Late last year, Valve announced their plans to launch a new line of Linux based gaming systems running Steam OS, a dedicated gaming platform operating system, also developed by Valve.
Since September, Steam OS has been released to the public, and early prototypes of various developed Steam Machines have surfaced. With this, there have been a number of interesting developments.
The controller for the system is something very different from the standard console controller. Early designs showed two large touch sensitive trackpads dominating the face, but after a polarised reaction from the industry, Valve scaled back the pads to take the place of conventional analog sticks. Not to mention adding two sets of face buttons to serve as a d-pad and conventional a,b,x,y functions.
Whilst this certainly makes backwards compatibility and ports from consoles easier for developers, there seems to be an air of compromise surrounding the decisions to abandon the one of the most unique features of the system.
Bar Nintendo, and their bizarre Wii-mote creations, consoles have lately been all two keen to stick to the functional, and Valve’s controller may well have been an innovation.
With the redesign of the controller being just one of the small changes that edge the Steam Machines closer and closer to console territory, there is still a consensus that the machines lie in limbo between console and PC; simultaneously both, but somehow neither.
At the time this is written, the lowest priced steam machine, built by CyberpowerPC, is expected to retail for $499 USD, which puts in almost $100 more expensive than a PS4. Other, more powerful versions of the Steam Machine are expected to run up costs of over $2000.
Whilst Valve may view their product as a possible competition in the console market, other developers have their eyes on attracting PC gamers with high specs and even higher price tags. This lack of certainty over direction leaves Valve in a difficult situation.
Many console gamers will be loathe to buy a low end machine that does not match the specs their current system when it has a higher price tag, and dedicated pc gamers will be unlikely to splash out on a $2000 system when they could a better PC themselves for a fraction of the price, and simply install Steam or Steam OS.
Valve also faces the problem of a relatively small Linux compatible game library limiting the possible releases on Steam OS. This coupled with the console or PC identity crisis could very well spell an uncertain future for the system.
Valve is one of the most highly regarded companies in the gaming community, and Steam is one of the most successful digital distribution systems around. As of now it is difficult to say where this will go, whether the name will be enough to carry them through or whether it will be tough times ahead for the Steam Machines.