The specialized place that consoles sit in the industry is no niche, it’s a dominant place for gaming hardware and community–Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have it well battoned down and they’re not going to budge. The PC gaming community, on the other hand, is also heavily entrenched and sees bigger and better games as advancing game design takes advantage of GPU cards and punctuations in far superior hardware–but at a high cost: gaming rigs in the PC community are extremely expensive.
Steam Machines appear to be attempting to swing the condition of the PC market back down towards the more stable, hardware-fixed market that consoles hold, but retain as much of the cutting-edge gaming that expensive equipment can deliver.
When the Steam Machines appeared at CES 2014 speculation immediately launched as to their nature. The first thing to come to mind came to the point that they might be a salvo in PCs vs. consoles in an attempt to destroy consoles. Especially noting that many of the line up of SM align nicely into the console market price bracket at about $500.
Tom Bramwell argues over at Eurogamer.net that this move by Valve represents a long-game to keep PC gaming relevant and in charge in the face of technology and gaming.
As for Steam Machines, they are a beachhead, not an atom bomb. They are meant to sell modestly. The hardware vendors making them have presumably estimated their return and weighed the risks. They have probably decided that licensing the Steam name and whacking it on a cool bit of bespoke hardware will make them a little money. They’re probably right.
One argument I see here and there is that Steam now has a chicken-and-egg problem, but I think this concern is misplaced. How do you get people to make games for SteamOS when no one’s bought a Steam Machine? How do you get people to buy Steam Machines when the SteamOS catalogue is so small?
The answer is that Valve is thinking in decades, not console generations. 10 years ago, Steam had one game: Half-Life 2. Today it’s the only platform that matters. SteamOS has 300 games, including Valve’s own, and they will still work in 10 years’ time when PS4 and Xbox One have been consigned to the attic. Like the growth of Steam itself from zero to 65 million accounts, it will be a gradual process.
SteamOS, Steam Machines, and a source for console-market level gaming rigs all the way up to the heady heights of super-gaming-rigs means that Valve will always have a powerful market.
A Steam Machine is much more than just PC-technology wrapped into a box and delivered by any number of vendors (there’s more than 10 already announced) it’s a platform for future growth. By having a line up that runs the gamut from cheap-but-powerful all the way up to gamer rig extasy, Valve has set the foothold for gamers everywhere to use their digital distribution service, community technology, and the games provided by them on these machines.
As a beachhead, Steam Machines and SteamOS will provide the vanguard for PC gaming publishers to reach a slightly broader audience than before. Those who would have PCs but don’t want to build their own.
It is indeed a long game. One that may play out a need to change the culture of PC gaming.