Steam Box – The New Prodigy or the New Prodigal Son of the Gaming Industry? While PlayStation 4 and Xbox One get most of the hype in the console world, a careful observer might see that in the shadows of the upcoming heavy hitters of the 8th generation of consoles there is an underdog patiently waiting to hit Microsoft and Sony below the belt. Throughout the early months of 2013, some wondrous rumors spread among the gamers – strange tales of controllers that measure your reactions while playing, allowing the action to be tailored accordingly, machines offering simultaneous play on multiple TVs, and games that allow you to create content or even make money while doing so. These are the things that can change the gaming market on a level that motion controllers, share buttons, and smart cameras can only dream about. Intrigued? Read on… VALVES, PISTONS, STEAM, AND THE DIGITAL RAILWAY OF THE FUTURE This mythical new hardware will be prepared by Valve Corporation, a gaming company owning the digital distributions platform Steam. It is difficult to present any concrete facts about Steam Box as, due to the lack of official statements from Valve, the only available information comes from interviews given by the company’s director Gabe Newell and other Valve employees. The release date remains a mystery, as well as the technical specifications or exact software strategies employed. Also, no official name has been announced so far, but the journalists and the community alike dubbed the console ‘Steam Box’. The scarcity of concrete data combined with Valve’s reputation for creativity, as well as intriguing remarks made by Newell, sparks wild speculation in the community. One thing is sure: this product will be unique. However due to this uniqueness, it will either be an immense success or it will share the fate of failed gaming projects such us Atari Jaguar, Nokia N-Gage and Dreamcast. To better understand the nature of the upcoming console, it is worth taking a very brief look at Steam as it is certain that that the product will be centered around this system. GAINING PRESSURE Steam was launched on September 12, 2003, as a way of distributing updates for the company’s products. After battling some initial problems, the platform has matured. Today it is the biggest downloadable games provider with over 50 million users (for comparison, Xbox 360 and PS3 sold around 77 million units each), and a catalogue of nearly 2000 games. In 2011, Forbes estimated that Steam holds 50 to 70% of the downloadable PC games market, which in case you are still buying your software in brick and mortar shops and don’t know the scale of the phenomenon, was worth $4 billion at the time. NOOKS AND CRANKSHAFTS Steam is something more than a tool for buying and downloading games. Among its features one can find cloud saving of game progress, cross platform games (currently for Microsoft Windows, OS X and
Linux), ‘Steamworks’ tool, for unified matchmaking, achievements and in-game micro transactions, as well various community features, including groups, forums, voice-chat, easily-accessible cross-game chat and a Facebook-like friends news feed. Although these seem pretty common today, many of them were practically unheard of at the time of their inclusion on Steam. Among the more recent and innovative features we can find, the ‘Big Picture’ mode – an effort to make PC gaming on TV screens more accessible, and ‘Greenlight ‘, which allows users to choose communitysubmitted games to be sold on Steam. These additions concentrating on TV gaming and community features foreshadow the coming of Steam Box, but Valve has much bigger plans for the new console. Let us sum up what is already known about the project and see the fabled revolutionary features that may either be a selling points, or reasons for its demise. WHAT DOES THE BOX HOLD? Although Valve is working hard to keep the project secret, some extremely important details have been disclosed: Steam Box is envisioned to be a platform for gaming hardware and software rather than a single machine. Also, the company wants to have a twofold solution: physical ‘consoles’ – silent and attractive-looking devices that can be put in the living room next to a hi-fi set or a PlayStation, and streaming solutions that will connect the home PCs with TV sets. THE PHYSICAL CONSOLE Valve is going to release the ‘default’ machine, internally called ‘bigfoot’, nonetheless, the company wants PC manufacturers to produce their own ‘consoles’ with different configurations. Despite hardware diversity, user experience will be unified – possibly by a set of hardware requirements, such as a dedicated CPU and GPU (no further details have been disclosed). These requirements are not going to be very limiting, for example, even though Valve’s machine will not have an optical drive, the manufacturers can include one in their machine. One of the more interesting examples of the 3rd party Steam Box is Xi3 Corporation’s Piston, which for a long time was suspected to be Valve’s actual Steam Box. We will soon learn more about Valve’s hardware, as the prototypes are to be handed out for testing in the very near future. STREAMING The Streaming system will be the cheapest option for getting a Steam Box. During his DICE 2013 keynote, Gabe Newell noted that such a device should cost 100.00 USD or less. Miracast and Nvidia Grid are among the considered solutions. The default Steam Box console will offer streaming. Newell discussed the possibility of playing games on multiple screens during his interview with ‘The Verge’ in January 2013: ‘‘The Steam Box will also be a server. Any PC can serve multiple monitors, so over time, the nextgeneration (post-Kepler) you can have one GPU that’s serving up eight simultaneous game calls. So you
