There are at least 13 Steam Machines. Is that too many?


Valve's announcement mock up of Steam Machines. (Valve)

Video game company Valve  finally unveiled the hardware partners that will help deliver Steam Machines into the living rooms of gamers yesterday. And there are 13 of them. Prices range from $499 to several thousand dollars. But is that too many to compete with consoles?

Probably not.

It's true that one of the major benefits of consoles is the plug-and-play factor: If you buy an Xbox One, it will play Xbox One games. Sure, an absolute novice might have some problems plugging it in, but by and large you can go from buying a console to playing it within an hour. (Unless you get stuck downloading a massive update ...) And it's hard to imagine grandparents wading their way through Steam Machine variations to choose the right one for little Timmy -- especially when searching for consoles with just one official version can already lead to confusion.

But while the Entertainment Software Association says 32 percent of gamers are under the age of 18, that leaves that vast majority of them at an age where they don't need to depend on grandma to buy their primary gaming device. And an Xbox One only playing Xbox One games is also a downside: There are many, many fewer games available for each iteration of consoles than in the entire PC gaming library. The Steam platform alone boasts upwards of 3,000 games.

The number of those that are Linux (and thus SteamOS and Steam Machine) compatible is considerably smaller at around 250, but that's still a major step up from the few dozen the Xbox One and PS4 had at their respective launches this fall. And while there were scant details about it mentioned at CES, Valve is also working on in-home streaming that would effectively let players harness the power of their primary gaming rig to play non-native games on their Steam Machines. "For example, a Windows-only game could be streamed from a Windows PC to a Steam Machine running Linux in the living room," a Steam Community post explained in November.

Since Steam  boasts a 65 million-strong user base, who presumably already have at least one machine they're gaming on, that could be a key way for Valve to leapfrog the Linux-compatibility issue while it works with more developers to get games running on their new OS. And one of reasons the Steam distribution and multi-player platform has flourished is the amount of hardware already in the marketplace capable of running the platform. Everyone with a PC is a potential Steam customer.

But having a PC isn't as important as it used to be. For instance, with the rise of smartphones and tablets, it's no longer a necessary component of Internet access. But in Steam Machines, Valve is making a play for the continued relevance of the PC as a gaming platform -- one that is defined by the openness of its product versus the more restricted console marketplaces that currently own the living room.

And Valve CEO and co-founder Gabe Newell attributed the success of Steam to the openness of the PC platform yesterday, adding that "the PC is successful because we're all benefiting from the competition with each other." Given that view, it makes sense for Valve to take a step back and watch customers decide which of the Steam Machines meet their needs.

After all, while Valve has prototype Steam Machines out with 300 beta testers, it doesn't have current plans to bring them to retail. So if some of these variations don't work out, it's not a lot of skin off their back. And they can use the market feedback from this first round of Steam Machines and their own prototypes to inform their choices if they ever do bring a box to retail.

"We'll make what we need to," Newell said yesterday in response to a question about the possibility of future Valve Steam Machines. But he also said "we really view our role in this as being enabling." For now, by bringing the brand loyalty of Steam users into its partnerships with hardware manufacturers, Valve is bolstering the market it already knows how to thrive in -- and offering a way for users to extend an experience they already know they like into the living room.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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