to ride.” In that respect, then, it’s a good thing that the initial round of Steam Boxes looks to be fairly no-frills. People get Steam in their living rooms. Done. They’ll hopefully have time to learn of indie, mod, and user-driven wonderment before biometrics, VR, and potentially wearable computing enter the picture. Well, assuming those things ever make it to market in a publicly consumable form at all…

Will Valve’s box ever come to fruition? — Honestly? Who even knows anymore. Valve’s got tons of crazy future projects in the works, and it’s not a company that lets substandard efforts tarnish its monolithically monosyllabic name. For all we know, Newell and co could decide that none of these products meet their lofty expectations, or some wild industry shift no one saw coming could send Valve hurdling in an entirely different direction.

Do we want Steam ruling the world? — Steam’s basically unopposed on PC, and a lack of competition tends to breed complacency in, you know, human beings. So far, however, Valve’s consistently expanded and improved Steam’s functionality despite lacking a young upstart hot on its heels. Obviously, that bodes well overall, but things change. If Steam expands to, well, pretty much everything ever, it stands to become some nearly ubiquitous gaming OS. And, I mean, I like consistency between platforms as much as anyone, but I like options a lot more. Case in point: Greenlight. It’s still not particularly great, and Valve struggled with indie game selection long before that, too.

Sure, Valve’s essentially letting hardware partners do what they want with Steam, but it’s still Steam. All that said, a dystopic Newellian Empire’s highly unlikely, because that’d take an insane amount of time, work, planning, and luck – and that’s assuming the industry somehow doesn’t evolve in another crazy new direction in a couple years like it always does. Also, anti-trust laws are a thing.

Will Half-Life 3 come out on Steam Box? — No. Stop asking.

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