Whatever a "Steam Box" Means to Video Games, Only Valve Knows for Sure

Steam Box. Gabecube. Steam Engine. And, of course, Orange Box. If Valve Corporation is planning to offer a so-called PC gaming "console," the gaming community has already focus-grouped the brand names for it. "Companion Cube" would also seem to be perfect.

Nothing is confirmed. Valve's intentions in hardware are as opaque as its timetable for Half-Life 3. So the potential of the "Steam Box,"—if it exists—spans the range of niche product to the label everyone in this industry seeks: game-changer. It depends greatly on Valve's actual willingness to enter the hardware market, its aggression once there, and its leadership in establishing a standard specification for PC gaming. Those are three huge variables.

But if it is real, the Steam Box could become a disruptive force that moves console video gaming sooner, not later, into digital distribution—the market Valve dominates.

A deep breath is necessary. Valve is widely admired by gamers, and has put in the work to legitimately earn their goodwill toward its new endeavors. But rooting for the Steam Box to exist and change the face of gaming, simply because the company is well-liked, doesn't inform the discussion of what it could actually do.

This is tough to imagine because it starts with the realization that the "Steam Box" doesn't appear to be something that serves any direct need facing the committed PC gamer, and therefore biggest Valve advocate. The specifications for it are not only ones they already have (or surpass) in their current rigs, they point to an expensive consumer device, and even resemble products currently available, such as the Alienware X51. It's hard to pin down what constituency this would either create or serve, or what their disappointments would be if the PC gaming "console"/not-really-a-console falls short of that.

But it conceivably could touch every aspect of video gaming—PC gamers, console gamers, third party developers, the major publishers and console makers. Let's start with those who know Valve best.

PC Gamers

Valve may be, in the long run, trying to create more customers of its Steam marketplace, but it should also want to create more products that marketplace can offer. Developing for a wide range of hardware is one big turn-off when studios and publishers consider whether to offer a PC edition; securing the game's code in an open platform is the other.

First, if Valve starts setting the industry standard for PC games development, while that gives some needed structure and incentive it could also erode some of the benefits of the current arrangement. Major publishers would, theoretically, start building to Steam Box standards. That could mean everyone has to upgrade their PCs whenever Steam Box 2.0, 3.0, etc. rolls out its next model even if, as some have speculated (or hoped), Steam's console has swappable and upgradable components. At some point, a PC gamer may decide he doesn't want to spend a bunch of money on a new (or upgraded PC) but would prefer to keep his old one—they do, you know, a lot more than just play games—and just switch over to a Steam Box as his primary option.

Whatever a "Steam Box" Means to Video Games, Only Valve Knows for Sure
A small form-factor PC built by a Valve employee, rumored to be a "Steam Box" prototype.

Also, a GabeCube might deliver a quasi-closed system. I am really curious what in a PC gamer's existing library could be played on the Steam Box. This would seem to be the biggest pitfall arousing the loudest complaints among hardcore gamers. If they're eventually nudged in the direction of picking up this box that's setting the agenda on their platform, will they be able to bring over everything they already own, and how?

Because if a Steam Box being built for new customers, new customers may not care that they can't import into the system the games they play outside of Steam or another download service, such as Electronic Arts' Origin. That may mean all it can play is something validated through such a service. It may also give rise to special "Steam Box" copies that, even if Valve chooses not to build them, another publisher might. And then we can really go down a rabbit hole, imagining special DLC incentives designed to get everyone to buy the secured, standardized Steam Box edition instead of an open-platform PC copy. Who knows.

Here, also, is a huge question: If the Steam Box is closed or even partially so, what does all this mean for mods and the modding community, too? Is that hard work going to be playable on a Steam Box?

While an aggressively marketed and supported Steam Box may restore some heft to PC gaming in its rivalry with the consoles, it might also mean the platform ends up eating consoles' leftovers more often. Everyone loathes shitty console ports to the PC. Who knows what platform a developer will be building for primarily, or if a Steam Box offers enough incentive to build a version of their game for it specifically (or even exclusively). It may create new incentive to deliver games to the PC platform but it does not assure they will be PC-game quality. Shitty console ports may be fine for the newcomers served by the Steam Box's launch. If the mainstream PC gamer is dragged along, they'll be infuriated.

A Steam Box may restore some heft to PC gaming in its rivalry with the consoles; it might also mean the platform ends up eating consoles' leftovers more often.

And then there are concerns about what type of games are best supported by a Steam Box, and whether some genres will wither because of it. The Steam Box is rumored to have a standard, twin-analog controller. For certain it will support keyboard-and-mouse gaming but is that something you can or want to do from your couch? It's a pain in the ass when I stop to pick up a wireless keyboard in DC Universe Online. This is commonly described as a set-top box, meaning it's going to plug into the TV. While that's fine for shooters and third-person action titles, what does that mean for RTSes? If RTSes are further niched—a PC title that's not optimized for its leading platform—will they continue to get robust development attention?

