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

It would probably divide PC gamers

PC gaming and standardised hardware platforms are as well-related as the average Jeremy Kyle guest and at least one of his parents. And while a powerful, standardised format might well help developers of triple-A games by giving them a very definite set of specs to optimise for, it would also probably turn off a large number of PC gamers. Rig-pimping and performance-squeezing is after all a large and rewarding part of the culture. Replace that with a (presumed) console-style focus of complete hardware refreshes every five to six years, and you potentially take away something that PC gamers just love to throw in console gamers’ faces. Perpetual adaptability and improvement.

Above: A complex visual metaphor

That said though – and I’m just thinking completely freely and out-loud here - this could lead to a completely different model for PC gaming. One which is built not around a month-on-month progression of tech specs and incremental hardware upgrades, but upon developers having a standard maximum and minimum spec to build to for five or so years at a time. If that spec was set highly enough at the start of each “generation” (and it looks like it will be, if the current version of the Steam Box rumour turns out to be true. 8Gb of RAM is one suggested specification, which puts the machine way ahead of what most games currently require) with the games naturally and progressively becoming more advanced to take advantage of it over the course of the machine’s life-cycle, then you could have a big win.

Simple, no-fuss PC gaming that even the most tech-fearing pleb-on-the-street can handle, alongside performance potential to wipe the floor with consoles throughout each generation. A dedicated gaming PC in a console box, which unlike consoles would be specced at launch to be impressive at the end of its projected generation rather than just the start or middle, meaning that PC gamers who wanted to stick with a traditional set-up would never be hampered by dated tech in the Steam Box. Hell, even if I never took my Steam Box anywhere near the living room, and just used it as a 100% pure, unsullied gaming PC (it will have all the required connections, let’s face it), that’s something I could absolutely get behind.

It could lower the quality of some high-end PC games

Above: Dramatisation, may be grossly exaggerated

Here’s the flip-side though. We’re already seeing a fair few multiformat PC games getting a downgraded “Console Version +” treatment. And while I have no doubt that the many dedicated PC devs of the world would properly take advantage of the hardware at their disposal in the SteamBox for their triple-A projects, the perceived “consoleness” of the Steam Box might make the less PC-attentive become lazier still. After all, if there’s suddenly a model for PC gaming which attracts more traditionally console-focused gamers, why go to the extra effort with your PC version? If they’re used to 720p being “good”, and are still playing on the same TV, why bother going any higher?

It might just tank

A unified “console” standard which any licensee could manufacture. You might recall that 3DO tried a similar thing in the ‘90s and absolutely died on its arse. And the situation then was similar in some ways to the one the Steam Box will face, if indeed it exists. The 3DO was a powerful, snorting beast of a machine, with mist blowing from its nostrils and fire in its eyes, but it was essentially a no-name format going up against established industry leaders like Nintendo and Sega (with the PlayStation soon to come) at a significantly higher price point. Thus, despite being a brilliant idea, it never took off, and died just a few years after its launch.

Above: Tank? Aquarium? Sinking without trace? Oh please yourselves

And the same thing could happen to the Steam Box. To we, the educated hardcore, Valve is a name which inspires loyalty and respect en masse. But gaming isn’t just about us any more. There are rafts of casuals and semi-casuals to convince as well. And to them, the name Valve doesn’t mean shit. And if the Steam Box is going to be the technical monster I think it will have to be to execute the strategy I think it will need to execute, it’s going to be pricey. Of course, given the way console prices are going, the cost of a small-form, gaming-only PC is going to be significantly less disparate from that of a PS4 or next Xbox than the $700 3DO was from a $150 SNES, but it’s still probably going to be a bit more costly. And that’s going to take a bit of work to get the uninformed masses past.

But it could change everything for the better

But the thing is, Valve really could achieve that. The massive difference between the Steam Box and the 3DO is that the 3DO was another new set of proprietary hardware governed by an overseeing platform holder. A format run like that – closed, standalone, and in isolation – always has to fight hard to justify its place in the market. The Steam Box, by the sounds of it, would simply be a mainstream-gamer-friendly repackaging of the unrestricted, open hardware of the PC. It would already co-exist with 100% compatibility with one of the biggest, longest-established, most storied gaming formats in history. Because it would be that format. And it would launch with the thriving, eclectic, healthy, varied, unfathomably vast game catalogue that comes with that.

Above: It could really be this big of a deal

And just consider this: Sony was once a no-name in the console market. It once launched a new, radically different console at a vastly higher price point than the marketplace had ever been used to. That console was called the PlayStation, and it changed the entire industry, bringing a new era of freedom, creativity and accessibility for gamers and developers alike, just when it was really needed.

I think you see where I'm going with this.

Screw it, this feature started out as a for-and-against, “Why it’s equally great and rubbish” kind of thing, but the more I explore the arguments in my own head, the more I want a Steam Box. Provided it works out the way I imagine it will, I want one tomorrow. Hell, even if it’s just a streamlined new way of owning a gaming PC, I like the idea. I certainly don’t see it making things drastically worse, provided the specs really can be future-proofed (that’s open to be debate though, naturally), and if it can rock the long-festering culture of having our living rooms dominated by closed, controlled gaming platforms that we don’t really own – and blockade Apple from potentially making that particular situation a whole lot worse – then personally I’ll welcome it with open arms.

If indeed it exists. Which it might not. But I hope it does.Things like this give me hope.

How about you?

Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.