By Grant Brunner @ExtremeTech
Only a few weeks ago, the so-called “Steam Box” was confirmed by Valve’s managing director Gabe Newell as hardware designed to play well in the living room with big screen TVs. Now, more details are being given by Valve engineer Ben Krasnow. Unsurprisingly, this new machine will be running some variant of Linux, and will be unveiled publicly later in the year at a large gaming event — most likely the Game Developers Conference (GDC) or the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).
Updated: Valve is actually showing off a Steam Box prototype at CES.
German technology site Golem is reporting that Krasnow let this information looseto a crowd at the EHSM conference late last month in Berlin. None of this is shocking, but it’s a good sign that Valve is being relatively candid about the future of this product. While the next generation of consoles from Sony and Microsoft are expected later this year, a dedicated box from Valve just might be what the stagnating console business needs.
The time between the original PlayStation and the PS2 was just over five years, and the gap between the PS2 and PS3 was even shorter. The 360 came out only four years after the original Xbox. The current consoles are long in the tooth — the Xbox 360 is now in its eighth year, and the PS3 isn’t far behind. This extremely long gap between console generations hasn’t been seen by the big players since the early 1990s. This allowed PC games to surpass the quality of console games by leaps and bounds. Even in a graphically hobbled state, most multi-platform games run poorly on the consoles. A game like Far Cry 3 runs beautifully and smoothly on a modern PC, but it stutters noticeably on the Xbox 360.
Valve has been focused heavily on promoting its Big Picture mode in Steam. When enabled, this fabulous 10-foot interface for the Steam storefront and library allows you to use an Xbox 360 controller to launch and play games quickly and easily. Valve has also been aggressively promoting games like The Walking Dead,XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and Black Ops 2, all of which have strong support for gamepads. AAA PC games have been excellent at shipping with controller support in the last year or so, and we can expect Valve to push that even harder when the Steam Box comes to fruition. It’s clear now that this Big Picture UI was an important first step for Valve’s future.
We’ve seen Valve do amazing and disruptive things before. For all intents and purposes, digital distribution was completely nonexistent for big ticket games before Valve blew the doors off with Steam. Now, it’s common to see digital releases at the same time as boxed copies — even on consoles. In 2013, the idea of shipping bits on plastic discs seems silly. Valve has come out heavily against the direction Windows 8 is going — the closed, Microsoft-governed Windows Store — and it clearly intends on making Linux gaming a comparable consumer experience.
If it can pull off cheap, powerful hardware while persuading other game companies to jump ship to Linux, the Steam Box might serve to disrupt the console and PC gaming markets simultaneously. It’s no small task, but many longtime gamers are hoping Valve can do the impossible.