Valve Corp. had a big week last week, announcing a triumvirate of ambitious new efforts that it hopes will drive gaming forward and push its Steam products into the living room and therefore the mainstream.
Will the company's plans play out as hoped or will the new Steam efforts turn out to be a lot of vapour? Valve has a few huge obstacles to climb – many of them having to do with familiarity – so it's okay to be skeptical. I know I am.
A quick recap of the announcements is in order. The Kirkland, Wash.-based company is working on a Linux-based operating system devoted to running games called SteamOS, that will run on the second announced product, Steam Machines, which will essentially be upgradable consoles built by third parties. The last part of the equation will be the handheld Steam controller, which will replace traditional thumbsticks with twin trackpads that can stand in for a mouse and keyboard.
The company's intentions are clear. In the first instance, it wants to circumvent Windows and Mac operating systems with its own OS, which will theoretically make it faster and easier to play games on a given piece of hardware. Game developers also won't be bound by whatever limits those other two operating systems place on them.
Similarly, with fully upgradeable and hackable consoles, both developers and players will have more freedom to push the envelope with gaming experiences. And lastly, the controller is aiming for a "third way" by giving both couch-based gamers the same easy handling they're used to and hard-core PC gamers the ability for fine-grained aiming.
With all of that, Valve hopes its original Steam game download service – which counts nearly 60 million gamers worldwide as members – will finally be able to migrate from the PC and into the living room, where the industry's real money is to be found.
Despite its reputation for innovation, Valve is going to face four serious hurdles, some of which will potentially be insurmountable:
While the company has led a renaissance in PC gaming over the past few years, the segment is still a relatively stagnant section of the overall market, according to PwC, accounting for only a quarter of the revenue found on consoles. While the console market's revenue is expected to increase to $30-billion from $25-billion over the next four years (two new consoles, added to the massive existing market equals big money), the PC business is expected to contract slightly to $6-billion from $7-billion.
The second lies in convincing developers to create games in Linux. While company chief executive Gabe Newell touts the open-source operating system as the future of gaming, the reality is that few developers have so far agreed with him.
The problem with the operating system is the same as it is with any other poorly adopted fringe platform – say, Windows Phone or even BlackBerry 10 – there just aren't enough users to make it worth a developer's while. It's the chicken-or-the-egg issue, where games don't get made until there are enough users to warrant the expense, but gamers won't come until there are enough games to attract them. Steam itself has only 200 Linux games in its library, comprising less than a tenth of its overall catalogue of 3,000.
3. COMMON HARDWARE
While the existing Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 now look positively ancient compared to what current high-end PCs are capable of, they still hold one major advantage: developers and gamers don't have to worry about multiple hardware specifications. Steam Machines made by several manufacturers sound a little off-putting to anyone who has ever opted to play games on a console rather than on a PC.
Valve says "entertainment is not a one-size-fits-all world," and that it wants gamers to "be able to choose the hardware that makes sense" for them. Yet, that's actually one of the main reasons why the PC games business went into a swoon before Steam's ascent. Mainstream gamers have indeed opted for that one-size-fits-all approach because it has meant their purchases work without their having to worry about having the correct hardware.
Developers, meanwhile, don't necessarily want to have to create multiple versions of games to run on differently capable hardware. Just ask Android developers how fun that is, with all the various flavours of that operating system that were floating around for a while.
Yet it's the controller that may present the biggest problem for Valve. There are a few reasons why the Xbox has become the dominant game-playing device over the past few years, and much of it has to do with Microsoft's perfection of the controller. The Xbox 360's controller is in fact so good that even Sony is emulating it with the PlayStation 4. As the old saying goes, Valve may be trying to fix what isn't broken.
It's unfair to judge a controller without having tried it, but it is fair to say that these devices have evolved the way they have for a reason – they simply work and they're pretty good at what they do, even if they're not perfect. A number of developers who had an early look at the prototype Steam controller gave it decent marks, but as Team Meat's Tommy Refenes put it, if he had to pick, "I would choose a 360 controller because I have several thousand hours experience using it." That's what a lot of gamers are going to say too, regardless of how good Steam's option ends up.
Valve's efforts to do things differently is commendable, but uniqueness and innovation doesn't always win when it comes to the mainstream video game market. It's why familiar franchises inevitably dominate sales charts and it's why Nintendo is in its current dire straits. That company also tried to do something different and innovative with the Wii U, and it has seen terrible sales as a result.
It comes down to this: gamers say they want something different and new, but what they end up spending money on turns out to be quite the opposite. It's a little surprising that Valve doesn't know this well by now.