That's all the doomsaying. The good news is it could be a huge catalyst for independent games development. While Microsoft has the Xbox Live Indie Games channel and some of its offerings have been quite good, it's still a subset of the Marketplace and viewed as "less than" next to full Marketplace titles. Xbox Indie Game developers also have to use the XNA toolkit. Indie games offered over Steam don't have that restriction, and giving them console-quality exposure could deliver some really heartening results for the passionate gamer.

And finally, as the resident sports guy, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that a surge in PC games development overall may revive the sports simulation genre on that platform. As most of these deals are cut with console distribution in mind, a robust PC alternative could reinvigorate competition in a genre that confronts video gaming's most expensive licenses, many of which are exclusive, either by contract or by the high barriers to development on consoles.

The Big Three

Technically, there's a "PC Gaming console" available already, and it goes by the name of OnLive. The difference is the games it plays are stored and rendered in the cloud, which poses its own set of technical limitations (a 3 Mbps or higher wired broadband connection, for starters). For consumers, no one is downloading the games and playing them off of the unit itself. And for games makers, OnLive isn't so much a console as it is a broker, and doesn't present much incentive to develop for the PC platform.

One of the biggest points in the rumors surrounding the Steam Box is that developers could build games without paying a licensing fee to the platform maker. This is a console in appearance and name only; it's still a personal computer. But if people can afford it like a console and play it like a console—and a traditional controller is said to be part of the package offered—the absence of licensing costs makes a Steam Box an immediate player in an environment that's looking at rising development costs when the next console generation launches.

The absence of licensing costs makes a Steam Box an immediate player in an environment that's looking at rising development costs.

If Valve (and Electronic Arts, whose Origin service would not be locked out) start raking in cash even marginally attributable to the Steam Box, everyone's going to follow that ball. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo will be competing not only with one another, but also for developers and publishers who figure their game can make plenty of money without the distribution costs of physical goods, and the vig paid to the console maker on top of that. Something's got to break down here.

The rear-guard action would be to buy up studios and invest more in first-party exclusives and, as Microsoft is often accused of doing, paying premiums to ensure their consoles get exclusive or preferential treatment. This is expensive and unsustainable long-term. Near term, the PS3 has probably the most diverse library of quality exclusive titles right now. Nintendo's first party development is also strong, but a lot of that is by comparison to how weak third-party offerings are for its platforms. Both are better positioned than Microsoft, which also publishes to the PC more than its rivals, and would have to make a choice in whether it wants to release a game someone could play on what is, essentially, a direct competitor.

And then there's the fact of Valve's own software offerings. Let's not forget, that company comes to the table as a maker of great video games, well loved and rabidly desired. Its top franchises are primarily developed for and supported on the PC. While holding, say, Half-Life 3 as either a PC exclusive or a timed exclusive to drive sales through Steam would be an act of aggression inconsistent with its current reputation, Valve has gotten away with things for which other publishers would have been excoriated (last year's nakedly rigged "early unlock" of Portal 2 comes to mind.)

And What About Apple?

Valve boss Gabe Newell is wary of the growing influence Apple wields through its tightly-controlled app stores for the iOS and Mac OS platforms. While Apple is nowhere close to having the influence over mainstream PC video gaming that Valve does, it is an agenda-setter in how it has set up the App Stores it runs for the Mac OS and iOS devices. They are tightly controlled, highly profitable, and immense corporate assets.

A Steam Box may be Valve's foothold against Apple's further encroachment into traditional gaming. Remember, Apple did design a console (the Pippin, produced by Bandai, released in 1995) and has been rumored to be interested in taking another crack at it thanks to the particular success of iPad gaming. Though the company certainly has the resources to barge into the PC gaming space if it wished to, let's not forget that in hardware, Apple is a company that proceeds cautiously and wants to preserve a winning streak going back to the iPod, which has cemented its status as a tastemaker.

Still, a Steam Box could simply be Valve shoring up its position against Apple. The list of features in Apple's "Mountain Lion" OS show how the company is willing to take on some players that are the go-to service for what they offer (Adium, Dropbox), but not others (Twitter). The size of the competitor has a lot to do with it. A Steam Box could be not a visionary device but essentially an insurance policy, bulking up Valve and keeping Apple from moving further into the deeper gaming experiences that Valve sells and provides.

If so, then a lot of the game-changing speculation I have offered above may be inoperative. All of it may be inoperative. We simply can't know yet. This bears watching.