So Half-Life, Portal and Steam developer Valve is rumoured to be launching a console. Sort of. The Steam Box is supposedly a high-end gaming PC in terms of hardware, dedicated only to running Steam and other third-party game delivery systems such as EA's Origin. It’s supposedly small and streamlined, looking and operating like a console, right down to the controllers and plug-and-play TV connection. But it’s also supposedly a PC through and through, as free of development fees, restrictions and platform-holder control as PC gaming currently is on traditional rigs.
But if it exists, will it be any good, and should you want one?
Above: This is the prototype. Apparently. Maybe
I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about that one. There are plenty of pros, and plenty of reasons this thing will be a disaster. But I’ve come to a conclusion. And it’s a far bigger conclusion than I expected when I started this feature. Read on, and I’ll tell you about all the things I’ve been thinking.
And it wouldn’t even need any specific games set up for launch. It would have the entire back-catalogue of Steam releases ready to go out of the box. Everything from Call of Duty to Half-Life 2 to Arkham City to every obscure, arty and innovative indie PC game you can think of. Barring the console exclusives, it would have everything. But that’s no meaningful disadvantage. Every console is in the same boat in that respect. And if Valve would be willing to put its own games out exclusively (timed or otherwise) on the box, it would have killer apps coming out of its ears.
Above: If you don't think this guy can launch a platform, you're very much mistaken
Just imagine if Valve turned out to be holding off the announcement of Half-Life 3 because it’s set to launch as a simultaneous PC and Steam Box launch exclusive. Boom. Splash made. Competition soaked. And while some of the mainstream third-parties have been scaling back the graphical quality of their PC releases lately, and while the Steam Box would ‘only’ be putting out at 1080p when running through a TV, it would still boast the best versions of the main multi-format releases.
And did I mention that being the PC version, most games will be about half the price they will be on console?
This is the second biggest way in which the Steam Box can boost the health of the games industry. As I’ve stated before, PC gaming is the place to go for the innovative, interesting, fresh IPs that are regularly crushed beneath the wheels of the hot, greasy mainstream gaming machine. Consoles are just too closed and expensive a system for indie creativity to really shine on, platform-holder development contracts and triple-A skewed promotion meaning that even on the console download services, making an indie success is like wrapping a gerbil in tin-foil, giving him a home-made ice lolly stick sword, and sending him out to win a fight with a global military contractor.
Above: An action games splash page in which CoD sits as equal alongside Painkiller and an obscure arty platformer. That's a healthy gaming right there
The Steam Box though, is rumoured to have no such restrictions. Development will be free and unrestricted - as indeed it should be on what is essentially a differently-shaped PC - and Steam has always given equal exposure to indie game and megaton tent-pole release alike. A powerful machine which actively nurtures and promotes all of gaming as a medium, from within the mainstream environment of the living room, rather than burying 90% of it under this year’s Call of Halo: Gears of Honor? I’ll take 12 of those please.
This is the biggie for me. The Steam Box is rumoured to operate as essentially a PC in a small-form console box, probably running a stripped-down operating system intended simply to power Steam and other game distribution services such as EA’s Origin. Based on various comments from Valve’s now splendidly bearded boss Gabe Newell, the vitality of open development platforms is of increasing importance to Valve, which fits neatly in with the rumour that any licensed hardware company will be free to make its own version of the box, with the operating system available to all.
Above: A picture of Gabe's beard. For no other reason than that it is magnificent
What does this mean? Most importantly, it means a culture of non-control. With manufacture and distribution so disseminated, there would be no gate-keepers, no platform-holder corporate machinations defining the type of content that sinks or swims. It would be PC gaming, presented in a palatable way for a mainstream audience. Standardise that kind of openness in the living room, and you have a huge and positive cultural shift in home entertainment. Not to mention one which could cause serious trouble for the notoriously closed and controlling Apple’s incoming bid for a slice of gaming cake with its Apple TV roll-out.
Next: Why it might be a stinking failure. And that epic conclusion I surprised myself with