Thoughts on the Steambox

Honestly, I have not been a fan of Valve for quite some time, so I might be a bit bias here, but I am truly mystified by a lot of the Steambox stuff. I can’t say it won’t succeed — because people are crazy and love Valve unconditionally — but this doesn’t look like a gaming future I want. Though Valve is also the company that says the future of gaming is vast economies of user generated content. That’ll probably make em’ (and creators) a bunch of money, but look, I played Second Life. Thats a future of mediocrity, sustained only through microtransactions and I see no reason as a consumer to be excited for it. But I digress.

First, the controller. The only positive thing I can think about it is that Tommy Refenes saying it’s okay. Tommy is one of the few people picky enough for his opinions to matter to me, but I really need to hear more thoughts from people I can trust before I can totally be on board. Honestly the trackpad part seems clever and I can see it working well in a variety of ways, but the button situation still seems dubious. People keep saying you can map the right pad to be buttons and use magical haptics to make it work, but that still sounds less to idea. You have a controller that can play FPSs (Valve’s genre of choice) possibly better than a modern gamepad, but still in a player pool of people playing on Mouse and Keyboard. You can play mouse driven games like strategy games, but the faster the game is or the more keyboard commands it needs, the less likely it is to work. Maybe the screen-buttons thing will totally fix that? Tommy can play Super Meatboy on it but it still seems less than idea for platformers. Any 3rd person consoley game fails due to the lack of buttons (this case, not because of tactile reasons, but literally just from not having all the buttons necessary to do so). Dark Souls? Nope, not enough inputs. Hell, going back to FPSs, I was watching a cousin play Battlefield on the 360 and it too basically used every input possible down to the d-pad. You can offload that stuff to the screen or the side 4 buttons but that doesn’t make it ergonomic or enjoyable (not that using a shitty d-pad for stuff is great either, to be fair).

Atop that, with all the fancy haptic stuff and the touchscreen, the thing looks like it’s going to be hella expensive. You could maybe force this sort of interesting design choice with a real console. Bundled and with games designed for it, consoles can get away with a lot… but even if a non-bundled product is super successful (The Kinect, which made oodles of bills) designers are still loathe to design content for it. This is the whole reason the One is forcing you to have a Kinect — only by doing that will designers consider working with it seriously. But that isn’t the case at all for the steam controller. In fact it’s many times worse. It will be a weird, likely expensive controller in a market loaded with cheap controllers that are still pretty good and the 360 controller which (despite my personal taste) is a defacto standard. Even if a lot of things are as good as we can hope, this still seems like a niche product for people who wanna play 4Xs on their TV.

Then there is the OS. I got mixed feelings here. Valve is pushing for linux and there is a part of me that goes ‘that’s good’ (I like linux, even if i’m not a regular desktop user) but it seems like a push that’s not ‘necessary’. Windows 8 wasn’t nearly as closed as we feared and seems to be backing up a bit in 8.1. We also know old versions of windows can last an eternity out in the wild. 33% of windows computers run XP and while a lot of this is probably corporate, I’m sure we know many people who still run XP. That’s 12 years old. Then again, any push Valve takes for Linux will probably take a long time (not necessarily 12 years but.. years) so…. I dunno. It’s not like they have a choice though — if they’re going to do an OS it basically HAS to be linux or they’re only making their problems worse. That said, I’m still not sure where the appeal is going to be outside of curious enthusiasts, at least for now. Streaming from desktop is kinda neat, depending on how good it runs. I wonder if such a feature will remain SteamOS exclusive? It doesn’t seem like it’d need to be and Valve, to their credit, does tend to be the type of company that would try and deploy a feature everywhere. That said, it’s linux, so there isn’t much to say here outside of I find it a little scary as a developer, but I probably won’t have to worry about it for awhile.

The Steambox stuff doesn’t sound all that impressive. It’s commodity parts in a fancy case running their OS. Especially when people are going to be more likely to be streaming games from their PC than run native linux games (lol) the specs seem like overkill. The machine its self offers nothing special so unless they sell it at a loss to try and get SteamOS adoption up, it looks basically no different from anything else. You could probably just plug a laptop in through HDMI and get the same play experience. This also gets to the whole ‘play in your living room’ thing. I’m bias here again — I have no fondness for ‘the living room’. I haven’t gamed ‘in the living room on the couch on a saturday morning’ (thanks Phil Fish) since probably the NES. I got a TV in my room in time for the SNES and that was it. Still, we have a solution for gaming in the living room. We have consoles for that. They’re almost certainly cheaper than the steambox will be, and the games on them are designed for their controllers and are also designed to be viewed at a distance. The language of interfaces is different for ‘TV at a distance’ than monitor (I mean, why else would we need something like Big Picture?). So you would, in theory, pay more money to buy a library of games that don’t even necessarily support the controller your system came with to play games that are visually not designed to play that way. I know there are people who wish they could do that anyways, but in general, that does not seem like a particularly impressive value proposition when the other living room gaming options are more stronger experiences.

So I’m not really impressed or looking forward to anything they’re doing right now (besides SteamOS a little maybe? It’s good to have a big developer invested in linux) but hey, Valve is magic so everyone might buy whatever they sell regardless. :(