Can Valve’s Steam Box Put a Dent in Console Gaming?

I am not a PC gamer.

My cousin, who’s an avid PC gamer, reminded me as much in a passionate email rebuttal to my recent post about the changing battleground of console gaming. His main gripe was that I ‘completely ignored PC gaming’ and its impact on declining console game sales.

And he’s right, I did whiff by ignoring that sector. Services like Steam, Origin, and even Amazon’s DRM-free digital game store have made it easier and (often) cheaper than ever to jump into PC gaming. You can buy a Humble Bundle of smaller indie games for ‘name your price’ and if you own a relatively new desktop PC with a mid-level discrete graphics card, you can play most modern graphics-intensive games such as Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty. In addition, a Fortune article from July 2012, quoted a 230% uptick in PC game sales in May 2012 on the heels of Diablo III’s successful launch. However, the article was also careful to note that the late life-cycle “lull” in the big 3 consoles had also contributed to the short-term spike in PC game sales and that it was unlikely the momentum would hold up long-term.

Yet as much as PC gaming may have found a mini-resurgence, I can’t shake the feeling that PC gaming has to cross a longstanding gulf—from the 19″ monitor in the den or office to the 55″ TV in the living room—before it can complete that comeback. Valve’s upcoming Steam Box is an attempt to bridge that gulf.

The little we do know is that Valve’s Steam Box is slated to compete against the all-in-one convenience and stability of existing home consoles. It will be Linux-based and leverage the existing Steam service. Other early rumors include a biometric controller, ‘gaze tracking,’ and the release of a ‘default model’ made by Valve. Concrete details about Steam Box remain elusive (prototypes will be sent out to developers in three to four months, according Valve co-founder Gabe Newell), so without knowing much, here’s my wish list of things Steam Box must conquer before capturing the living room (or at least co-existing with consoles):

  1. Standardized hardware. No one wonders whether an Xbox 360 or PS3 title will run on its console. If Valve can ‘certify’ its Steam Box to play its games at a minimum baseline level (say, “Unreal 4-certified”), then that would put gamers at ease.
  2. Simplicity. Consoles are literally plug and play. Dead simple. PC gaming can seem inaccessible. Of course Steam Box should offer the option to tinker, but there should also be automatic or balanced settings by default to simplify the experience.
  3. Software. Consoles have long attracted the largest developers and the splashiest launches, so Valve will need to convince developers to create big budget titles on an all new Linux platform.
  4. Integration. Steam’s service (which I use on occasion) has more than 50 million users, which is more than Xbox Live. Valve must leverage this large install base and ensure that all my downloaded games are readily playable on the Steam Box, either by cloud streaming or by digital download.
  5. Non-gaming entertainment. If Valve wants to take on with the big console boys and really be an all-in-one solution, then Steam Box needs to offer the same bevy of multimedia apps like Pandora, Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube that have made the Xbox much more a media hub than just a dedicated gaming console.
  6. Real social gaming. PC gaming has long been anti-social experience—imagine a lone gamer with over-ear headphones in front of a 24″ monitors. Steam Box has to offer social gaming options. Supporting multiple controllers and inputs would be a start.
  7. Openness. Ironic considering I’ve always been beholden to closed systems, but if a PC-based home console is looking to differentiate, it can trade on being an open system that allows users to tinker and mod games, swap out Linux for Windows, or even buy a high-end model made by other hardware-makers (early indications point to an open software platform).

Even if Steam Box nails all of these items and more, I still don’t believe console gaming is in any imminent danger of extinction, but its dominant days may be behind it.

Let me draw a comparison to TV. In the late 70s before cable, broadcast TV dominated the landscape. Then came cable TV. Then satellite. Then came the Internet and it gave birth to Netflix, YouTube, and a host of alternatives, both legal and illegal. Now we can watch almost anything on our portable devices. ‘Watching TV’ as a term is outmoded. It’s about consumption now, however you can get it. No one content delivery method died off, they just learned to coexist.

If I’m Valve or Microsoft or Sony, it’s a battle that I want to win, if not dominate. But as a consumer watching these titans battle it out, we benefit from more accessible gaming options. We win.

In the immortal words of ex-NFL player and coach Herm Edwards:

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