So it was announced that Valve will be working on creating their own living room PC – a ‘steam box’ for under the telly. There’s all sorts of theories out there about it and here’s my own to add to the noise:
This will be a PC-console second, and a cloud-gaming-device first.
Locked Hardware vs. Console Cycle
Consider how limiting and how annoying it is to be tied to the console generation cycle – a cycle that PC owners have thumbed their noses at for decades. A console is locked hardware – and thus simpler to develop for in some ways than the multitude of different PC configurations out there. Having a ‘locked’ PC would bring what was a moving target, back into something easier to work with.
So a locked down PC console makes a lot of sense – it will be the easiest to develop for! It’s got all the ease of developing for the most well known, most openly discussed, least proprietary development environment in the world – coupled with not having to check compatibility with a dozen graphics cards, processors, sound cards and all their permutations.
Cloud vs. Hardware Upgrades
All well and good – but would Valve want to get into the endless race of creating new hardware boxes? Doesn’t it seem like a business strategy out of step with such a PC-focused company? Instead, I propose that Valve’s console will be, out of the box, a ‘cloud gaming’ device, prepared to offer as much of your gaming experience via the cloud as your internet connection can handle.
Instead of having to regularly upgrade your console to get better graphics and the next big upgrade in memory and disk-read-speed – instead Valve will be upgrading their cloud hardware, and users will be naturally upgrading their internet connections. That same connection that enables their Netflix habit, or their Skype chats, will seamlessly improve their gaming experience.
Of course, out of the box, the Valve PC will be a competent PC-console that will be able to play a great many games (no doubt using Big Picture Mode – introduced now so developers can get used to it) but I suspect that’s just the foot in the door.
Cloud Gaming Problems
Of course, cloud-gaming is not without its issues. It requires some serious bandwidth and hardware on the cloud end of things – something that Valve has been getting used to with Steam. A few companies made a splash last year with cloud-gaming offerings – then disappearing without much of a to do. OnLive mysteriously bought itself out, firing most of its staff in the process, while Gaikai was bought out by Sony – an action that won’t have been missed by the big players.
Valve’s no stranger to muscling in to a lightly-tested water, and then just toughing it out until everyone loves them – Steam used to be a dirty word, after all. But here’s the dream:
Everyone and their cousin have their Steam Box under the television – it’s been sat there, quietly whirring away, for years now, except for that one time it was sent for simple refurbishment. Jenny Random finishes watching the latest episode of something on Netflix, and changes channel to Steam – Big Picture sat there waiting for her. She picks up the wireless controller and flicks around for a new game to play – finds one and pays for it. There’s a brief blip of confirmation, and she can start gaming immediately – on the cloud.
The graphics look amazing – she upgraded her internet connection last week (yay for Google fiber!) and the little Steam-box, talking to the Steam Cloud, have detected that and ramped up the settings on all her cloud games to match. No hardware upgrade needed on her end – it’s all seamless – whatever her internet pipe can handle, Steam will give her.