Steam Machines: What Actually Defines Success or Failure?

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The recent numbers Valve released for sales of the Steam Controller seem to include those that came with Steam Machines, which means from that one can infer total Steam Machine sales to be somewhere under half a million in seven months. It’s pretty easy to call that an abject failure of the Steam Machine initiative, but I have a question to ask about that:

A failure compared to what?

One of the biggest issues with Steam Machines has been public perception of the idea. I think a lot of people have shown a huge misunderstanding of what Valve’s intentions even were with Steam Machines. Maybe part of that is on Valve since its messaging with them was never crystal clear or very loud. In any case, I always thought comparing Steam Machines to consoles in terms of numbers and even audience to be a grave mistake.

I’m not gonna say Steam Machines are a smashing success, but the biggest issues with these numbers is that we don’t know what Valve’s expectations were and if Steam Machines met them. We don’t know exactly what Valve’s hardware partners expected either. The Ars Technica article linked above makes the mistaken comparison to PlayStation and Xbox sales, but follows it up with a likely more apt attempt at a comparison to overall PC sales. I don’t think anybody should have expected Steam Machines to launch like a console with a lineup of launch games and exclusives and all that. I don’t even think Steam Machines should be called a platform. Maybe SteamOS itself, but not the boxes since they’re not really tied to each other. You can download SteamOS separately, you can install Windows on Steam Machines.

So what was Valve trying to do with Steam Machines? I don’t think there are many quotes from Valve itself on this, but the one I remember said something about giving Steam users more options. This whole push between Steam Machines, the Steam Link, the Steam Controller, SteamOS, and Big Picture Mode has been all about PC gaming in the living room. Valve saw the need people were expressing to play PC games on a TV from a couch, and tried to meet it. That’s it.

I’ll admit I myself took Steam Machines to be an opportunity to perhaps appeal to some console users and try to break down the hardware barrier to entry to PC gaming. I still think that’s a worthwhile endeavor: provide people who don’t want to build a PC with relatively simple boxes they can hook up and immediately use to engage with Steam. Valve never deliberately indicated the intention to do that though. All it wanted to do was provide options for playing PC games on TVs.

Arguably the device that actually seems to have accomplished this is the Steam Link. I haven’t used one myself but I’ve heard people say it pretty much does what it promises to do — stream games from a PC to a TV. The one “Steam Machine” I’ve heard people say is alright is the Alienware Alpha which probably benefited from Dell’s backing and got to stand out on its own a bit, not to mention coming with Windows installed. Maybe going with a customized GPU was a smart decision too (did Dell money allow Alienware to do that?). Perhaps they should think about releasing a refresh within the next year with a Rx 480 or something.

In my opinion the biggest success of Valve’s whole living room initiative has been the Steam Controller. Just search it on this blog and you’ll see all the praise I’ve heaped upon it. It’s definitely an adjustment, but not only does it play many keyboard-and-mouse games well enough, I think it’s better than the Xbox controller for most games. Mouse aim and cursor control on a controller might be one of the most important innovations in game controllers we’ve seen in years.

SteamOS is a whole other discussion. It might have had a part to play in the explosion of available Linux games, but It also kind of lost one of its main initial reasons for existing. The fear that Microsoft would change the fundamental nature of Windows and pull the rug out from under PC gaming never materialized, so now SteamOS kind of sits on standby, waiting to see how far Microsoft tries to push UWP.

Whatever you may think of the results from Valve’s hardware push, I think it should be understood that flinging ideas out like this is pretty much how Valve operates. I think I said a while ago that Valve isn’t even really a video game company anymore. It’s a research and development company. It tries things, sees what works, and often tweaks things. Maybe Steam Machines will be forgotten, maybe Valve will just shelve them and quietly tweak the idea for a few years like it did Steam itself a decade ago.

BULLETS:

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