could have one PC and eight televisions and eight controllers and everybody getting great performance out of it.’’ THE CONTROLLER To improve gaming experiences and garner the interest of gamers, Valve is also working on a new controller. In November 2012 it was reported that three different prototypes were being tested. It seems that the company wants to appeal to hard-core gamers, as it wants to concentrate on improving precision and reducing latency. However, another feature to be included in the controller may indeed be a true revolution. Valve has admitted that it is testing controllers that gather biometric data. The company has even employed an experimental psychologist to help explore the possibilities of using such feedback to enhance gameplay. Additionally, the use of eye tracking for control input, and hardware such as Oculus Rift have been researched. SOFTWARE Dissatisfied with Windows 8, the company has chosen to employ a Linux distribution in the ‘default’ Steam Box. There is no word on how customized the build is going to be. However, gamers and hardware manufacturers will be free to install Windows on their machines. THE NEED TO FOLLOW CONVENTIONS AND TRANSLATE SPECIALIZED TERMINOLOGY However the customized build may look and act, the new console ecosystem will be more closed than the PC environment. This will obviously apply to the Steam software, and its ever growing list of specialized and unique features, but it might also refer to the specialized hardware that will be part of the said ecosystem, be it optional or not (think new biometric controller, screencast devices). This in turn will create the need for unified translation of terminology connected to such features. It is yet unknown how this will be handled and if Valve will release guidelines and glossaries, mimicking the approach of Sony and Microsoft who demand the publishers to conform to given conventions, before allowing them to release a game on their platform, or assume a more liberal approach. WHAT TO EXPECT? A HIT… Of course one might say ‘All this is very nice, but even if it’s set to use straight out of the box with preinstalled Steam, Steam Box is basically going to be PC. What’s the big deal?’ Here are the main reasons why Steam Box could be a game changer: A COMPLETELY NEW APPROACH TO LIVING ROOM PC GAMING Rather than making a console, Valve is trying to create an ecosystem that aims to simplify the use of PCs on a TV screen by providing a streamlined user interface. It is meant to be elegant, easy to use with a gamepad, and offering quick access to games, including a 10-foot design, so you don’t have to get up from the couch to read in-game text smaller than the fine print on a bank contract.
AN OPEN STANDARD By not imposing strict hardware limitations, Valve sets up an open standard. This will result in manufacturers making products aimed at different consumers. Such a non-discriminating hardware approach ensured the success for standards such as Android OS and PC architecture in the past. — INNOVATIONS IN GAME CONTROLS AND COMMUNITY INTERACTIONS This topic has already been partially covered, but it deserves further attention. Biofeedback data gathered by the controller will help the game to modify the action according to the emotional input. Positive reactions can be rewarded with more of the same, while negative with the change of action. This is a fundamental shift in game-design, as it involves game responding to what is happening with the player, rather than the traditional – player responding to what is happening within the game. A similar shift in approach can be seen with user shops and content creation. In his keynote for DICE 2013 Newell also talked about cross-game purchases and users who want to stop using a given game being able to selling the content created while playing. ENORMOUS NUMBER OF LAUNCH TITLES As Steam Box will employ Steam, we might expect a machine with 2,000 launch titles. If you add full backwards compatibility for future machines, presence of practically every new major PC release and users having access to their existing libraries, the new platform may be immensely appealing. AGGRESSIVE PRICING PC games are cheaper than console titles in general and Steam is well known for its many sales. What is more, Valve has relatively low fees, offering publishers a gross margin of 70% compared to 30% at retailstores. This is sure to encourage both users and developers to choose Steam Box.
