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Why Valve's hands-off philosophy stained the Steam Machines' big launch

Brad Chacos | Jan. 16, 2014
After more than a year of whispers, job postings bemoaning the lack of innovation in the computer hardware space, and outright teasing, Valve finally-- finally!--took the wraps off its highly anticipated Steam Machine endeavor at CES 2014.

After more than a year of whispers, job postings bemoaning the lack of innovation in the computer hardware space, and outright teasing, Valve finally — finally! — took the wraps off its highly anticipated Steam Machine endeavor at CES 2014.

The grand unveiling was clearly a success. No fewer than 14 PC builders pledged their allegiance (or at least their curiosity) to Valve's quest to drag PC gaming into the living room, powered by Valve's own SteamOS and its funky gamepad. It's hard to remember the last time so much attention was focused on desktop(ish) PCs, much less the last time the PC faithful had some truly exciting news to rejoice in. Yes, Steam Machines were all but a lock for PCWorld's Best of CES awards before the show even got started.

But that said, I just can't shake a nagging sense of disappointment in this first wave of Steam Machines. Here's why.

Laissez-faire in the living room
Most of my concern stems from Valve itself. More than any specific action Valve is taking, I'm more worried about the actions Valve didn't take at the grand unveiling.

"Each [partner's Steam Machine] represents a different take on the right approach for their customers. What's the most useful thing for us to do?" Valve honcho Gabe Newell pondered at CES.

Well Gabe, for starters you could've pushed a clear, differentiated vision for Steam Machines.

One of the major knocks against PC gaming is its complexity. People who just want to sit down and game can pick up a console and start fragging fools immediately, without worrying about driver updates or whether their graphics card can play any given game at a decent frame rate. Steam Machines are competing against PlayStations and Xboxes in the living room — not against hulking, fire-breathing PC gaming rigs. (Hardcore gamers are a comparatively small bunch, and they already have gaming PCs.)

But in its quest for hands-off "openness," in its desire to be the anti-Microsoft of the Windows 8 era, Valve did nothing to make Steam Machines more accessible to the everyman. Instead, the first wave of Steam Machines shown at CES consisted of a scattershot array of hardware, ranging from Gigabyte's itty-bitty Brix Pro with integrated Intel graphics to blinged-out microtowers rocking overclocked Core i7 processors and multiple graphics cards. Which one's right for you? Who knows?

In a 2013 interview with the Verge, Gabe Newell said Steam Machines were being developed on a "Good, better, best" philosophy. "Good" machines are low-cost boxes designed to stream games from your gaming PC to your TV, rather than to act as stand-alone gaming systems. "Better" Steam Machines pack dedicated CPUs and GPUs — Newell said Valve planned to control these specs for the good of the ecosystem. Anything and everything goes in high-end, "Best" Steam Machines.

 

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