If Valve hoped to resolve questions surrounding its Steam box initiative during the Consumer Electronics Show last week, showcasing prototypes from 13 manufacturers was an odd way to go about it. Taking in everything at the event, I had no idea what I was really looking at other than a random mix of PCs that, at the bare minimum, supported Linux and included a graphics processor--two criteria that apply to almost every modern computer, expensive and cheap alike.
The confusing array of Steam machines is, as we found out, a product of Valve's hands-off partnerships with Steam machine builders. At the moment, the only imposition from Valve seems to be the need for a proprietary internal radio that's used to communicate with its prototype Steam machine controller, though even that won't likely persist for long. According to a representative that we spoke with from Origin PC, designer of the Chronos Steam machine, Valve hasn't even approached the team to discuss licensing of the Steam machine name.
Valve's laissez-faire attitude toward the identity of the Steam machine brand is apparent and will inevitably be problematic for consumers, but it's the manufacturers that are currently carrying the burden of standing out in the chaos of the incoming Steam machine flood. There are small, underpowered devices running on mobile and integrated GPUs, and full-blown hardware spectacles packing the best, and most expensive, graphics cards on the market, along with plenty of others that fall somewhere in the middle. At the end of the day, a PC is a PC, and a Steam machine is just a PC by another name. Evidently, there's no consensus among third parties as to what a Steam machine should be. Some of the system builders present at the event see it as a chance to remodel PC gaming for a new generation, while others are simply trying to coax current PC users into the living room.
iBuyPower: "For our approach with our PC, we wanted to create something that was unlike a PC. Otherwise, you could just build one or game on the one you already have. We already offer a small form-factor gaming PC called Revolt. If all we wanted was a PC that we installed SteamOS on, we would have been perfectly happy taking that unit, putting SteamOS on it, and calling it a 'Steam machine.' We saw the opportunity to expand into the console marketplace."
Digital Storm: "We wanted to offer a unit that's still powerful enough to drive future 4K gaming, and we wanted to make it a hybrid unit so we can run both Windows and Linux."
Alienware: "We are aiming to be very competitive with next-generation consoles, but don't have prices to share at this time."
Origin: "We are not going to build something that's $500 that's trying to compete with the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. It's going to be hard to do that. We don't want to water down the PC experience. When someone buys one of those $399 boxes, how good is it actually going to run those games?"
Every one of these system builders has a product that appeals to someone, somewhere, but with such a confusing swath of concepts to wade through, it won't be long before the Steam machine moniker loses some of its appeal. Knowledgeable consumers will buy or build a PC and attach an aftermarket Steam controller; thrifty but eager PC gaming amateurs will be disappointed by cheap, underwhelming devices; and the hyped, care-free spender will drop a pretty penny on a Steam machine, only to find out that it's no different from the boutique, full-tower PC they spent $4,000 on a year prior.
For the Steam machine brand to avoid becoming a cloudy watered-down mess, Valve needs to identify and support a singular distinct product or a unified range of products. The sheer number of options in PC hardware is one of the reasons some people still view PC gaming as a mysterious, complex endeavor. At least when you buy a PlayStation 4, average consumers know what they're getting. At the moment, the opposite is true for PCs and Steam machines alike.
Even though Valve is risking the short-term strength of its Steam brand, it's smart of the company to offload market research to willing third parties given the unexplored territory of mass-market, consolized gaming PCs. With a brand that has as strong of a reputation as Steam does, it's not surprising that so many hardware teams are readily jumping into the fray. After all, the only companies putting money on the line are those with propriety Steam machine cases, such as iBuyPower, which has to invest in costly production molds. System builders using off-the-shelf parts, or those that are merely rebranding preexisting systems, have almost everything to gain by jumping on the Steam train. Who doesn't like free publicity, especially when it's riding on the coattails of one of the most beloved brands in gaming?
"Valve's laissez-faire attitude toward the identity of the Steam machine brand is apparent and will inevitably be problematic for consumers..."
Where does this leave an internally developed, official Steam machine from Valve? There's the perception that because Valve's running a hardware beta program, it's likely that it will release a Steam machine of its own. I'd say there's a strong chance that this isn't the case. In 2012, Gabe Newell stated that Valve will sell hardware if it "has to." Then, at CES last week, Newell publicly renewed his lack of interest in a mass-produced Steam machine from Valve: "We really view our role in this as enabling. We'll do whatever is going to be helpful to other hardware manufacturers, whether that's with controller design or building specific kinds of boxes."
Since Valve doesn't need to make Steam machines, but it needs a new controller and user interface to distinguish a Steam machine from a PC, it's more than likely that the Steam machine beta hardware program exists solely to test Valve's controller and operating system. It has put systems in people's hands because it's important for Valve to define a controlled platform for testing. Valve doesn't need to benchmark the familiar Intel CPU and Nvidia GPU inside these prototypes; it's simply crowd-sourcing quality assurance testing on its new controller and OS.
If and when a clear victor emerges from the pack of Steam machine manufacturers, it wouldn't be surprising to see Valve align with one of the system builders in question, perhaps similarly to the way Google endorses an individual Nexus phone and tablet amidst the legion of Android devices. It's a simple thing, endorsing one product with the gift of a special name, and it helps consumers identify a standard to compare similar devices to. Best of all: it doesn't prevent other Android products from existing. A company like Alienware, which is owned by Dell Computing, has the right consumer awareness to capture people's attention and an infrastructure capable of facilitating mass production. With a level playing field, where all Steam machine builders are sourcing parts from the same catalog, those are the qualities that will attract Valve's attention if it ever has to support a flagship Steam machine. But until they do, the phrase "Steam machine" will continue to be a nebulous designation that offers little help--or hope--to consumers.