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COMMENT | Steam Box: The Revolution Will Be Televised

Matt Gardner
Bigfoot, Comment, Digital Distribution, Gabe Newell, Opinion piece, Steam, Steam Box, The Battle For The Living Room, Valve, Xi3

COMMENT | Steam Box: The Revolution Will Be Televised

Well it finally happened. Those of us who've been sitting on the edge of our seats since Valve unveiled Big Picture Mode, waiting anxiously for some shred of affirmation that the company behind Steam might be making their own TV-oriented console of sorts, have finally got a reason to jump and shout and hug and cry and yammer excitedly before realising that this thing is still well over a year away.

The Steam Box is coming, and its arrival shall shake the games industry to its very core, toppling incumbents who thought themselves safe, leading the charge of indie developers to all-consuming victory, and sticking the finger up at conservative suits previously desperate to milk the consumer hordes dry and stand in the way of progress in the name of profits.


A Little Recap

COMMENT | Steam Box: The Revolution Will Be Televised

Let's start off with what we know, shall we?

  1. The 'Steam Box' is to be a range of consoles, rather than one singular machine. Valve are developing their own, as Newell admitted, but there will also be a variety of machines coming from third-parties, such as the Xi3 revealed yesterday, at a range of price points and with varying specs.
  2. Bigfoot (Valve's name for their internal hardware project) will run Steam, presumably via Big Picture Mode, using Linux as an operating base, although Newell did note that certainly or Valve's box, installing Windows will be an option too.
  3. Bigfoot's controller will not incorporate motion controls, but Valve are definitely looking into incorporating biometric features.
  4. Valve are planning an accompanying service - Littlefoot - to spread Steam to mobile and touch devices.

Make no mistake, Valve have clearly had their eye on the living room for some time, and they want a slice of that pie. Dissatisfied with the avenues taken in the last generation or too, they've clearly decided to do something about and, frankly, when you have Steam sitting in your back pocket, why wouldn't you?!

A New Challenger Approaches

COMMENT | Steam Box: The Revolution Will Be Televised

Of course, the initial reaction has been to place this is the context of existing platform holders: what does this mean for Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo...if anything? With both Microsoft and Sony heavily tipped to be premièring their next-gen hardware this year, or at the very least unveiling it in the summer, surely this increases the pressure on the big three to get their houses in order. Microsoft and Sony have time, but Nintendo really don't. They've taken the initiative and struck out on their own ahead of the pack. More so than the other two, they absolutely must use the next twelve months to capitalise on the lack of new hardware, and rake in bigger crowds with some top tier titles. Nintendo stand slightly apart from everyone else because of the strength of their first-party output. When Mario, Zelda, Fox, Samus and co. are on song, there's little that can compare...but it's been a while since we could say that, really. However, in spite of frequently tripping over themselves, proving destructively short-sighted, conservative, and resolutely stubborn, Nintendo persist.

Microsoft and Sony, however, should be a little bit worried. We've seen fewer platform exclusives over the past year, and less to distinguish PS3 and Xbox 360 from one another. They can't simply hope to plough into the next generation and hope that things will stay the same. It's entirely feasible that far from a question of processing power, the winners and losers of the next generation will be decided by pricing structures, consumer affinity, convenience and community. As great as XBL is, it's no Steam. As wonderful a feature as PS+, those frequent Steam sales will test the corporate suits resistant to change. Microsoft and Sony, with or without the Steam Box, will need to open up their platform a good deal more, and embrace the digital shift - starting with those absurd prices for digital downloads.

However, they shouldn't be quaking in their boots yet. Valve have stated emphatically that there'll be no formal announcements on Bigfoot for the rest of 2013 (although they have trolled us all in the past). If that's true, Microsoft and Sony have a large advantage simply in terms of time. Nailing a 2013 release for the Nextbox and the PS4, along with strong line-ups for both, would be ideal, and two-to-three generations of console loyalty can, and will, go a long way.


COMMENT | Steam Box: The Revolution Will Be Televised

Of course, the interesting thing about this Steam Box initiative is that it's not just one console. In the same way that Microsoft have tried to pimp Windows 8 out to every device large and small that they possibly can, it looks like Valve are going to follow suit with Steam. This means that Bigfoot will occupy the same space as third party consoles running Steam, at varying price points, delivering supreme consumer choice.

