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So Then, Why Should You Buy A Steam Machine?

Valve VR? Yes. Half-Life 3 Exclusive? No

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Yes, that’s right: You. That is who this article is for. Absolutely, positively nobody else. And by that, I of course mean Yousef Johnson, the world’s most average PC gaming enthusiast. He spends much of his leisure time playing on his own custom-built PC, largely by way of Steam. According to Valve, You (and perhaps by extension, also you) are who the initial line of Steam Machines is aimed at. And yet, so far it’s difficult to find many reasons to care. There’s the living room appeal, sure, but what’s to stop You from simply installing SteamOS on his own machine, buying a Steam controller, and doing a bit of quick (not to mention free) legwork? I asked Valve to justify its massive yet arguably over-cautious endeavor both now and in the long run. Here’s how the PC juggernaut replied.

After hands-on time, heaps of developer conversation, and hours of discussion, I think I can safely say that, in my expert opinion, Steam Machines are weird.

[pullquote]Would [Half-Life being exclusive] make all of our customers happy? I don’t think so.[/pullquote]

While Valve’s goal of sowing the seeds for a more open living room ecosystem is admirable, this doesn’t strike me as the most surefooted start. I mean, customers are looking at countless options of all shapes, sizes, configurations, and price ranges, not to mention an OS that requires a separate streaming machine to access most of its own games. For its part, Valve has opted to stand on the sidelines and offer both teams – players and hardware manufacturers – moist towelettes and whatever their hearts desire. Eventually. This, right now, is all a test, more or less. A big, fat, perhaps overly convoluted test.

So the initial batch of Steam Machines isn’t really for the faint of heart. If you like the way your Xbox One or PlayStation 4 welcomes you with a tray of cookies and a warm glass of lukewarm games, Steam Machines probably won’t tempt you away. But that’s OK, Valve says. This game begins with the ball in PC gamers’ court, and they’ll help Valve spread its living room empire far and wide.

And yeah, that sounds reasonable enough on paper, but why should PC gamers shell out for an entire brand new, in some cases overpriced box? Heck, even tossing our current machines into the glitchy gears of SteamOS isn’t the most appealing proposition at this point. So why is Valve so sure hardcore PC gamers like you and me are going to bite the bullet and embrace a still nascent, unfortunately convoluted system?

“We have 65 million users with value in Steam accounts, and they want those games – their libraries – in the living room,” claimed SteamOS and Steam Machine designer Kassidy Gerber. “I think part of the value proposition is that we’ll be able to support all those excellent titles in the living room. I think we’ve proven we’re committed to holding onto your library for you.”

“A lot of these titles, traditional PC gaming titles, they actually move really well into the living room if you have the right controls. Like Civilization V is actually a really fun experience. So if you open this stuff up, you get a good cross between console and PC.”

But those are the obvious answers, and honestly I doubt I’d uproot my entire setup – not to mention spend gobs of money – on those promises alone. I decided to probe deeper. Why would I want new hardware? Steam Machines might be the proposed missing link between PC and console, but I’m not a console gamer. I like to upgrade little-by-little. I don’t buy an entire new machine unless I absolutely have to. Gerber replied:

“We think some people will choose to [buy a controller and install SteamOS on their own machines]. So I think the appeal will be for customers who are excited – who want to buy into the Steam Machine concept. It’s gonna be different for each person. If you want to buy a Steam Machine that’s been built from the get-go to be quiet and cool with the performance specs you want, you can have that off-the-shelf experience. I think that’s a good option. And then some people like you may decide to wait.”

Fair enough, though I’m still skeptical about how many people will be roped in by a confused opening pitch and mere long-term promise. But I bite: what does buying into the Steam Machine concept get people? What do they stand to gain if they weather the early storm without falling overboard into a sea of hungry competitors?

