Steam in the Living Room: The Steam Box's past, present and potential future
In a year's time, the state of the video game industry is likely to look very different. It seems like a safe bet that Sony and Microsoft will release their new PlayStation and Xbox consoles sometime in 2013, and if that's not the case, it's almost certain they'll at least announce them. What those systems will look like in terms of advanced functionality and so on remains to be seen, but with the lengthy gap between this point and the previous hardware generation (6-7 years), and the recent release of Nintendo's Wii U -- not to mention the news that has recently come out of CES 2013 (detailed below) -- the precise future of the industry is a little uncertain.
However, it seems there may be a new player joining the market -- and I'm not referring to the Ouya. With streaming services quiet of late, and the market softening overall in the wake of mobile and casual gaming, the future seems shaky -- and yet Valve looks to be making a play of their own, bringing their Steam platform into the living room. In more ways than one.
In the months prior to E3 2012, multiple rumours surfaced that Valve was in the planning stages for what was being referred to as the "Steam Box". Apparently, Valve was looking to enter the hardware market, but it was unclear if this was going to be a machine built by Valve or a platform that other manufacturers could leverage -- not unlike the 3DO in the mid-90s. Rumours even went as far as seemingly-legit patents that had been filed for proprietary controllers with interchangeable parts.
Later reports mentioned that that a simple box had been built internally at Valve for testing, but this was directly denied soon after. It was mentioned in the denial that Valve often creates boxes to test their software render. In the same breath, Valve shifted the attention to Big Picture mode - an addition to the Steam platform that had been announced in the year prior.
Announced at GDC 2011, Big Picture mode was designed to provide a new interface that allowed for navigation via controller as opposed to a traditional mouse and keyboard. Likely noticing the increase in players asking for controller compatibility, it seems was is a growth area that Valve would like to focus on. Alternatively, Valve may have been making a play on the console market.
The open Beta started in September this year, and only required users to add this via the Steam control panel if they wished to participate. Once installed, a large "Big Picture" button was added to the top-right hand side of the screen. Clicking this transformed the view into the big buttons and full screen view of "Big Picture mode" - similar to Microsoft's Media Centre.
Officially launched Dec 3 this year, an update to the Steam platform added this functionality for all users.
Following the 2012 VGAs, Kotaku reported that Steam would be releasing hardware within the next year. This came from an interview with Gabe Newell, who made this statement directly -- after stating that he expected other hardware manufacturers to release PC boxes that were more living room friendly. Whatever the case may be (and we look to have our first answer; see "Valve/Xi3 Project Piston" below), it is now quite clear that Steam is making a play for the living room, potentially developing a Steam operating system that would allow a system to boot straight into a gaming ecosystem. In many ways this would be fantastic, but one thing that needs to be clarified is around scalability -- how does Valve intend to combat the ever-increasing system requirements for PC games? The Steam box that plays titles in high detail next year may not be able to do so just one short year later. This is a major concern. Still, an interchangeable controller would suggest that, similarly, it's not outside of the realm of possibility for a 'PC set-top box' with part interchangeability -- then again, who's to say the controller patent was real anyway?
Of course, in terms of competing with consoles, the idea that the system would come with interchangeable parts is pretty unrealistic -- a system like this would only cause problems over time, as users would NEED to upgrade in order to run the latest and greatest. If that was the case, why should consumers buy this box as opposed to a regular PC? A more likely scenario is that a Steam SDK (should one be released) would be designed for the base hardware, allowing for designers to simply create a title without worrying about PC hardware advancements. Of course, this would work great for independent developers, but for triple A titles? It may be more trouble than it's worth, given that hardcore PC gamers would still want to be able to dial the detail all the way up.
