There’s no doubt that the kings of the video game industry are still the consoles. Us long time gamers might lament the last decade which saw our crown taken from those console upstarts there’s no denying that they’re the current driving force behind the explosive growth the industry has enjoyed of late. Many of us have been stalwart in our support of our chosen platform however, so much so in fact that the release of Diablo III this year marked the first time since 2010 that a PC only game was the top selling title during its release. Indeed the PC platform has been making something of a come back for a while now and the past year is just a confirmation of that.
A good chunk of that resurgence can be attributed to the wild success of the Steam platform. At any one point there are up to 5 million users using Steam and the total people signed up for it, some 50 million or so, eclipses that of Xbox Live (the most popular online console network) by a wide margin. Of course Valve’s presence in the home entertainment space, a place where the consoles have found a secondary niche, is practically 0. Valve has been aware of this and the recent release of their Big Picture mode was obviously aimed at turning any home media PC into a beach front for Valve’s wide catalogue of games. With many of them being cross platform titles that were built for controllers in the first place it was an extremely smart move by Valve and whilst it won’t have developers jumping ship from consoles any time soon it does signal the beginning of a shift back towards PC gaming, even if it’s with a console like façade.
The missing piece of the puzzle was a curated hardware platform that could function as the next step in Valve’s grab for the home entertainment space. It had long been rumoured that Valve was working on something called a Steam Box which would essentially be a console like device, complete with its own custom controller, that would run some part of Valve’s catalogue of games. When I wrote about it at the time details were scant and I had partly assumed that it’d be some kind of walled garden type device (I.E. constrained to Source engine titles or some other limitation) which had me on the fence as to whether I’d want one or not. Additionally if all the titles on the Steam Box were on the PC I’d have little incentive to play them anywhere else as I’m quite accustomed to the mouse/keyboard as my primary input device.
As it turns out those rumours appear to be true as Gabe Newell said in a recent interview that they’re working on their own hardware platform. Gabe says it will be tightly controlled which I take to mean that the specifications will be fixed like a console, ruling out the idea that it’d simply be a small form factor PC with the Valve logo on the front. Interestingly though he has also stated that others are free to make their own version as well which would indicate that, whilst they’ll be controlling the hardware specs of their devices, you will get the same experience if you simply build your own PC and run big picture mode on the top of it. This also opens up the opportunity for OEMs to make their own Steam Box-esque PCs that are purposed designed to live next to your TV and play high end games. You could draw parallels to the ultrabook segment of the laptop market as they were born out of pressures to make smaller form factors more powerful (and I’ll hazard a guess they’ll be strikingly similar under the hood as well).
I’m still not entirely sure if a Steam Box would be appropriate for me as whilst Big Picture mode is great on my media PC there aren’t that many games that I’d prefer to play on there if they’re available on the PC. That being said I know there’s many people out there who prefer the console experience and making these kinds of bridge devices could well be the catalyst that pushes PC gaming back to the top of the pile. I’m very interested to see what Valve will be bringing to the table with their own curated hardware platform as their Big Picture mode is pretty fantastic and anything built by them around that concept will, hopefully, be just as awesome.