First up, the biggie: virtual reality. While Valve quite publicly let go of AR/VR experts (and current CastAR creators) Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson early last year, it’s still working on its own VR project. Gerber couldn’t discuss many details, but she was able to offer this simple assurance: “Yeah, [we hope to integrate VR], but it’s still in very early stages. We have plans.”

And beyond that? Well, the living room is far from a games-only entertainment space. Valve, then, doesn’t intend on keeping Steam games-only for too much longer.

“We’re looking to bring more content to living rooms,” Gerber explained. “Stuff like music and video content. We’re hoping to do that on Steam Machines. And, I mean, it’s not a super sexy feature, but we’ve added parental controls and family sharing. We look at it as, these are things people expect when they get into the living room, so we want to make sure they’re there.”

“So those are all reasons someone might decide to go with a Steam Machine over another console.”

One weapon that Valve will absolutely keep holstered, however, is the ever-arbitrary exclusive. If a game comes to SteamOS, it’s on Steam – and, via Windows streaming, vice versa. So no, you don’t need to worry: Half-Life 3 (if it descends from on-high in our lifetimes) won’t immediately be chained up in SteamOS’ dungeons.

“Would that make all of our customers happy? I don’t think so. We still want you to play Half-Life 3 or whatever game we bring to our customers. We want everyone to enjoy it. So Valve would never [make games exclusive to SteamOS] because that would upset our customers. It would be very shortsighted on our part,” Gerber confessed.

“I think it would make our hardware partners happy if we would do something like that, but Valve puts the customers first. Even when we don’t respond directly to customers, even when we’re frustrating, we’re paying attention to our forums and threads on Reddit. So yeah, we wouldn’t [make anything exclusive]. We wouldn’t do that.”

It’s good, too, that Valve fully plans on listening to its customers every step of the way. The hope is that feedback will ultimately turn Steam Machines and SteamOS into the best living room experience around. But still, there will be growing pains, and early adopters will have to suffer through them. On some level, that’s true of every new hardware initiative, but Valve especially doesn’t seem to have much of a plan here. Just a series of loose promises wrapped up in pretty packaging. Promises that it’ll all become much better after feedback starts flowing in. So I asked Gerber the question I’ve wanted to ask all console/hardware creators: are you treating your early customers like glorified beta participants? She replied:

“It’s weird for us to say ‘beta’ just because the way we think about beta – we’re software, right? The way we think about it is, we’re constantly iterating, constantly updating. We update the Steam client weekly. So it’s hard to call [the initial batch of Steam Machines] a beta. SteamOS will continue to evolve after it launches. And there won’t be an official console hardware like there is for Xbox or PS4, so our hardware partners will constantly be evolving and putting out new boxes. So it’s hard to say it’s a beta because we’ll always be listening and changing.”

But this isn’t software. It’s hardware, and subsequent upgrades won’t necessarily be free. SteamOS improvements? Sure. And Gerber claimed that many of the more daunting prospects – games not running on certain machines/OSes, configuration management, interface issues – will likely be streamlined into a far more inviting package with time. But at this point, Steam Machines don’t really seem like they’re “for” anybody in particular. Not bleeding-edge enough for hardcore PC enthusiasts, and not simplified enough for longtime console gamers. Gerber admitted that Valve aspects of its upcoming uphill battle will be like pulling teeth, but she thinks it will all pay off in time.

“The issue with what he have right now is that we weren’t really sure we were going to continue doing what we were doing,” she said. “It started off as just a combination of wanting to get into the living room – which is what our customers wanted – and also having an experience we could control at the end. Being able to do everything with the controller. We have some challenges ahead of us. There’s work to do, definitely.”

“So it really is just about listening to our customers. It’s hard for Valve to have a five or even two year plan. We respond to our customers. The plan will evolve as we get more feedback, hear what our users like, and hear what our hardware partners need from us. But I guess I’d say our two-year plan is making existing customers happy.”

Check back soon for the final part of our Valve blowout, in which we attempt to take Valve to task for some of its more lackluster communication efforts in the past. Valve might be listening, but will it improve its approach to responding? 

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