A Steambox makes no sense
March 19, 2012
Two weeks ago, rumours were running wild that Valve would jump into the console fray. The rumours were quickly squashed by Gabe Newell, but it didn’t stop some from dreaming. Maxator summed up the hopes of many gamers on his blog.
I think the stage is set for a new console player. If The Valve rumors are true, they choose their hardware well, throw in a slick interface, and court software partners, even those with competing online distribution systems, they will have a winner on their hands. So if Gabe Newell and company announce hardware at E3, I’ll be first in line to preorder a SteamBox. Who’s with me?
We weren’t with Maxator, because the notion of a Steambox doesn’t make sense. Maxator compared the state of today’s console gaming industry with the industry 12 years ago when Microsoft entered the fray, and similarities aside, it’s still comparing apples and oranges.
First and foremost, Steam is a Windows-based product, and a distribution method for Windows-based games. Microsoft was able to leverage their operating system (OS) expertise and enable developers to quickly port PC titles to a watered-down version of Windows still utilizing Direct-X. Valve doesn’t control an OS however, so they make for a poor parallel to Microsoft. More succintly put, Valve’s experience is with writing software for another company’s OS. For Valve to ship a Steambox, they’d need to license Windows, a cost Microsoft never had to endure.
If Valve didn’t license Windows, they’d need to delve into an area foreign to them: OS design. And if they did that, the ease of porting titles thanks to relying on Windows APIs and Direct-X is no longer possible, and that’s the biggest draw to a proposed Steambox.1
Another important consideration is that PC gaming is very different from console gaming, and not just in genres and gameplay, but in the types of gamers themselves. Microsoft realized that their plan to rely on PC-based hardware wasn’t sustainable long-term, and that customized hardware needed to be developed for the XBox 360. That’s because PC games are designed to run on current-generation hardware, and PC games tend to push the envelope in regards to what that hardware can do. What we see is PC gamers who are constantly in an upgrade frenzy, swapping out video cards or more major components on a fairly routine basis, with developers generally supporting the latest hardware, rather than sticking to what’s been around. These types of upgrades aren’t possible with consoles, which is why custom hardware ensures that a console is relevent for a longer period of time.
The point here is that even if Valve found a way to license a Windows-based OS for use in a console and still pull a profit, and support PC control schemes that the target audience would want, it’s unlikely that PC gamers would care; since Steam is already available on PCs, and gamers want the flexibility to upgrade hardware as it comes out, why would they ever choose to buy a Steambox?
It comes down to a misunderstanding of what PC gamers and console gamers want. Just as you can’t lure a PC gamer over to a console full-time, you can’t get console gamers to buy into PC gaming, even if you ported select PC games to a console. It’s not about casual vs hardcore, either.
Ten years ago, Microsoft took advantage of Nintendo moving to casual gamers and Sony focusing more on Japanese gamers than profitable Western audiences. De Ja Vu? Now it is Microsoft shifting to casual gaming and social computing and Sony is still focused on the Pacific rim. Core gamers are hungry, advantage Valve.
What Maxator identifies as “core gamers” are a minority. Those who crave PC gaming titles game on the PC. The movement towards casual titles on consoles is driven by the market, because your average console gamer is now from the broader population, whereas PC gamers are still primarily younger, tech-savvy males. In every market that this demographic broadens, we see a move to more casual gameplay, which we can easily see in the evolution of games like World of Warcraft.
The bottom line is that if you want to play PC games and love Steam, get a PC and use Steam. Valve would be stupid to compete in the console wars offering the same old product wrapped up in a non-upgradeable package that gamers connect to their TVs. A much more innovative solution would be to leverage technologies that bypass the rapid upgrade cycle that defines PC gaming, and that’s where services like OnLive have come in and found success. For a Steambox to succeed, it has to offer everything Steam does today, and more. Simply dumping Steam onto a console isn’t going to do that.
Before you argue that Valve could still utilize Windows APIs ala Wine and Crossover, we’ve seen how successful those projects have been. That is to say, they work in some cases, but it’s still nothing compared to native apps. ↩