This preoccupation with initial hardware pricing was always going to occur, though, Steam Box or not. The bar at which a mass audience will invest in a console has dropped. Back at the start of this current generation, we were all in boom, now the world has gone bust, more than once, and valuation has suffered along with that. It's a lesson that Nintendo learned the hard way with the 3DS, and then promptly forgot just before they launched the Wii U. If Microsoft and Sony don't heed that warning, with Newell apparently touting a "mid-range" Steam Box for around $300, things could get messy.

Retail Revolution

COMMENT | Steam Box: The Revolution Will Be Televised

However, they're not the ones who need to be the most worried: that title goes to retailers dealing in physical media. Console digital download prices have remained high because of high street lobbying. However, with a direct competitor on the floor who can regularly undercut prices by £10 or more, that suddenly becomes an enormous issue. Sony have been experimenting with a digital value subscription model in PS Plus, but it won't be enough, and Microsoft's stubbornness on the matter could well be their downfall.

At the time of writing, you can buy Spec Ops: The Line for under a fiver on Steam. That's a game just over seven months old, that was GOTY featured in a number of publications. The cheapest current console price is up around £15. Something gotta give.

Many retailers have already begun making the transition from physical media outlets with a download presence to being download stores that happen to also offer physical media, but they'll need to get more competitive at the digital end of the spectrum. Even if Bigfoot itself proves a hundred or so quid more expensive than its competitors, the amount you'd save on the games themselves if pricing models and points stay the same would tip the scales in Valve's favour.

*   *   *

Finally, there's Valve themselves. They don't have many games off their own, but they do happen to have what could potentially, eventually become the biggest killer app of all time in Half-Life. Imagine an exclusive launch line-up of Half-Life 3, Portal 3, Team Fortress 3, and everything past and present available on Steam. All of those indie delights that you literally can't get anywhere else. When you put it like that, the only thing that might scupper it is poor timing. But Valve have never been guilty of...oh wait...

Add a comment14 comments
Ilium  Jan. 9, 2013 at 17:49

Hahaha. I think even taking Valve Time into consideration, this could still cause some serious disruption. And you're right, HL3 and TF3 as launch exclusives would be impressive indeed. Very, very exciting indeed, just a shame we probably won't see the results this year.

Late  Jan. 9, 2013 at 18:16

Great overview/perspective - pretty much matches my own thoughts and hopes.

DrTrouserPlank  Jan. 9, 2013 at 18:21

This is a damp squib if you ask me. In theory it's a good idea, but that practicalities mean it won't work.

I don't know exactly what they are promising from this magical box, but what it certainly isn't going to deliver is the entirety of the Steam PC library via a box connected to your TV and the internet. It won't have anywhere near the hardware required. These are PC games that are poorly optimised for one specific hardware set-up and are designed to be used with the sheer brute force of PC hardware.

Consoles work by using outdated hardware to minimise the price but massively optimise the games' code so that every last drop of performance can be squeezed from a standardised hardware setup.

What is a £300 valve-box going to do? Who knows. Presumably offer a middle ground with some low spec valve games from the PC, and hope that current console developers want to code for their machine too? It will end up being a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. I'm not totally convinced the developers will want to code for a third "console" either; unless of course the hardware is similar enough to say the xbox720 in which case they can just do a quick hack-job to port it over.

Last edited by DrTrouserPlank, Jan. 9, 2013 at 18:24
martinjp  Jan. 9, 2013 at 21:17

My £350 laptop can run every game on steam, not at the highest resolutions by any means, but enough to be playable. Your average consumer is not bothered about having top-end specs as long as the thing works. The cheapest boxes will be knocked out sub-£200, and will play most games, will be mass produced with no need for an extra expensive screen like a PC, and then people who need to play EVERY game, and those rarer people who need to play every game on the highest setting, can fork out more. If they get it right, its onto a winner.

Potato123  Jan. 10, 2013 at 09:04

This new unit has nothing to do with the Steambox, great reporting guys.......

Here's an article from a professional website: http://www.bit-tech.net/news/hardware/2013/01/09/xi3-steam-box/1

JonLester  Jan. 10, 2013 at 10:22

@Potato123: We've reported on that - as Matt states, Xi3's Piston is one of a number of third-party Steam Boxes that'll release alongside a first-party version from Valve themselves.

JonLester  Jan. 10, 2013 at 11:26

I think that Valve will have to take a long hard look at certification when they go down this route. As things stand, any number of games release on Steam that have issues with various hardware configurations, manufacturers or drivers, due to a near-complete lack of QA on Steam's end.

