Ever since the Smach Zero (formerly the Steamboy), came out with its release date, price, and specs, I’ve seen it unsurprisingly ridiculed. People don’t believe in the concept of true handheld PC gaming, and don’t believe in this machine’s specs. I wouldn’t call this a full defense of the Smach Zero itself, but rather one of its mission statement. I think all the criticism is based on a misunderstanding of what something like this would actually be built for.
The most important question in all this is “what is the market for a portable Steam Machine?” Let me paint you a picture:
Maybe you’ve bought Axiom Verge on Steam. You really like Axiom Verge and play on your PC it all the time. Imagine you’re riding in a car or a bus somewhere, or are spending time somewhere away from your PC and away from a strong Wi-Fi connection. You bring out the Smach Zero (or some other hypothetical portable x86 machine) on which you’ve got SteamOS and the SteamOS version of Axiom Verge to play for a while. After you get home or whenever you connect to Wi-Fi, Steam uploads your save file to the Steam Cloud. You start playing on your PC again and pick up right where you left off.
Okay, so Axiom Verge has a PlayStation version that’s cross-compatible between PS4 and Vita, so do Rogue Legacy and Mercenary Kings. But what about Celestian Tales: Old North, FTL, Torchlight II, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Armed Seven, Baldur’s Gate, Higurashi When They Cry, Freedom Planet, Oniken, or at least hundreds of other games that aren’t available on modern consoles or handhelds but don’t need a GTX 970 to run? Maybe you bought Rogue Legacy on a Steam sale a year before the Vita version came out and don’t want to pay for it again or lose your progress.
The biggest mistake people are making regarding the Smach Zero or the concept of any portable non-streaming PC gaming device is assuming the manufacturer expects you to be able to play Skyrim or Far Cry 4 on these things. I never had that expectation, and I’m honestly surprised how many people are ignoring everything outside the big AAA games. Handheld gaming has never been about big AAA games. Maybe that’s the problem though.
I think a lot of people critical of this are people who don’t like handheld gaming at all to begin with. That view makes sense for a lot of Americans who spend most of their time either at home in front of a big TV, driving a car, or working. There’s also the nature of handheld games not being as pretty or bombastic as console and PC games. People like this in my opinion also forget that PC gaming is more about choice than anything else. It’s not just about playing AAA games at 60 frames per second in 1440p, but rather the choice to do that or play an indie game on a small system with integrated graphics.
That’s why we see so many indie games with graphics reminiscent of GBA games coming out first or only on PC — not because of hardware power but because it’s the platform that offers the most freedom for those developers. I said in a previous post in 2013 that a lot of the indie games coming out these days are the kinds of games I wouldn’t mind playing on the go. They’ve only become more numerous since then. Oh, and I also see a lot of comments underestimating how many games could conceivably run on something like the Smach Zero. The press release says over 1,000 just based on the number of Linux games on Steam, and I believe it. A significant portion of those will almost certainly run on low-end processors. Another thing people are forgetting is there are Linux games on GOG too, and even today’s portable devices shouldn’t have much trouble running PC games from 20 years ago. I already mentioned old games like KOTOR and Baldur’s Gate, but you’ve also potentially got I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, Tex Murphy, the original Shadow Warrior, Rise of the Triad, Darklands, Terminal Velocity, and more. For those kinds of games as well as the more recent modest ones, the 32GB of storage the Smach Zero advertises is also plenty. Most of the games I’ve mentioned in this post take up a few hundred megabytes at most.
Lastly, since the Smach Zero is a Steam Machine there’s a chance you’ll even be able to install Windows on it. Think that’s insane? Intel already has a Windows stick that costs less than $200 and is the size of a USB drive. And in a previous post I noted how we already have sub-$100 Windows tablets that can run the PC versions of Skyrim and even Crysis at playable framerates.
The critics might have a point though in that the most popular games on Steam may or may not have serious trouble running on a machine like the Smach Zero. Almost all of them if you look at the Steam Stats page are at least fairly hardware-intense 3D games. Most of the PC games I imagine being best suited to portable gaming are either more niche or really old.
A lot of the criticism I see in story comments, forums, and YouTube videos assumes PC or console gamers only want to play games at home, like it’s a mutually exclusive thing. I don’t think anybody should expect the Smach Zero to be your sole gaming device, but instead a secondary one. I like playing games on my big TV too, but I might not be in front of it 100% of the time.
The Smach Zero is not going to be a device for everyone, but I think the audience for something like it is definitely there, even if this first attempt doesn’t become a hit. I think if portable PC gaming isn’t already becoming a thing, it will start happening within the next few years.
- GamesBeat has an article about this. https://wp.me/p5hvhT-7u5T
- Interesting article on the recent Google moves. http://buff.ly/1Non3f8
- Indigenous comic books. http://avc.lu/1P3WhZU
- Vote for Rez HD Xbox One backwards compatibility. https://xbox.uservoice.com/forums/298503-backwards-compatibility/suggestions/8376768-rez-hd