Here’s why Valve will struggle in the console market

September 27, 2013

Is Linux the future of gaming? And would that be a good thing? (Valve)

Valve has been making big waves this week with a series of announcements related to its planned  line of "Steam Machines," consoles running the company's own Linux-based Steam OS. A third announcement is pegged for this afternoon, around 1 p.m., Eastern.

The new OS could give Valve and Steam an easy way onto the living room television -- no hooking your computer to your TV required -- which is still the most-watched screen in the average American home.

But it's not obvious that Valve's strategy will work. Breaking into the console market is harder than it looks. By throwing its weight behind Linux, Valve could further fragment the gaming market, confusing users in the process.

Valve hasn't released any information on how it's partnering with manufacturers, but it appears that it doesn't really care what tweaks or requirements it makes for its Steam Machines. On its page of frequently asked questions, the company has said that people can build their own boxes, hack more official ones, run other operating systems, change Steam Machine hardware or even build robots with the OS it's putting out.

That's good for openness. But it's not necessarily good for developers or for consumers trying to figure out which console plays which games. Even if some systems are similar to Linux -- Sony, for example, uses some UNIX for the PlayStation -- developers will still have to tweak their games to support Steam OS. The small number of console options has a silver lining: Developers always know what the hardware on a machine is going to look like.

Without exerting a little control, Valve could run into the Android problem of having too many flavors without offering absolutes to developers or consumers about what content will be able to run on which devices. That alone could slow adoption of its platform, and it's hard enough to gain a following in the first place, as Sony chief executive Kazuo Hirai noted in a Bloomberg story earlier this week.

“It’s really difficult to try and build a platform business,” Hirai said. “I’ve managed it personally, so I know it’s a gradual process, not an overnight thing.”

For his part, Valve chief executive Gabe Newell has never been bashful in promoting Linux, with its open platform, as the future of gaming. In a speech at LinuxCon last week, Newell said that platforms such as Apple's App Store create unnecessary friction that prevents good games from getting into the hands of players. He's also said that opening up game development to the larger community -- as Valve has for aspects of its games such as Team Fortress 2 -- ends up producing some of the most interesting content.

(Newell's full 23-minute talk is here.)

Valve is at an advantage over a firm like Ouya, thanks to its built-in customer base. And if anyone can foment a revolution for consoles, Valve is the company to do it. But it will also have to offer something really exceptional to persuade a substantial number gamers to go over those hurdles and onto the Linux revolution.

If Valve succeeds, it could upend the current landscape of the console world, which Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo pretty much have on lockdown. That would be better for independent developers, some of whom have struggled to get their games onto the big three consoles.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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