Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. A game gets announced, say maybe an indie game. It’s exclusive to PC, and it looks promising. Then, out of nowhere, the eternal question: When is it coming out on Switch?
Sure, some people might buy the cool game twice. But it’s also just as common for folks to abstain from purchasing any given game until it lands on the quirky Nintendo hardware. I’ve certainly done it, and can think of a handful of instances where I chose to wait for the Nintendo version rather than spending twice the money.
In late July, Valve threw a wrench in that ongoing dilemma. The Steam Deck, Valve’s take on a portable gaming device, doesn’t just let you play games on the go. You could, according to the specs released by Valve, actually run demanding PC games that the Switch just wouldn’t be up to. They’d probably drain your Steam Deck’s battery pretty quickly, and you might have to play at a lower framerate. But still, it’ll be doable.
It’s easy to look at that and go, shit, there goes Nintendo’s biggest advantage—a system that lets you play your favorite indie games anytime, anywhere. But this take ignores the audiences at play in this hardware battle, if not the wider video game landscape.
The Switch Deck, by Valve’s own admission, is pricey. The starting model costs 400 bucks, more if you want faster, larger internal storage. Given the ballooning size of major video games nowadays, especially on PC, some might want the largest capacity possible. But would an average person really spend upward of $650 for the best version of the Steam Deck? I doubt it. You can’t even play Animal Crossing on that thing*, and that’s like half the reason most people get the Switch in the first place.
Fact is, the Steam Deck and the Nintendo Switch are going after totally different consumers. The Steam Deck seems more geared toward “hardcore” gaming folks who’ve already purchased a library of games on Valve’s platform. It seems unlikely that someone would purchase the Deck on its own without an existing Steam account. It is, in other words, an additive piece of equipment—and a luxury one at that, given the price. The Steam Deck appears to be less for the “I’ll wait for the Switch version” crowd and more for early adopters with cash to burn who are already devoted to Valve’s platform.
The Switch, meanwhile, is often used either as a primary console, or a complementary device to other video game consoles. In contrast to its competitors, Nintendo-developed first-party games remain exclusive to the Japanese company; there is no other way to play certain iconic Nintendo franchises. And given the popularity of the Switch, much of the world already has a portable gaming device. Most of those folks probably aren’t going to spend a good chunk of their paycheck on another device that more or less does the same thing as the thing they already have.
For these people, the honkin’ size, added weight, and lack of color options might make the Deck less appealing when compared to the cheery and more lightweight Switch and Switch Lite. And with the $200 Switch Lite only costing half of what a Deck does, what do you think an average person might go for?
But even among so-called hardcore gamers, the Steam Deck’s chances of succeeding are a gamble. Nowadays, thanks to the advent of cloud streaming, you can play modern video games on pretty much any device. You could, for example, play Destiny 2 on your iPhone or tablet via Xbox Cloud Gaming, or pair it via remote play. You might not even need a workaround for major games like Genshin Impact, which are already playable on mobile devices. Though some of the tech isn’t quite there yet, we are already living in a world with a wealth of portable gaming options at cheaper price points. The Steam Deck faces an uphill battle, and given the unimpressive lifespan of Valve hardware like the Steam Link and Steam Machines, its track record doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
The comparisons between the two are shortsighted. If anything, the two devices don’t exist in the same orbit. To hear about the Steam Deck at all, you have to be somewhat plugged into the video game world, or at least have an interest in tech. Likely, you both value and understand the leap in processing power offered by the Deck, or have a vested interest in niche PC games that will never see a console port. In Valve’s introduction video for the Deck, it says that the device was designed for extended gameplay sessions, which sounds an awful lot like “you’re going to mostly play this at home, where you can charge it.”
The Switch does not have those barriers. You don’t need specialized knowledge or interests, nor do you need nearly as much money to get started. You don’t need a dedicated chunk of time, either, with many games designed to be played during small pockets of downtime, or during commutes. In the face of hard-to-find next-gen consoles, the Switch is now the most mainstream video game device outside of maybe phones. Can an expensive PC gaming-adjacent piece of hardware truly compete with that?
For some, the Steam Deck will ameliorate the need to wait months for a Switch release, nevermind being forced to pay for the same thing twice. People hungry for an upgrade and sick of playing compromised games on the Switch may skip the kinda disappointing OLED model and nab a Deck instead. Undoubtedly, some confused grandparents might circumvent both altogether and accidentally buy Elgato’s Stream Deck for some poor, unsuspecting kid.
But the more likely scenario? The person who buys the Steam Deck probably isn’t the same person who is going to buy a Nintendo Switch.