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Valve's Steam Machines poised to blow off gaming's Big Three

Gabe Newell, right, talks about how Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s company factors into Valve’s game development on Jan. 6 in Las Vegas. SteamOS will have Intel graphics support, with AMD to come later.

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Gabe Newell, right, talks about how Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s company factors into Valve’s game development on Jan. 6 in Las Vegas. SteamOS will have Intel graphics support, with AMD to come later.

Forget the consumer-analyst narrative that wearable media was the big story at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Gamers know the announcement of Valve's lineup of Steam Machines is the true wave of the future.

The game developer announced this week that its plan to mete out content from its Steam digital distribution service via third party machines is (dare I say it?) full steam ahead. There were 14 different designs of the so-called Steam Machines ready to cater to Valve's 65 million-strong user base.

It was a moment that will send shockwaves through both the console and PC gaming communities for years to come, possibly changing the development models of both forever.

Steam has been working to crowdsource solutions to its development challenges for years, but this is an unprecedented project. The 14 machines, with a Linux-based operating system called SteamOS, can serve as either computers or strictly game consoles. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, and offers features that can be tailored to gamers' specific wants and needs.

There are high-end models from established gaming PC makers. Alienware, Digital Storm and Falcon Northwest are among the builders, with Falcon Northwest's Tiki offering configurations that can cost as much as $6,000. (That Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan GPU alone would cost at least $1,000 if you bought the component for your own PC.)

If that's not in your budget but you still want to play Outlast, companies like Zotac and CyberPower are ma­king boxes with lower-spec parts for as little as $499. Any and all of these machines play Steam's 250 titles, and unlike a console, offer PC-like features, as well. That means someone who isn't a PC person (like me) can plug and play a cheap box on the living room television, while techie tinkerers can modify the high-end stuff all the livelong day — or alternately, a newbie could enjoy a $6,000 megatower without having to soldier or dismantle anything, while someone who digs retrofitting could upgrade a base version to anything they want. Valve even has allowed hardware makers to create their own controllers, allowing for numerous configurations for countless play styles.

This business model aims to take on both consoles and PCs by bringing Valve's open-source philosophy into hardware. The idea, Valve co-founder Gabe Newell said, is to allow gamers to find the right Steam Machine for them, instead of being told what their machine should be.

"The hardware that you're used to using on an airplane is not necessarily the right form factor for what you want to have in the living room," he said in Las Vegas. "So there are a set of issues there that we wanted to address in terms of hardware design — we wanted to prove that they were possible and share that knowledge with partners."

Imagine Sony or Microsoft farming out build specs to more than a dozen manufacturers to create consoles that could perform any number of tasks. That would be terrible for the established branding, of course, but it's a terrific option if your goal is to offer your services quickly to as many people as possible.

Microsoft, especially, has a lot to lose in this equation. It has been the last word in computer gaming for dec­ades now, and has clawed its way to the top of the heap in the console wars. Combine that with its lackluster launch of the Xbox One, and there may be a few corporate strategists arching an eyebrow as to whether Bellevue will have the firepower to withstand such a multifront assault.

If there's one thing the Big Three can fall back on, it's their mainstream name recognition. Everyone knows who Nintendo is, and that it would be the source of the next Super Mario Bros. title. Fewer people in the everyday world could tell you anything about Valve's Steam, but more than a few of those aforementioned 65 million users are no doubt ready, willing and able to fork over the dollars to maximize their Steam experience.

Surely not all of those machines will survive. All you have to do is go back 35 or 40 years to see how well all those Pong consoles fared in the long run. But it's the choice involved, the near-absolute freedom for an increasingly tech-savvy population to buy the box it wants, that will likely hit the reset button for everyone.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games for tbt*. Challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Valve's Steam Machines poised to blow off gaming's Big Three 01/09/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 9, 2014 6:48am]

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