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Why Valve Isn't Releasing Its Own Steam Machine... For Now

Canaries In The Coal Mine

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And poof, just like that, there were a hundred-billion Steam Machines. Or, well, maybe not quite that many, but a lot – ranging in price from reasonable to WHAT HOW YOU HAVE TO BE JOKING. But while Valve’s CES catwalk was littered with sparkling boxes from every manufacturer under the sun, one was missing: Valve’s own. It was powering demos off in the background, but it received no spotlight during our brief peek inside Gabe Newell’s magical toy factory. Why, you ask? Well, because Valve has no plans to ever release it. At least, for the time being. Many figured a standard Valve system spec would give PC gaming a lower barrier to entry, but that’s not how the digital juggernaut sees its role in all of this. 

Gabe Newell himself set the tone for the night when he shot down a random journo’s release date query. (Yes, someone asked Valve for a release date. Look, it’s just– I know, I know. As a PHD in Valve Time Studies, I’m the last person you need to explain this to. Just roll with it for now.)

[pullquote]Right now we’re not planning to bring the prototype to market.[/pullquote]

“We’re going to continue to make that decision [about releasing our own Steam Machine] as we go along,” Newell said. “We have plans to build more machines, but we also expect that users will be really happy with the range of offerings from these hardware manufacturers.”

“I mean, we’ve made 300 [of them], which is very tiny stuff. You know, we’ll make what we need to. We really view our role in this as enabling. So we’ll do whatever is going to be helpful to other hardware manufacturers – whether that’s with controller design or something specifically tied to boxes. It’s very much about how we can collaborate with the chip-makers and the system integrators. What’s the most useful thing for us to do? Part of the reason for holding events like this is to get feedback from them about what are the next problems they’d like us to take on.”

SteamOS/Steam Machine designer Kassidy Gerber echoed Newell’s sentiment in an interview with RPS, explaining why Valve’s keeping clear of the giant Steam Box boxing match: because it doesn’t really know what it’s doing.

“Right now we’re not planning to bring the prototype to market,” she explained. “It doesn’t mean we never will, but right now we’re really working with third-party hardware to build their own Steam Machines. We think they know their customers and they know hardware better than us right now.”

While Valve’s open door hardware policy is admirable – especially in light of Microsoft, Sony, and even Apple’s hyper-proprietary efforts – it does take some wind out of Steam Machines’ sails. A centralized system spec (presumably in addition to all the others offered by Valve’s third-party partners) could offer developers something to shoot for. It probably wouldn’t be the highest of the high-end, but a functional, convenient mid-range experience would suffice for many developers who struggle with optimization or players who fear complexity. For now, however, that’s simply not Valve’s goal.

“In the first year of Steam Machines, our main audience is people telling us they want to bring their Steam library into the living room,” Gerber noted. “Right now, there’s no way for people to really do that well.”

“The consistent OS helps,” she added. “That at least gives developers a consistent target in some ways. And then we think there will be a place for reviews on how various hardware configs work for various games. [Some kind of feature] where, when you go and look for a Steam Machine, you’ll have an idea of how certain games will perform on possible configs.”

Between that, choosing a box in the first place, and the fact that the grand majority of Steam games still aren’t Linux compatible (necessitating Windows streaming from a separate machine), the initial batch of Steam Machines have quite an uphill battle ahead of them. But instead of knee-sliding onto center stage and praying for the best, Valve has decided to lurk in the background.

Over-cautious? Perhaps not. Honestly, it’s kind of an ideal position when you think about it. Hardware manufacturers and early adopters will hash things out, and then Valve will make its next move once the dust settles. That’s the rub of it, really: Valve doesn’t seem to know where Steam Machines are headed, but it’s not panicking or attempting to force a course. Its plan? To go with the flow, whether that means eventually releasing a Steam Machine of its own or sticking to its role as the software-based tie that binds.

“The machines are very connected, so we’ll be able to harness community for a lot of that,” said Gerber. “We’ll be able to figure out which things are best for price, performance, and the way it works in the living room. We’ll always be listening to our customers and giving them what they want.”

“We definitely have some challenges ahead of us,” she confessed. “And really, that’s a big part of why we’re putting out these prototypes, getting feedback from people, and giving ourselves a date to put Steam Machines in the hands of our customers.”

Success isn’t guaranteed by any means, and I personally am still more than a bit uncertain. But it’s better than loading down your box with a million and one “features” nobody ever asked for. Valve has unleashed a veritable tornado-swarm of canaries into this coal mine, and it won’t venture down itself until it’s good and ready. A cautious approach, to be sure, but perhaps a wise one. Or maybe the “boss-free” brain tank’s failure to really lead the charge will result in a confused, inconsistent battle strategy that leaves everybody on the losing team.

It’s impossible to say at this point. But then, this is Valve we’re talking about. Patient to a fault and nearly impossible to dissuade once it’s set its collective yet hyper-fragmented mind to something. The rise of the Steam Machine is upon us. But will it establish the next great living room empire, or will it crumble as countless moving parts pull in every conceivable direction? Who knows?

Behind each door, another question.

Check back soon for more SteamOS and Steam Machine coverage from Valve’s big event. Still to come, we have Valve trying valiantly to make a case for why someone like you or me would even want a pre-made Steam Machine when we can, you know, just use our PCs. We also have a lengthy SteamOS interview (including a brief Half-Life discussion) and a chat in which Valve defends its haphazard approach to communication during incidents like Diretide despite its plan to rely on community interaction to shape SteamOS’ future. 

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Nathan Grayson

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