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Steam Machines: missed opportunity from Valve?

Steam Machines will run on SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system.

Last year Valve announced its own Linux-based operating system – #SteamOS – built for living room PC gaming, which would be supported by a variety of #manufacturers.

CES 2014 saw the first wave of Steam Machines, but with it came the feeling of missed opportunity from Valve – for now at least – to make PC gaming more accessible and possibly compete with consoles.

Steam Machines lack the simplicity of consoles, and the advantages of PCs:

Steam Machines could have broken down the barriers into high-end PC gaming, but having 13 different machines on the market – with more set to come – will surely lead to confusion.

AlienWare is one of many manufacturers supporting Steam Machines.

A clear, tiered system of low, medium, high performance devices could have made the choice easier to understand, but right now it’s a mess of specifications, price points and manufacturers.

Cost is also a concern. The entry point mirrors those of next-gen consoles, starting at $500 (£304), scaling up to a whopping $6,000 (£3,659), missing an opportunity to seriously undercut Xbox One or PS4, systems which have a combined seven-million sales in a matter of months.

The SteamOS will be a closed ecosystem – as seen on consoles – which is lacking the advantages seen on home computers, such as outside programs.

While it will support a variety of hardware accessories and media options, that’s only with certain partners, meaning it won’t support the more obscure options out there. It’s also unknown if multitasking and live streaming will be an option.

As for games, SteamOS won’t be widely supported at its launch. Its Linux architecture means Windows and Mac games on the Steam store won’t run on the system, limiting devices to just hundreds of the 3,000 games available.

Valve’s Steam Controller aims to make mouse cursor control possible in the living room.

There will be the option to stream these games from an in-home PC and Mac, but with the fuss of keeping a device around and the worry of lag, it’s far from ideal.

While this lack of support could change with more engine and developer support – especially if Valve is serious about pushing SteamOS – early adopters could miss out on big releases because they aren’t available on Linux.

Where Steam Machines could have an advantage:

SteamOS is an operating system designed specifically for playing games, meaning it won’t dedicate resources to background tasks as seen on Windows and Mac computers.

Valve has said such optimisation has already resulted in better graphics processing, and is now targeting improved audio performance and reduced input lag.

While the variety of manufactured Steam Machines could be confusing, the wide choice available is also welcome, and each machine will be optimised to work efficiently with SteamOS so that the age-old concern of PC games possibility not working could be a thing of the past.

SteamOS is also free, so if you don’t want to buy a pre-built Steam Machine, then you install it on an existing machine – or build your own. The innovative touch-based Steam controller will be available to purchase separately, and existing controllers, keyboard and mouse will also be readily supported.

It’s also important to stress that Steam offers a tremendous platform of games and services out of the gate, the best sales and game variety on any marketplace – from blockbusters, to indies and early access titles – and a vast array of social and game extending features that serve a huge community of players.

The Steam Machine concept is still in its infancy, and will likely only appeal to a niche audience this year.

But like Steam itself, it could rapidly grow with support from developers, publishers and consumers in the coming years, and might bear fruit when next-gen console specifications show their age and those on PC become more powerful and cost effective.

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