Is the steam box a console killer?


The Steam Box is Valve’s attempt to convince even the most stubborn of console gamers to hook a computer up to their TV.

But to do this, Valve is going to make something more powerful, more appealing, and equally convenient. The console’s greatest appeal is the ability to switch it on and collapse on your couch rather than hunching over your desk, waiting for your computer to boot up.

And they’ve certainly tried. SteamOS and the small form-factor, ready-made Steam Boxes which connect directly to your TV seem to remove the associated hassle of PC gaming, and there’s no doubt that they’ll be powerful.

You need more however, you need the pull factor. For Valve, I believe that is the oddball Steam Box controller which was revealed a couple of weeks ago, featuring enormous trackpads instead of the standard analogue sticks. Alongside the reveal was the bold claim that you would be able to play FPS and strategy games designed for the PC

This week we finally got a look at the cumbersome controller, and the results were, well, pretty impressive.

Let’s temper this a bit – the video looked good, but it wasn’t perfect. Still, we couldn’t expect it to be, since it was essentially a keyboard and mouse game being played with a controller. When you play a standard console game, there are certain tweaks and balances which allow you to play it optimally with less precise controls.

This does, however, bring up issues as to how exactly this is all going to work. If me and my friend are both playing Call of Duty: Ghosts, but I have a Logitech G700 in hand and he has the Steam Controller, he’s going to get crushed.

Or is he? The controller is a risk, but it’s a necessary risk. The whole platform essentially hinges on that bug-eyed weirdo and its ability to allow you to enjoy your Steam games as much or more than you would on a PC.

If you haven’t actually seen the video yet, right now might be a good time.

We have to accept at this point that some kinds of games just won’t work. Lying on your couch and playing Civ 5 might be reasonable, but there’s not a chance you can do anything with a proper RTS like Starcraft. Despite the accuracy displayed in that Counter-strike clip, it did look a tad slow and clunky; and I couldn’t help but notice that he chose to shoot at fixed targets rather than something less co-operative, like an actual person.

Don’t get me wrong – the controller looks like it’s a lot more accurate than swiveling some analogue sticks, and it could well be the most innovative thing we’ve seen since the Wii. The problem here is that as much as the Steam Box dresses itself up like a console, what it’s hiding under that pretty dress is still a PC.

All that being said, it’s difficult to know at this point just “how good” one can get with that controller, but I can’t help but feel that a company like Valve has figured this out. Steam isn’t exactly struggling; this isn’t some kind of last ditch effort to salvage a company on the brink. You can be damned sure Valve wouldn’t announce something like the Steam Box until they had it perfect.

We’ve had precious few details at this point, and for this reason I’m hesitant to criticise too heavily that which is not yet entirely understood. In Gabe we trust. There are, however, some things which we can discuss.

One of the potential draws of the Steam Box is the powerful hardware of a PC, and Valve have already outlined Steam Boxes of differing power levels. Beautiful graphics are great, but this is a double-edged sword.

Game developers are not going to be trying to accommodate the slowly aging hardware in your Steam Box, which means you’re inevitably going to be forced to upgrade. It might be two or three years before you feel the need to do so, but it’s still a problem you’re not going to face with a PS4.

The PS4 has one of these, just in a place where we can't accidentally put a screwdriver through it.
The PS4 has one of these, just in a place where we can’t accidentally put a screwdriver through it.

The multi-platform AAA PC titles released today are still playable on a PS3, a console which is approaching its 7th birthday. That amount of time likely represents two upgrades for a PC system. That’s a significant investment, and Valve is going to have to work hard to convince you it’s worth it.

Which leads directly to the next sticking point – price. Some people have crunched the numbers on Valve’s prototype machines, with figures for the low and high-spec machines ranging from $700 to $1800. It’s pretty hard to believe anyone would even consider it at that price. Valve could sell it at a significant loss and attempt to recoup those losses through Steam sales, but what’s to stop someone buying a bunch of them simply to harvest that ridiculously low-costed hardware?

Again, that’s going to take some clever marketing, or something we haven’t seen just yet. Valve is asking a lot from the consumer, and they’re going to have to put more on the table than a gaming console with a fancy controller.

With all that in mind, is this a “console killer”? Not in this generation. The Xbox One and PS4 have way too much traction, and represent a much safer choice for someone who just wants to game. There’s a lot of mystique around the Steam Box and I think that will help it get off to a good start, but I imagine this is going to spend a significant period of time as a niche product, rather than a mass-produced gaming console.

Valve is a company that looks to the future, and I think the Steam Box is the beginning of a very long term plan, something which may only come fully to fruition when the new consoles are becoming obsolete.

Valve may not be trying to compete with the PS4, but rather the PS5; although right now it’s difficult to see how they’re going to make it work.

What are your thoughts? Are you considering a Steam Box? What kind of price point is your upper limit? Tell me about it in the comments.