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. :(

13 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Steambox

  1. Honestly, people need to get off Valve’s dick. I really am sick of how much power they have over our industry and how bad they’ve been for consumer rights… we should own our games, not them -_-

  2. The problem for me is the positioning of the ABXY buttons.

    On 360, pressing X then A requires a simple thumb roll, here it requires both thumbs to be removed from the pads. You will lose movement and rotation in an FPS. The back buttons can only go so far to make up for that.

    Anything requiring fast button combos, or something like FIFA would be near impossible to play.

  3. “Dark Souls? Nope, not enough inputs.”
    Seriously, Kayin? I would have thought, with you having played so much DS, that you would have noticed the flaws of its input system by now. Namely, in order to run or dodge, you have to either temporarily sacrifice the ability to manipulate the camera, OR adopt a painful, awkward claw grip. The underside buttons on the Steampad entirely solve this problem, as well as the less prominent issue of switching to dual-hand.

    It’s pretty clear that you haven’t devoted a lot of thought to the way that we interact with our games. Ever since the N64, 3D-style game inputs have clashed with old, 2D-style game inputs for room on the controller’s face. The placement of face buttons and d-pads on the PS3 and PS4 controller are compromises, not optimizations. The steam pad is the first controller that will thoroughly accommodate the style of 1st AND 3rd person camera control which has come to represent the dominant control scheme of 3D games. That means everything from platformers to RPGs.

    For retro emulation, I may stick with my Logitech gamepad, though Meat Boy Dev’s impressions are a minor reassurance.

  4. I actually misunderstood how many buttons this thing had behind it. That said, rear buttons that use the supporting fingers sound terrible for most things. Would definitely be fine for a lot of games I thought it wouldn’t work for.

    But that’s neither here nor there because you’re a scumbag (for reasons unrelated to this conversation) I have no interest in interacting with. Please don’t comment here.

  5. Doesn’t the Steambox have USB ports? It seems like even if the controller blows the box is still functional because you can just plug in an Xbox controller (or USB controller of choice).

    I’m mediocre on Steambox, but I do love the micro console movement as a whole (Ouya, Steambox, Occulus Rift, etc.). The competition is going to be nothing but good for consumers.

    With Steambox especially I can see some cool potential, it’s really nice that you can buy a game once and have it share between your PC and something in your living room (via streaming if not natively). It’s a bit of a ‘lost art’, but I still love couch co-op games and the idea that I can nab say Monaco for my PC (where I prefer to play games), but then hop on a Steambox and play it co-op when people come over. Of course that feature is a bit of a wash if you counter balance it with Valve domination concerns.

    Still in general I really like the idea of consoles that are moving towards parity with the desktop/PC market and the idea of console OSes that can be slapped onto homebrew computers.

  6. Yeah, it’s not going to be the end of the world if the controller blows. Still I have to wonder what the market for whatever they’re going to do is actually going to be outside of the people already invested in PC gaming. I mean this probably isn’t going to be some cheap ARM machine like the Ouya. All signs point to something expensive and they can’t exactly subsidize the thing, because it’s not exactly tightly tied to their storefront and if they did, a ton of us would buy them just to have cheap machines, steam be damned. So I dunno. Still yes, competition is good. While my current state is pretty negative, it does seem like a long term plan, so if this all just starts out as like.. hobbiest/niche stuff, that isn’t necessarily a failure. It’d only be a failure if it remained that 5 years later.

  7. It’s good competition for the Big Three IMO. People who do living-room exclusively now have a steam option, which wasn’t happening at all before.

  8. Considering they probably won’t be competitively price and the software is less than ideal for the living room space, I wonder how many people will actually see this as an viable option who don’t already PC game. I can see console gamers being envious of prices and sales, but if there is a large buy-in still (which there probably still will be) that could be a huge problem.

  9. I don’t see why Dark Souls couldn’t work on a controller like this. I mean, even on a regular X360/PS3/whatever gamepad, you also only have access to the D-pad/face buttons if you remove your thumb from an analog stick. The AB/XY buttons seem more comfortable on the SteamPad, in that light (less distance, and same height as the touchpad). You only have two per side, rather than 4, but the two extra buttons in the back, and the touchpad click being less awkward than L3/R3 should can compensate for that. For item selection and whatnot, the touchscreen could also work well.