…OR A MISS? So, judging from all the wonderful things written above, the consumers will get the best thing since sliced bread, right? Not necessarily, here are the possible issues (some might even seem familiar): A COMPLETELY NEW APPROACH TO CONSOLE GAMING Steam Box will not be a real console but the consumers are likely to treat it as one – after all, the product will compete with consoles. There might be some confusion when one discovers that their new console will require installing games and, additionally, needs to wait until the games are downloaded – not ideal if you suffer from a poor quality internet connection. Until recently, console titles also did not require installation, all you needed to do was insert the disc. AN OPEN STANDARD
This issue overlaps with the previous point. Consoles offer simple solutions – you don’t have to buy new GPUs, you don’t have to update drivers and there are only slight variations between console versions, like disk size or color. In contrast, Steam Boxes are likely to have different CPUs and GPUs. It’s hard to imagine a mother checking benchmarks on AnandTech to see what version of that ‘Steam Box’ she should buy her son for Christmas. Also, despite Valve including some hardware requirements, the hardware diversity might result in a situation in which programming for Steam Box will not be much different from programming for regular PCs. Needless to say, this does not leave much room for optimizing the code on the console level. UNDERWHELMING NUMBER OF LAUNCH TITLES A vast majority of those 2000 games available at launch will not be optimized for the big screen, and a great many will require the use of a mouse and keyboard. Also, the action in games such as first person shooters will be suited to the use of mouse and keyboard, not a gamepad. LINUX The ‘default’ Steam Box is supposed to use Linux. Currently, Steam offers over 160 Linux games, including a large number of interesting, but not high profile, indie titles. We have yet to see what kind of solution Valve has in store for bringing a large number of titles to Linux. LACK OF EXCLUSIVE TITLES Exclusive titles are one of the highlights of console gaming. In the case of Steam Box we are not likely to get anything like God of War or Halo (with the possible exception of the elusive beast known as Half Life 3). Of course there are some PC only titles, but they are not exclusives per se, and, again, they are not designed with TV gaming in mind. DIFFERENT TARGET DEMOGRAPHICS AND REGIONS – MORE CLIENTS, BIGGER NEED FOR VIDEO GAME LOCALIZATION As console gaming is widely regarded as more accessible than computer gaming, it is very possible that there will be a shift in demographics of Steam players; with more children and teenage gamers as well as casual gamers attracted by the streamlined approach of consoles. Such clients are also more likely to demand a localized product. Thanks to the cheaper solutions, such as streaming dongles, Steambox is likely to be popular in PCcentric emerging markets. Higher demand in those regions might in turn convince publishers to localize their games. Gabe Newell himself commented that releasing a localized product on emerging markets such as Russia helps to boost sales and reduce piracy. Surprisingly, the wide selection of free-to-play titles on Steam might also induce the need for quality localization as well as video game community management. With the gradually saturating market, only the titles that stand out from the competition will be able to grab the attention of fussy gamers. INTERESTING TIMES AHEAD
It is difficult to predict how the market will receive this product. Steam Box is one of those few devices that are meant to create a new niche in the market – it is more of an iPad than an Xbox. Whether this is going to be the true paradigm shift or not, one thing is certain: Valve is making a fairly safe bet from a financial point of view. By making an open platform based on a tried architecture, it does not have to invest in new hardware or subsidize the cost of its products at launch. Valve Corporation has proven its competence when it comes to introducing groundbreaking features and innovation – first with games, then with digital distribution. Time will tell if it can also do that with hardware. However, even if the new console will not take the place of Xbox or PlayStation, it is possible that in one form or another, it will find itself a new, cozy place – right between those consoles and the TV set in your living room. Wojciech Brudziński, MO Group International.