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
Let's start off with what we know, shall we?
- 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.
- 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.
- Bigfoot's controller will not incorporate motion controls, but Valve are definitely looking into incorporating biometric features.
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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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...