    Here, have an example layout (R3/L3 being the underside buttons, R4/L4 being the touchpad clicks):

    Action: L4
    Two-hand: B
    Use item: A
    Dodge: R4
    Run: R3
    Switch items, spells, weapons: Touchscreen
    Target lock: Y
    (Rest is the same)

    Leftover: X, L3. Could’ve saved an extra button if run wasn’t separated.
    I guess you could argue that the weapon switch not being on proper buttons would be annoying. Maybe a modal radial menu for that would work better anyway?

  10. Yeah I messed up with the amount of buttons. I don’t like those stupid back paddle buttons but they should be fine for running and rolling. The rest could go anywhere. Target locking on y would suck but I think you can click the pads so whatev

  11. I think one of the reasons for introducing SteamBox that I didn’t see mentioned here is part of Valve’s effort to “consolify” gaming. One advantage console development has over PC development is the total homogeneity of the devices. If you design a game for the PS3, you will know exactly what capabilities it has, you will know exactly how much load a scene will have at a specific time, and therefore you will have much more power to optimize your game to run well on a machine much older than your average gaming rig. The PC doesn’t have this advantage. Because all PCs are different, you will have no idea what the exact specifications your end user will run your game on. On consoles, you have the luxury of testing your product on the exact same hardware and software environment your end user will be running it on.

    By popularizing(or at least trying to) pre-set “tiered” machines, and writing their own OS, Valve is hoping to bring this advantage to the PC market as well. Then you can just decide what tier steam box you want to develop for, and just get one of those to test your game on. They are attempting to standardize hardware and software for the PC, as it is standardized for each console. This would mean that just like consoles, you wouldn’t need to worry about upgrading your Gaming PC for a pretty long time.
    Releasing their own controller, just like the SteamBox and steamOS, is part of a plan to streamline and standardize PC gaming. (think about it, consoles have their own machine, which are sometimes tiered like the XBOX360 and its arcade counterpart, they have their own OS and their own controller. Valve is trying to create just the same.)

    Most people who just want a machine to play games are most likely just going to buy a console, as for that purpose alone a console is a better, more hassle-free solution. They aren’t as expensive as PCs, and they are as easy as buying one, setting up an account, buying a game, popping it in and playing it.

    Which is why I question why Valve is attempting all this consolification business, when there are machines already made for that purpose. My guess is that their trump card is the easy, standardized development environment of consoles combined with the freedom of customization of PCs all in a living room gaming environment. In any case, if there are people who would be attracted to that, and Valve were to succeed in “consolifying” the PC market, that would eventually end up further marginalizing “regular” PCs to only doing work and development(and only eventually, as existing PC gamers would probably not rush to buy a steambox when they can use their perfectly good gaming rigs, I think this move is mainly aimed at the console demographic starved for the modding capability of PC games, and not at existing PC users, which is where I see most criticism of “why would I want to emulate a console experience on my pc” coming from).

    Just my two cents. Anyways, I recently discovered your site and I really love it. Some of your articles are really insightful, so thanks!

  12. I really don’t think anything Valve could release could consolify PCs. Even tiered, hardware support is going to be a massive pain (as always) as the steam box idea is pretty open. The idea there would be, I would assume, to simply make buying a PC as painless as possible. You’re never going to get console level optimization without a very rigid standard The controller is another matter and yeah, that’s definitely trying to standardize things.Makes sense for Valve since the current ‘standard’ is a microsoft product and Valve seems extra leery about relying on Microsoft. Most people DO kinda have a huge issue with setting up controllers as well.

    Anyways to try and answer that last question, I think while part of it is to extend to the living room (or at least making it an option), a big part of it is trying to stir up a…. stagnant paradigm. Home builds and parts aren’t stagnant, but most ‘gaming PCs’ are a nice dell or something with an aftermarket card and all the ‘qaulity builders’ are… dubious at best. While I am critical of some of their decisions, trying to kick up dirt in the PC space is ultimately a good thing.

    Anyways thanks for enjoying the site. I hope my comment isn’t disappointing, considering the nice big, thought out post you made. :)

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