This is broadly fine at present, but not when Steam Box users will demand convenience - there'll be no greater turn-off for new adopters (who perhaps aren't particularly experienced in PC gaming) downloading a game and then discovering that they'll need different drivers, an upgrade or have to faff around with the settings/.ini files/whatever to get it to run in their lounge. I'd be surprised if Steam didn't start testing games when porting them to Linux and certifying them for the first-party Steam Box - perhaps giving compliant games a banner that assures Steam Box owners that it will run properly (and automatically tweaking the graphics settings accordingly).

Just my two cents.

Last edited by JonLester, Jan. 10, 2013 at 11:29
davidpanik  Jan. 10, 2013 at 12:08

Very well written article. This is certainly one of the most exciting things to have been happening in the games industry for some time.

I think Valve's achilles heel is going to be Linux however. Okay, they have a massive catalogue, but only 34 of those games run on Linux - Valve's own and bunch of indie games that aren't that well suited to living room play. For the Steam box to properly succeed, they're either going to have to convince all the big players to start developing for Linux AND converting their back-catalogues (I have no idea how much extra work developing for Linux is, presuming DirectX isn't supported on it) or find some sort of magic bullet for emulating Windows games on Linux without degradation (which of course Microsoft is going to fight them all the way on).

Ilium  Jan. 10, 2013 at 12:53

@Potato123: Next time you want to do some trolling how about you read the article properly, then show yourself out, and let the adults engaging in a proper conversation get on with it.

From the looks of things, you didn't even read the bit-tech article properly either, else you'd have seen this: "So, is the Xi3 Piston the Steam Box? No, despite what you may have read elsewhere - but it could well be a Steam Box." Which is exactly what Matt says in his bullet points.

Go back to whichever bridge you crawled out from under.

MattGardner  Jan. 10, 2013 at 13:24

Finally found a suitable handbags graphic


Last edited by MattGardner, Jan. 10, 2013 at 13:25
DivideByZero  Jan. 10, 2013 at 13:33

Potato123 making himself look stupid aside... I am not sure how I feel about this news.

The thing the general consumers love about Xbox / PS3 is the fact that it IS one system and they know any game will run. It is this exact factor that puts most people off of PC gaming, even though the PC offers miles more in the way of performance.

Having a choice of box will probably hinder people who don't understand and they will just buy a Playstation.

I hope this project works out as I do support Valve - but I don't know if this is the right way.

MattGardner  Jan. 10, 2013 at 13:41

It does make the focus of the console hype a little difficult, though it's to be hoped that Bigfoot might fulfil that role. I think that the real difficulty might well be marketing. MS, Sony, and Nintendo have one console to produce, one console to market, and as DBZ notes, one console upon which all their games will run.

In his error, Potato123 actually highlights a worthwhile point: consumers may well be confused as to what constitutes the definitive 'Steam Box'.

I'm not sure subtly delivering the news via a single information outlet was necessarily the right course of action...then again, as Valve have stated, the official reveal is still yet to come. Worryingly, they've also said it probably won't happen this year.

Late  Jan. 10, 2013 at 14:45

I do think announcing so early is a double-edged sword. It's great to get people enthusiastic about what you're planning on releasing, and I'd imagine it's important to get your patents in and ensure you can do what you're planning and others can't rip you off... but enthusiasm can wane, technology can move on, and rivals can react faster to your new product.

The Wii U was an example. Looked fantastical and futuristic when announced, but by the time it was released a year and a half later the marketplace and technology in general had changed enough that Nintendo's shiny new toy looked a lot less impressive. (For example, tablets weren't really all that commonplace when the U was announced, but they're everywhere now - and with the advent of smart TVs and apps like Smartglass the U's controller no longer looks like something from Star Trek.)

For now, though, I'm happy to stick with stage A for now (probably until E3, at which point my focus will likely change) - I'm enthusiastic about the Steambox project, and definitely see myself getting one.
(It's surprising how often I'm definitely going to get something, then never do. Probably true of most of us, that... ;) )

DivideByZero  Jan. 10, 2013 at 15:00

+1 Late

I was not surprised to be underwhelmed by the Wii U, I saw that coming a mile off.

I imagine I will be underwhelmed by the Steam Box too though. Logically I will compare it to my PC, which probably cost a couple of grand, so no tiny console box would compete with that.

Hopefully there is a market for the Steam Box though and hopefully this competition will drive Sony and MS to do bigger and better things.

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