Are There Too Many Steam Machines?

Valve’s shocking decision to enter the hardware space for gaming was met with plenty of skepticism upon its announcement, but as 2013 came to a close, it became clear that they weren’t messing around with their Steam Machine concept. Run entirely by the SteamOS operating system, the Steam Machines were built for Steam-based gaming in mind. Valve got hardware manufacturers in on their vision and at CES 2014, the curtain was drawn and the Steam Machines finally appeared. All fourteen of them. That’s a lot of choices to browse, each with its own architecture, specs and price point. But for a “living room” device, is this vastly diverse array of Steam Machines a fruitful bounty of choice, or is it too overwhelming a selection for the average consumer, especially with dedicated consoles offering simplicity and straightforwardness already in place?

Valve’s ideology behind the Steam Machines is to bring the Steam experience to the living room, essentially offering the Steam service on the big-screen and without any dependence on the PC architecture. Valve’s push toward entering the living room has been incremental, but impressive with the Big Picture Mode (Valve’s way of easily offering Steam gaming connectivity to larger screens and controller-based navigation), but the Steam Machines are Valve’s biggest expansion yet. The devices dedicating their operating system to Steam come in so many shapes, sizes and models that it’s something that might overwhelm in practice.

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If you already have a powerful gaming PC, there’s a good chance that you find the Steam Machines to be redundant, especially if your PC is located near your big-screen television. Why spend another thousand or so dollars on a device that does as much as your regular old PC does? That mentality is common and isn’t likely to change even as 2014 continues, so it’s to be expected that the general “living room” demographic is a big part of this product line. Valve wants to share their Steam world with people who can’t invest in powerful, but expensive PC hardware, and with the nativity of the SteamOS operating system, it’s a big proposition.

However, Valve debuted fourteen third-party machines that run SteamOS, all of them approved by Valve themselves. From CyberpowerPC to Alienware, a lot of companies wanted to get in on what Valve is pitching. The prices range from $499 to a whopping $6000, each one with different specifications and hardware options. There is no shortage of options in the Steam Machines. But while variety certainly is the spice of life, Valve’s pitch to the living room is not the same as their pitch to long-time PC gamers. Your average PC gamer and Steam user is practically required to be educated in PC specifications. Even someone fresh out the gate in PC gaming needs to have some degree of knowledge in graphics card power and CPU fidelity (at least). Otherwise, they could buy a game that simply will not run on their rig of choice.

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The difference between Valve’s PC gaming mindset and that of the Big Three console developers is general compatibility. With so many different hardware systems commanding these clearly different machines, gamers’ experiences aren’t necessarily going to be identical. As a regular Steam user knows, your system’s guts usually determine your game’s performance. Different processers and GPU’s offer different results when the game is installed and running. Essentially, if your system is not the same as your friend’s, your respective performances of a game are bound to vary.

This is a reasonable hurdle to overcome in the PC crowd, but when applying this concept of vastly different hardware to your casual living room audience, things start to become problematic. Unlike a PC, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo’s systems all operate with their own generally identical system architecture between consoles. For example, unless you’re playing a game with heavy reliance on an internet connection, you and your friend’s experiences with a PS3 game will generally be identical, regardless of whether you use their PS3 or your own. All Playstation 3 systems are made by Sony; there’s no difference between two randomly selected PS3’s, so there’s no difference in technical performance. That’s appealing to your average console gamer. There’s always assurance that a PS3 game will run on a PS3 and no calculation is required to determine how well it’ll run (or if it’ll run at all). It’s an appeal of a singular hardware production: there are simply no guessing games when debating whether your game will run properly or not.

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To be fair, any customer buying a tech device will require some form of education (how else would you buy a smartphone or big-screen TV without knowing about updated OS or screen resolution), but the Steam Machines are bringing the entire PC gaming world to the living room, hardware diversity and all. There are fourteen Steam Machines in the works (and that’s only what Valve actually showed at CES), each with a unique price point and plenty of technical jargon in their descriptions. With so many models, buying a Steam Machine will require the same amount of research as buying a PC, which is bound to be much more difficult when trying to appeal to the centralized ecosystem of the living room space. The living room has always had the connotation of centralization, hence why Roku boxes, smart TV’s and even the Xbox One are what they are. They are all about ease of access and ease of use. Valve’s Steam Machines complicate that philosophy. Sure, they offer unique performance and run an operating system dedicated entirely to the fantastic Steam portal, but their insides are so packed with technicality that it’s going to be tough for your average consumer to decipher that technicality and follow through with the Steam Machine purchase when Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo’s consoles are always built for the games they provide. Why sift through so many different Steam Machines at so many different prices when a regular old game console (one that promises compatibility with all of its software) is all ready to go?

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The Steam Machines continue to draw gamers both in and out of the fold of appeal. Valve is dead-set on entering the living room with the Steam Machines, but that goal is bringing with it a sense of complication, a complication that PC gamers have experienced and generally tolerated for decades. But that complication is not as forgivable in the centralized living room environment. Despite their clear power and appeal to hardcore gamers, Valve seems to be misconstruing who occupies the living room the most: the average consumer. It’s why the typical gaming consoles have still commanded that world; they’ve always been about simplicity and ease of use. Options are great, don’t get me wrong, but the gaming crowd’s love of options is not something that’s instantly translatable to the average consumer. With so many Steam Machines to choose from and so many different things going on in each individual model, it’s bound to have confusion along with variety.

Valve is not afraid to give players a choice when looking at Steam Machines, and that’s a great thing, but not everyone is going to persevere through the spec sheets when there are simpler devices already occupying the living room space.