Steam Deck May Give The Eventual Switch Pro A Run For Its Money
The Steam Deck appears primed to beat Nintendo to market at providing a more powerful handheld-hybrid.
Mere hours before preorders began on the new Switch OLED Model, Valve preempted the festivities with a big announcement of its own: the Steam Deck, a portable gaming PC that bears more than a passing resemblance to Nintendo's popular handheld/console hybrid. The shot across the bow may or may not have been intentional, and preorders are opening soon. Either way, Steam's new device seems inspired by, if not a direct challenger to, Nintendo's popular console. And fresh off the community's disappointment over the lack of Switch Pro news, Valve could be taking the opportunity to get out ahead of the competition.
In fact, the Steam Deck is being positioned as similar to the Switch in many ways. The starting price for the Steam Deck is $400, just above the price of the Switch OLED but with significantly more power (albeit with an LCD screen). The device itself looks similar to a Switch, though the full analog sticks and track pads make it a bit wider than a Switch equipped with the already-large Split Pad Pro. There's even an optional dock to plug it into your TV, the marquee hybrid feature that serves as the Switch's namesake.
Valve is also making sure to accent the power proposition. It's no coincidence that its promotional videos have shown games like Control running on the Steam Deck, with a promise that it's running natively on the device. Contrast this with the Nintendo Switch, which has offered hit-or-miss cloud-based versions of games that often come with compromises--including Control.
The Switch, by comparison, has not gotten a power bump since it launched in 2017, and it's beginning to show more frequently. Games have been hitting against the device's power limitations resulting in issues like poor performance, even among exclusives. This is part of why expectations had been raised for a Switch Pro, which was expected to bring with it a commensurate power bump. When the Switch OLED announcement landed with a thud, it was because expectations had been raised sky-high for a power boost. Whether it planned to or not, Valve is capitalizing on this opportunity. When and if a Switch Pro does come, it will now be measured not only against the existing Switch models but against the Steam Deck.
The major difference between the devices will be their respective libraries. Obviously the Steam Deck won't have access to Nintendo's first-party library, which is a major system-seller for fans of the company's wide array of classic franchises. And for some fans, there's simply no replacing Mario, Zelda, and Pikachu, regardless of hardware power or other whizbang features. For those who want to experience all that gaming has to offer, the Steam Deck likely wouldn't replace the Switch outright thanks to Nintendo's internal development.
But outside of those offerings, the Steam Deck will have access to the massive Steam library, making it the home to countless PC games on the most popular PC gaming storefront. The Switch has been a solid repository for indie games, in particular, but the vast majority of those are available on Steam too--and they're often far cheaper through frequent sales. In fact, while even the cheapest Steam Deck is pricier than a Switch, over time you might find that you save money due to the stark differences in frequency of sales--and depth of discounts--on the Switch eShop and various PC marketplaces.
And while Valve has dipped a toe into the dedicated hardware market before, there's reason to think the Steam Deck will be different than, for example, Steam Machines. That line of pre-built gaming PCs was little more than a set of build guidelines with a dedicated OS, which led to inconsistent quality across the devices from various manufacturers. Steam Deck is a unified piece of hardware being built and sold directly by Valve itself.
Analyst Daniel Ahmad opined on Twitter that Valve is in a singularly great position to overcome some of the obstacles that have prevented other portable PC devices from having success in the market. According to Ahmad, other portable PCs have struggled with balancing the power level and price, as well as making it profitable. Thanks in part to Valve's dominant position in the marketplace, the Steam Deck stands a decent chance of overcoming these challenges.
Handheld gaming PC's are not a new concept, and while they have become more popular thanks to successfully crowdfunded devices such as the GPD Win, they have not broken out of a niche.— Daniel Ahmad (@ZhugeEX) July 15, 2021
Valve is much better positioned than others to enter this market and this is a smart move
"While the device is fairly open and can install other games and software, Valve effectively owns the out of the box storefront on the console, which is more in line with the traditional console business model," he said. "It means Valve is not wholly reliant on hardware margins. It is still unclear if gaming handheld PC's can break out of the current niche they are in, but the Switch's success has shown people want to play high end games on the go."
This all suggests that Valve has learned lessons from console hardware makers, including Nintendo. Its hardware may or may not be profitable itself but can achieve profitability by driving new users to Steam, a closed ecosystem controlled by Valve itself. And it's doing so in a package clearly inspired by the Switch, with functionality similar to the Switch.
Whether a Switch Pro is actually in the works is an open question, and we don't know when or if Nintendo will actually introduce it. But its announcement of the Switch OLED was widely regarded as disappointing to many on the internet, which left an opening for Valve's announcement today. Assuming Nintendo does introduce a Switch Pro in 2022, Valve's own device may have beaten it to the punch. There are many unanswered questions about the Steam Deck, including how comfortable it will be to use and whether it will support services like Xbox Game Pass. But whatever the case, for the first time in years, Nintendo will be facing a direct competitor in a way it hasn't from PlayStation or Xbox.
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