Steam Machine: Viable Competitor or Gimmick?

The Steam Machine is a hybrid between PC and console. As such, it sits poised to either grab gobs of market share from Microsoft and Sony or flop spectacularly. Although it's too early to call, movers and shakers are having fun taking pot shots at Valve's widely different new console. One thing is clear: there's always room in the console wars for one more combatant.

Valve's Motivation

According to Valve, their motive for creating the Steam Machine is two-fold: give console gamers a highly upgradable alternative to the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 and convince PC gamers to give their console a try. While the platform is unlikely to sway hardcore console Steam Machineusers, the company is hoping to snag fence-sitters by offering access to Steam's enormous game library. Moreover, the company's existing "Big Picture" technology makes it possible to play many Steam games directly on big-screen TVs. Add to this the fact that Valve has designed a controller that can comfortably navigate any Steam game, and it's hard not to arrive at the conclusion that the Steam Machine is a logical next step for the company.

According to Gabe Newell, co-founder of Valve, Dota 2--which stands for Defense of the Ancients--is more popular than the classic American pastime Monday Night Football. Indeed, the free-to-play game boasts over 20 million regular players. If Steam can convince even a fraction of this passionate crowd to cast their spells from the living room, the Steam Machine will be an undeniable success. Still, Dota 2 is a loss-leader. Aside from a few purchasable items in-game, it's free-to-play. Critics of the Steam Machine point to this as the Achilles' heel of the device. Will shoppers who typically spend only a few dollars per game be willing to shell out hundreds to play their games in the living room? Time will tell.

Features and Pricing

No one doubts that every Steam Machine will host a powerful processor and GPU. Rather, many reviewers question whether a quintessential Steam Machine even exists. While Valve did produce a beta version of their own console, they do not plan on selling it to the public. Instead, they are selling licenses to manufacturers. These manufactures--including Alienware and Alternate--will in turn create their own versions. These machines will have to hold up to a performance minimum set by Valve, but the manufacturers will be free to slap their own branding on their finished products. Many detractors claim that Valve is alienating the fence-sitters that are most likely to buy their machines by providing them with too many choices. At CES 2014, for instance, Valve revealed over 12 models ranging in price from $499 to $6,000. Many wonder why the casual PC gamer--who doesn't know the difference between the GTX660 and the Iris Pro 5200--would want to sift through so many choices.

The minimum Steam Machine setup: 64-bit capable IMB or AMD processor, 4 gigs or more of RAM, a hard disk with 500GB or more capacity and Nvidia GForce GTX Titan 660. Valve claims that AMD support is coming soon.

Alienware Steam MachineThe console runs on a Linux-based OS dubbed "Steam OS." Early reviews of the OS claim that it performs well without assaulting the user with apps and programs they don't need. It features a Web browser that users can navigate with a gaming controller and unspecified graphics enhancements. The OS looks and feels much like the Xbox One experience, with smooth scrolling icons and responsive graphics.

Criticism

Everyone from Forbes to PCMag has leveled criticism at the device. Some critics claim that its primary selling point--upgradability--isn't enough to justify its existence. First, there's the issue of its competitors, Xbox and PlayStation 4. The PlayStation 4 goes for $100 less than the least expensive Steam Machine, while the Xbox One is still right at home at the $499 price point. Both of these machines are hardcore gaming consoles.

Furthermore, Newell often claims that there's a need to "bring PC gaming to the masses." However, in terms of sheer engagement, Steam already outclasses the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 to the tune of around 70 million users. Additionally, the platform boasts 7 million users online at any one time. To state the obvious: that is massively massive.

Another potential limitation of Valve's console is that despite the fact that Steam is a goliath in the gaming distribution industry, not all titles are available through Steam itself. Windows and Mac PCs will likely always have exclusivity to certain hot titles. Given the console's high price, then, how many PC gaming enthusiasts are likely to make the jump? Worthy of consideration is the fact that Steam's Big Picture feature already makes it possible to play Steam games on big-screen TVs with a standard PC.

Finally, many critics point out that while the new console will introduce droves of players to titles such as Counter-Strike, those players will likely enter the fray with controllers. It's no secret that the mouse and keyboard combo offers much more precision in first-person shooters than any known controller. It's a fair question to ask if these gamers will rage-quit instead of giving the all-too-alien mouse and keyboard a try.

In the end

It's impossible to predict whether the Steam Machine will find success. The console market isn't particularly crowded, but it is intensely competitive. However, Valve's product is novel, and it will expose console users to the smorgasbord that is Steam's game distribution network. Perhaps that is, in the end, Valve's ultimate goal. By skirting manufacturing costs, the company may have created one of the best loss-leaders in the history of gaming.

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