Thanks to a speculative posting by The Verge, the internet has been abuzz with rumours that Valve is getting into the hardware game. Apparently the company was showing off a ‘Steam Box’ to PC manufacturers in behind closed door meetings at CES this year, and rumours point to some sort of announcement coming out of GDC.
That isn’t to say Valve will be making hardware – more likely it will be developing baseline specifications and making its Steam software more TV-friendly. Rumours are that Alienware’s X51 system was actually developed to the initial specs for the device, although one would hope that any Valve-driven push of PC gaming into the living room will come with a much more reasonable price tag than that offered by Alienware.
We’d love to see such a strong player as Valve taking even more charge of PC gaming. This would provide an opportunity that has largely been squandered by industry groups like the PC Gaming Alliance, which has some big players onboard but has ultimately done less to forward to cause of PC gaming than Valve has done with its software store.
At a base level what we’d like to see is a set of guidelines for different system specifications. Not only does Valve have a great appreciation of just what hardware requirements modern games have, but it has years of data on just what people are using, thanks to its ever useful hardware survey. This alone would give a realistic picture of the kinds of resolutions and peripherals being used, and subsequently what needs to be delivered to ensure a good, base level PC gaming experience.
Just having a ‘Steam Certified’ program, much along the lines of what Sony is doing with PlayStation certified Android devices, or what Intel did with Centrino for laptops, would be a good start. This would guarantee a certain level of performance across modern games, and could be tiered based around a variety of factors. The most logical would be resolution – one spec for 1080p gaming on a television, then maybe a higher spec for high res PC monitors.
This kind of reference design would work for both the big OEM system builders (who would likely slap a sticker of some sort denoting official certification) while also letting the DIY crowd build to a certain performance level. Given Valve’s status as a software company, this kind of relationship building seems a lot more likely than the company delivering its own hardware platform.
Of course the issue with this is cost. If you are making a PlayStation or Xbox you have a single, common platform and you can let economies of scale and product lifespan play into your projected earnings for the hardware. However assembling a PC out of component parts doesn’t have this advantage, and even worse, no matter how cheaply one can build a gaming system, the spectre of Windows licensing fees hangs over the eventual pricetag.
While Microsoft certainly isn’t going to turn away something that drives windows sales, its position as a major console manufacturer has always meant its PC gaming business has the potential to be cannibalistic. So it is unlikely that Valve would be able to wangle cheaper Windows licenses in order to make a Steam Box price competitive. If it is priced too much higher than consoles then it becomes a tough sell to consumers.
Of course, if you are reading Atomic then off-the-shelf PCs are likely something someone else buys. But the benefit for us comes down to the way in which Valve does business. We suspect that any sort of tailored Steam Hardware would be more about expanding the potential Steam (and hence Windows) gaming userbase rather than providing any specific hardware lock in. We’ll still be able to build our own beasts, it’s just that Valve will ensure that the entry point for PC gaming is a lot less confusing than it currently is for thos who aren’t PC building ninjas.
It will be fascinating to see if more information emerges about this concept at GDC this week. If we don’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Valve isn’t working on such a project, it just means that the concept isn’t ready for primetime. For if there is one thing that we have noticed about Valve, the company never makes a big announcement without something tangible to back it up.