Steam Machines: Console killer or vanity project?

Steam Machines: Console killer or vanity project?
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

November 6th 2015 at 10:35AM

We speak to Valve’s Gabe Newell and top PC games developers about Steam Machines, and if rivals should be worried

It may be surprising to hear, but it’s been two over years since Valve announced its Steam Machines.

But 26 months later, and by the time you read this, a cohort of systems centred around the Linux-based SteamOS will be making their way to consumers.

Valve has also developed a new haptic controller and the Steam Link, which lets you stream your PC games to any TV in your home. It’s an all-out attack on the living room and – though it may not be pitched this way – a real rival to consoles like Xbox One and PS4.

Console killers

Speaking to Develop earlier this year, Valve boss Gabe Newell said the idea behind the Steam Machines is to have a system that’s optimal for each individual’s needs. He also launched a thinly-veiled attack on his rivals, suggesting he’s sure the hardware will be a hot prospect for consumers.

“At console price points, we’re going to have machines like Alienware’s, which are faster than today’s consoles,” said Newell. “So the same price point as today, except you get better performance and you’re connected to everything you like about the PC and the internet.”

He added: “Our perception is that customers are always going to make the best choices for what they want. We can knock down the barriers that keep PC gaming out of the living room, and then customers can decide what they want. So the way we organised it, in our thinking, is a sort of ‘good, better and best’ kind of thing.”

But is Valve too late? Steam Machines were developed at a time when Valve was concerned about Microsoft’s apparent intentions to close off the PC market. But this hasn’t transpired. In fact, Microsoft is opening up Windows for gaming more than ever. Is Valve doing it because it feels it now has to?

And is there really a market for Steam Machines? Newell was bullish about naysayers, and looked to Valve’s own past as proof it knows what it’s doing.

“When we started with Steam, no-one believed you could deliver a better gaming experience over the internet, and we’re like, well, we actually think it’s probably an opportunity to do something,” he said.

“So when we started pushing on this problem [with Steam Machines], there were a lot of people who said: ‘nobody wants a PC in their living room’. And we’re like ‘okay, we need to break that down into tractable problems’. One is the user interface problem. How do you take something originally designed for keyboard and mouse and make it easy for both the interface and content developers to work in both spaces, to get the best out of both? That leads you to the Steam Big Picture mode.

“Then you say ‘okay, now we need to have couch-friendly input devices and integrate touch’. So the gamepad is a controller, as well as a set of technologies that can then be integrated.

You can actually sort of logically deconstruct that and take pieces out. If you like the touchpads, you as the keyboard manufacturer can now put them on your keyboard and people will just know how they work, and games will know how they work.”

Dev machines

A new platform backed by one of the industry’s biggest players is an attractive proposition for developers. But it also means more work, and making sure your game runs on Linux.

Studio Wildcard creative director Jesse Rapczak, whose studio is responsible for one of Steam’s major successes, Ark: Survival Evolved, said there are both pros and cons to the system.

“Linux-based hardware like the Steam Machines takes away some of the uncertainty behind hardware and software configurations,” he said.

“Otherwise, developing for Linux is all of the bad parts about console development with all of the bad parts about PC development. Everyone on the team across disciplines must create a special build of the game and run it on a different operating system that is not their primary workstation to check their work.”

Garry Newman, owner of Rust and Garry’s Mod developer Facepunch, said the Unity engine means its games will work on Linux “with pretty much no issues”. There are some issues for Unity developers, though.

“The only problem we’ve come up against is that the Unity ‘select resolution’ dialog that pops up isn’t really compatible with Big Picture mode, so we’ve got to move all that crap in-game,” he said. “I’m sure that will hit a lot of Unity developers.”

Newman added that the hardware’s unique gamepad “is pretty awesome” – or, at least, the software for it is. 

“We haven’t even done anything to support it yet - and it works. Which is pretty amazing considering Rust has no gamepad support at all.”

Will your games sell?

Development might be a smooth process for many, but it remains to be seen if consumers will adopt Steam Machines. Asked bringing games to SteamOS, Rapczak admitted there’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

“If there are no games available that people want to play, there is no reason for them to buy that console,” he explained. “No customers means there is no reason to develop games for said console.

“That being said, we’re seeing more game streaming services spinning up on non-Windows platforms. On top of that, Steam’s ‘buy-once-play-anywhere’ model is future-proof, so people aren’t buying into a single piece of hardware so much as an ecosystem that is already the market leader.”

Newman said Steam Machines open new potential avenues for developers.

“We might have been put off making games that are tailored to TV/controller before because of all the stupid bullshit you had to go through to get a game on a console,” he said. “But now we might be thinking ‘this makes it easy, let’s make that console-style game we were taking about’.

“Whether it’s worthwhile to make a game primarily aimed at SteamOS is debatable. It’s definitely worth including it in your plans.”

Size Five Games developer Dan Marshall, who most recently worked on The Swindle, said issues that remain for devs who work on their own or in small teams.

“As a small indie developer with limited time and resources, spending these early days hacking things about isn’t really something i can invest in,” he said.

“It’d be ace for Valve to offer some incentive to smaller devs to take that risk away a little bit. For now, I’m sitting on my hands and I’ll leap to it as soon as it feels sensible to do so.”

Whether Steam Machines can dethrone consoles as the gaming machine of choice in the living room remains to be seen. But it’s clear devs are happy with the proposition, from a development view at least.

Newell, of course, is confident in his own plans, and believes consumers will be happy too.

“Each person is going to have a different set,” he said. “Personally, I’m going to buy really ridiculously expensive pcs for everything. Because I’m stupid.

“Other people are going to be perfectly happy with something that allows them to take one device and spread it across the presentation surfaces in their home, [their] televisions and monitors. So it’s up to each person to decide what’s best for them."