There are of course a number of issues that Valve would need to consider -- for example, what is the Steam operating system going to be built on? One can only assume that this is likely to be Linux-based (as per below, this is looking very much like the way things will be). However, if this is the case, how will that affect the Steam platform on which the games run (if at all)? And following from the point in the preceding paragraph, will there be an SDK provided for developers, or will they simply be able to use existing tools? Clearly, there are a number of questions that are up in the air, and while some of these have been answered at this year's CES (and perhaps more in the coming days), there is still a lot we don't know.
nVidia's SHIELD and Grid/GeForce Experience
Prior to the official start of CES 2013, nVidia's CEO and founder Jen-Hsun Huang took to the stage to make a number of unexpected announcements. Some of these announcements referred to two forthcoming products (well, groups of products) - the Grid, and GeForce Experience. The former is hardware designed to facilitate Cloud Gaming (and I believe is intended to be sold on to providers for that purpose), the other is a Cloud-based technology (service, hadware, or possibly both) intended to supplement a player's existing PC to provide a more optimised experience - regardless of their PC components. Exactly how all of this will work is somewhat unclear at this stage, but it really does show that nVidia believes in Cloud Gaming, and beyond that, they also see there is a disconnect between PC gamers and their individual capabilities. It will be interesting to see how all of this unfolds.
By far eclipsing these announcements, however, was the highly unexpected unveiling of Project SHIELD, an Android-based piece of hardware somewhat resembling an Xbox controller with a clamshell screen attached. Interestingly, SHIELD has multiple functions -- firstly, as a pure Android device (running Jelly Bean), it can perform all of the same functions as an Android tablet on its 5-inch multitouch-enabled screen (with some titles able to utilise the physical controller as well). Using the inbuilt HDMI adapter, these games (or movies, or ... whatever) can even be output to a television.
Beyond that, though, the controller can connect to Steam - wirelessly (using a technology only compatible with Kepler-based graphics cards). This means that, yes, you can play games on the screen at your couch, or you can use the controller to play the same games on your PC... or even the TV, as the technology will provide wireless connection with the TV as well as SHIELD itself. For my money, this function defines the real potential of SHIELD. While I can appreciate that, like Ouya, SHIELD will make a great tool for emulators, the real play here is around brining PC gaming to the living room.
Still, there are glaring issues. Given the size of the device, and the components, it's not going to be cheap. Combine that with the cost of a new graphics card (because Steam streaming requires a GTX 650 or higher), and it may price itself out of contention. Then look at the fact that... well, what does it do, really? Is it a handheld device? If so, there is so much competition that is is unlikely to success. Is it an Android console? If so, the Ouya will be FAR cheaper. Is it a bridge between the PC and the TV? If yes... how much is something like that worth to consumers? Even given these issues, though, interest is piqued.
Valve/Xi3 Project Piston
Also announced at CES 2013 this week was... well, a mini-PC that is the result of a collaboration between Valve and PC maker Xi3. Less of an announcement and more of a "hey, this is a thing that is happening," the specifics are unclear -- just that Valve has reportedly backed Xi3 for this project. However, Polygon has reported that the device is likely to be based on similar Xi3 products -- essentially a mini PC with changeable components (gulp), intended to be used in the living room. As a result, there are the usual IO ports (HDMI, optical audio, USB 3.0, USB 2.0eSATAp, Mini Display Port, as well as power, of course). All of that said, the box reportedly runs on Linux, but details stop there. Abruptly.
With nothing but a tentative project title to its name, no pricing details, and no locked-down and confirmed hardware specifications, it's very hard to gauge what this is. Currently, it's looking like a little PC that can be connected to the TV, and I can only assume that for many, this will mean a media centre box, and that's fine. But how much will this cost? What will provide the impetus for consumers to buy another computer - particularly one that uses an operating system quite different from what most consumers are used to? And most importantly - exactly how will a machine of this size be able to provide the power to even compete with the next Xbox/PlayStation?
The answers here are completely unknown at this point, and it may well be that speculation that this is a "Steam console" is incorrectly levelled at this machine. Indeed, there was no mention of a controller for the system, nor whether it would work with any other technology to provide an ecosystem (and yes, I'm referring directly to the nVidia announcements here -- GeForce Experience may provide the answer to the question of power, for example). Valve is yet to comment on this directly, as well -- the only statement Valve has made, reported by Polygon, is that they will be meeting with hardware and software developers this week to showcase multiple prototypes, and that more information will be shared with the press in coming months. It is possible the Xi3 announcement was a little premature.
We may find that everything becomes clear in the coming days, weeks, or months. One thing's for sure -- we here at Stevivor are very keen to find out exactly what is happening here, and will provide updates as soon as they come to hand.