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Valve's Steam Box: Why it would change gaming as drastically as the PS1 did. But could also just tank

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.

The Steam Box would have the best launch line-up in history

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?

The Steam Box would send indie development through the roof

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.

The Steam Box could decimate decades of corporate-controlled console gaming culture

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

43 comments

  • spankyj25 - April 13, 2012 6:09 p.m.

    Are we sure that there's room in the market for another console? As it is, I am a big fan of the OnLive console, and I can't figure out why that hasn't taken off! I guess that I have a tough time figuring out how this "steam box" can do much better. We have an inexpensive platform for playing pc games on a tv right now, and it's not nearly as huge as I thought it would be.
  • VagueRaconteur - April 13, 2012 2:27 p.m.

    I personally hate the idea. I'm a PC gamer. What I love about PC gaming isn't upgrading my rig, which is never quite good enough. It's not even rubbing how much better the graphics are in console gamers faces. I love two things about PC gaming: The practicality and the totally open mod base. Practicality? I work on my PC (I run a website). I study on my PC. I talk to people on my PC, I learn on my PC, and I play on my PC! It's the convenience of having that choice to play a game for a short while, and then switch instantly to any document. And the mods! I would not TOUCH this box without nexus. Skyrim vanilla? Nothing. With 100 mods you can make it incredible, and improved by the fans, for nothing at all. Why wouldn't you want that? It's bastardised PC-gaming for console gamers. Not a new way to unify PC and console gamers alike, and I can only hope it tanks, and hard.
  • minecrafter7098 - July 14, 2012 11:27 a.m.

    Practicality? This works just as well as your computer! The Steam Box is for your free time. You can still sneak in your games on your computer during work, but the Steam Box is for enjoyment. Don't forget that! As for mods? Steam just has to incorporate the Steam Workshop to the point of browsing and installing!
  • bboyd - April 13, 2012 8:18 a.m.

    Right now, I can only bother to file this under "too good to be true". Does it sound absolutely magnificent? Yes, yes it does. Yet, i feel ashamed to say that I have little faith in Valve. As much as I love their service and products, I still have yet to see Half-Life 3. If these came out simultaneously, it would all. Make. Sense.
  • santaclouse37 - March 7, 2012 11:18 a.m.

    Okay Dave, you've convinced me. A Valve-produced box which provides the best of console AND pc gaming? I could get behind that. I've already been thinking lately how I'm really not interested in getting whatever new Xbox or Playstation that's bound to be released in the next few years, and as a Mac owner, this would be incredibly justifiable purchase as my primary next-gen gaming system.
  • Mezolitik - March 7, 2012 10:46 a.m.

    I think the overall cost could be terrifying. The Steam Box would likely need to be able to run the most recent big budget game available at max-spec (otherwise, what's the point?), which means you're probably looking at about £6-700 just for a basic model.
  • MaelstromKING - March 7, 2012 9:06 a.m.

    They could easily make something that would make the ps4 and xbox weep and sell for 5-700 starting. Don't forget about steamcloud saving your games between your pc and steambox as well as maintaining the games you've currently bought on your PC as titles you can download and play on the box.
  • Spybreak8 - March 7, 2012 8:04 a.m.

    Good article and I already view the 360 as a glorified PC console but yeah this could be good. However since we're dealing with Steam, the always having an internet connection could be an argument for the against portion.
  • TanookiMan - March 7, 2012 6:56 a.m.

    As your average tech-fearing plebe-on-the-street, I'm really excited about the Steam Box. I started out on the NES, and never had the time/ money/ patience to really get into PC gaming, which is a shame, because there are some really great games that I haven't been able to play because of it. (I'm looking at you witcher!) Steam Box might be just what I need, and who knows, maybe it can be a gateway drug to true PC gaming and rig building.
  • IceBlueKirby - March 6, 2012 5:12 p.m.

    As someone who doesn't know shit about PC gaming, other than, you know, how to play games on one, this is a very intriguing idea. I don't know a thing about video cards and RAM and whatnot, so to have a machine that was essentially a top of the line PC, but acted like a console - where I usually play my games - would be a godsend because I wouldn't have to figure out what to upgrade and how to upgrade it. Of course, if this is real, price will have everything to do with whether I get one or not, but right now I'm interested for sure.
  • Darkwun - March 6, 2012 4:50 p.m.

    Having just voted "not interested at all" on Gamefaq's poll, gotta say, this article is turning me quicker than a 90lb virgin in a Turkish prison
  • Jackelsburg - March 6, 2012 4:23 p.m.

    I wonder if you would be able to use mods through this This is definitely a pretty interesting idea
  • Plague - March 6, 2012 3:21 p.m.

    The best feature of course would be when steam goes haywire and you can't play your games
  • CUFCfan616 - March 6, 2012 2:52 p.m.

    If this thing is real, it won't be a pc in the way that it will be upgradable, it would be basically a pc console. However, anything that would increase interest in pc gaming I'd be in favour of as developers should still remember how to put in scalable graphics options into games. For people saying you should either buy this or upgrade your pc, this is for the people who touching the inside of their pc is a daunting prospect, and if steam and origin can get behind it in a big way and people realise how many games they can play on it without having to go to the shops to buy a physical disc, then something like this could have massive potential for reviving pc gaming. This is assuming a lowish price and also in places where games are expensive (aka Australia) some price parity being made to match US and European prices because we still don't appreciate being charged $20-30 more for a new pc game on steam than Americans do
  • komadose - March 6, 2012 3:13 p.m.

    a PC console, you say... hmmm, i could see that work. a PC-gaming option for people who are buying a console. hardcore gamers stick with their fridge-size monster-rigs, but more PC gamers is always better better. this could be an indie-dev revolution.
  • Net_Bastard - March 6, 2012 2:31 p.m.

    I want to be excited for this, but the PC elitist inside me makes me believe that if it's true, then this thing will hurt PC gaming. I don't want my PC-exclusive games feeling like they were made with this thing in mind. I want them to feel like they're made with the awesome gaming rig that I spent months saving up for in mind.
  • ElAmmoBandito - March 6, 2012 2:19 p.m.

    I for one am extremely excited for this mini-PC. I wonder if the sales that steam has would apply to this mabob?
  • joemama9999 - March 6, 2012 2:14 p.m.

    So basically, I would need internet for this, right? I wouldn't be able to use this. It sounds like it would be great but people like me can't make use of this. What a shame. Great article though.
  • Rub3z - March 6, 2012 3:18 p.m.

    Aren't you using internet to post this comment to the site? \:-I Just sayin'.
  • komadose - March 6, 2012 1:14 p.m.

    for a gaming-rig-owner like myself, this obviously brings nothing, but: "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." "...But it’s also supposedly a PC through and through.." wich one is it? in order to be a full-fledged PC, it needs to run Windows. actually, it needs atleast DirectX API anyway to run PC games, right? interesting, nontheless.

Showing 1-20 of 43 comments

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