Eric Johnson

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Valve’s Steam Machines Won’t Be “Console Killers,” but Here’s How They Could Shake Up Gaming Anyway

steam_machinesValve’s announcement yesterday of Steam Machines — hackable gaming hardware running its new Linux-based SteamOS — prompted the usual questions: How much will the Steam Machines cost? How will they work with existing Steam game libraries? Will they mess up Sony and Microsoft’s next-gen console plans?

For the last question, at least, an answer is readily evident: Probably not. For 10 years, Steam as a PC-focused game-distribution platform has pleasantly coexisted with two console generations. The hardware gap has engendered strong opinions on both sides of the user aisle, with some overlap in between, but the two types of gaming can continue to live side by side, even in the same room.

Serious PC gamers boast of the flexibility that comes from being able to upgrade their RAM, graphics cards and other internals. Meanwhile, console gamers keep those things out of sight and out of mind: For the most part, a console bought at any time will play all games made for that console, even years later.

The obvious rebuttal to that from the PC crowd, of course, is that with semi-regular upgrades, a gaming PC can last longer than an entire console generation, supporting far more games in aggregate, and at a potentially higher performance level along the way.

Assuming that they work as promised, Steam Machines will bring the PC-esque option to routinely upgrade to better hardware to the living room, while tapping into Steam’s expansive library of both indie and mainstream games. If anything, Steam Machines might disrupt the PC market — not the console one.

PC hardware shipments are falling fast, but one of the few compelling consumer use cases for a traditional desktop PC right now is gaming. While many gamers will continue to prefer mice, keyboards and desks over gamepads and couches, the ones who don’t care one way or the other won’t need to maintain a gaming rig anymore to get the advantages of a PC if they have a hackable Steam Machine that’s able to match that rig’s ever-improving specs.

The effect of this disruption? Further cratering of PC sales, and another vertical through which Valve can get gamers hooked on the Steam store’s library of oft-discounted games.

Titanfall_BoxartConsoles will still have a valid place in the gaming market alongside Steam Machines, provided that they can continue to bring in exclusives from game publishers. It seems unlikely, for instance, that EA — which runs its own digital game store, Origin, to compete with Steam — would want to do Valve any favors. But, thanks in part to Microsoft’s marketing moxie, EA’s Xbox-and-Windows-exclusive Titanfall, due out in Q1 of next year, already has a ready-and-raring audience.

Valve has strong and entrenched relationships with a broad range of developers and publishers, too. Along with mobile platforms like iOS and Android, the lower barriers to entry on Steam make it a common stop for indie developers who might not have the resources to afford a console manufacturer’s licensing fee.

Based on my interviews with developers at the PAX gaming conference last month in Seattle, this continues to be the case, in spite of loud pronouncements of indie support from all three of the big console makers, and despite the emergence of indie-friendly “microconsole” upstarts like the Ouya and upcoming GameStick.

Valve, which in addition to operating Steam also develops and publishes numerous popular story-driven games like the Portal and Half-Life series, could also make waves if it tries to gain entry to more living rooms on the back of one of its new games. It wouldn’t be unprecedented; back in 2004, PC gamers who were the first to own Valve’s hotly anticipated Half-Life 2 had to make Steam accounts in order to “authenticate” their copy, even if they had purchased a boxed copy in a store.

One can also imagine the potential for new third-party gaming hardware that supports SteamOS and can interface with a Steam Machine. I’m thinking in particular of the Oculus Rift, the virtual-reality headset expected for release sometime next year. With only support for PCs and Android confirmed thus far — and a developer SDK that already supports Linux — it’s an example of unproven tech that could have an easier route to the living room with a more “open” device waiting there.

For the short term, though, we’ll await Valve’s final Steam-related announcement, slated for Friday. My imaginary money is on news of a Valve-made or at least Valve-approved controller that will be compatible with the Steam Machines; the devices’ FAQ notes that “we have some more to say very soon on the topic of input.”

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— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google