Why Valve's Steam Box is a console killer
10th Jan 2013 | 13:19
Forget Xbox vs PlayStation: Valve's new hardware will change everything
This generation of consoles is limping, kneecapped by six-odd years of technological advancement. The next set are due in 2013 – the presumably-named PlayStation 4 and the Xbox somemadnumber – and on launch they'll flap their hands and squabble with each other like unruly kids in a car.
They shouldn't be worried about each other. They should be worried about a newcomer. They should be worried about the Steam Box. Valve's Steam Box has a simple pitch: "A PC for your living room." It is that - which is already good news - but hidden behind that single line summary is an approach to technology that could upend consoles forever.
The simple announcement of the Steam Box concept is thrilling because Valve is good at everything. The super-developer made the superlative Half-Life, then followed it up with the double-superlative Half-Life 2.
They took a popular Quake and Half-Life mod into their tinkering shed at the turn of the millennium, and just when everyone assumed it had died of malnutrition, brought it back to life in glorious cartoon colour with Team Fortress 2. For fun, they used that game to redefine free-to-play gaming in the west, infecting grown humans with a mad desire for pixellated hats that they'd pay real money for.
But this is Valve's first step into the hardware market. What do they know of build quality, of price? More than a cursory amount, I'd bet, but they're not the only ones making a Steambox. The company met with other hardware manufacturers at CES behind closed doors, and Valve head Gabe Newell detailed to the Verge his intention for tiers of Steam Boxes: "Good, Better, or Best".
Other versions are already being proposed: in addition to Valve's prototype Steam Box – running games already available on PC - manufacturer Xi3 have shown a teeny-tiny machine named Piston (pictured). It's not the Steam Box, but it's a potential Steam Box, suggesting the platform will be as open to hardware variance as the PC.
Price is a thornier subject. A modern, modestly powerful gaming PC will set you back £500, and Xi3's box has been priced at "$499 and above", taking it a notch above impulse buy, and out of console budget range.
But where consoles service the screen they're plonked under and attached to, Newell sees the Steam Box as a server: "Any PC can serve multiple monitors, so over time, you can have one GPU that's serving up eight simultaneous game calls," he said. That could turn the Steam Box from one console into a house-worth of entertainment provision.
It's not there yet, but the hardware's on the way, and it's not Valve lumped with the task of creating it. Top-end graphics cards outstripped console performance years ago, making modern console-quality gaming a breeze to reproduce in 1080p.
Manufacturers like AMD and Nvidia - as well as tweak-minded PC obsessives - have had to focus their technological advances elsewhere, their beefy cards and machines now capable of running a game at ludicrous resolutions across three or more monitors.
The Steam Box offers them something to test their theoretical mettle on. Another round of graphics card architecture releases will make Newell's vision easy reality: cards powerful enough to let your Steam Box act as a tiny fun provider for the whole family.
As developers get to grips with new hardware from established console manufacturers, game visuals and requirements will increase, but – being a PC – there's no reason the Steam Box can't be modified and upgraded. It's an open system, meaning many Steam Boxes will let you pull out your graphics card and replace it with a shinier version when the time comes.
It's this ethos of openness that simultaneously makes the Steam Box so exciting, and offers the biggest challenge to Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo.
Newell has confirmed that Valve's own Steam Box will come packaged with Linux. The OS is anathema to the walled gardens of Windows, being both free and open-source. It's just as alien to the Xbox and Playstation front-ends. Where they curate content and load up with adverts, the Steam Box is as open as an average PC.
Newell says you're free to install Windows on Valve's Linux box, and download whatever you fancy. Imagine a console with Adblock. Imagine a console that isn't hamstrung by its components half a decade down the line, a console that doesn't force its creator to make a loss on each sale or to devote a gigantic chunk of budget half way through its life cycle to make its successor.
The Steam Box should scare console makers. 2012 was a monster year for PC gaming, the portents of doom that dogged the platform for years finally shaken off as the once dominant consoles felt their teeth grow too long.
Most modern games are cross-platform anyway, and by the constantly shifting technological landscape, they'll always look better on PC. 2013 saw players finally realise that: PC gaming's in the ascendency, streaming and graphics technology has hit a sweet spot, and the consoles are breathing their last. Valve thinks the time is right for Steam Box, and I think it's dead-on.