Some Walls are Built for a Reason: Windows 10 and Steam Machines

Pre-ordering recently opened for the “Steam Machine:” Valve’s break-out into the stand-alone console market. I’m not sure what to make of it. I look at the thing and I see something that appears to be what would happen if Alienware started churning out tiny Xbox Ones packaged with a $50 controller that has all the sleekness of a half-rotten potato.

I know exactly what Valve wants this machine to be: a way to bring all the benefits of PC gaming to the couch. They’re trying to bridge the supposed gap between console gamers and PC gamers, hoping to sell to the disaffected middle ground. For their goals, this methodology seems to make sense. They’re trying to broaden their market, which is almost always a sound business strategy. At the same time, they’re offering creative solutions to long standing problems with both PC and console gaming.

There are three big reasons why some gamers choose consoles over PCs: price, user-friendliness, and environment. There are probably more but three is a nice number. Here are three on the PC side (which I am firmly a part of): graphical potential, massive back-catalog, and customizability. From the early marketing, it seems like the Steam Machine is designed to take all of these benefits and roll them into one handy little black box. Whether or not it will succeed is another matter.

Steam Machine is just one part of a nascent trend among industry giants of trying to bring console, mobile, and PC gamers together into one big happy blob. The other major player trying this is Microsoft, except they already have a framework to build from, because they already have a stake in both markets: Xbox and Windows. The announcement of Windows 10 came with the announcement that, on the new OS, you can stream games from your Xbox One. Oh, frabjous day. I was just the other day thinking to myself: “Oh, if only there was a way to play games alone on my computer but have them processed by an inferior machine in my living room with the added benefit of server latency!” I’m kidding of course: In all honesty, I can see the practicality for some people in very specific circumstances. Actually, only one circumstance. People who have an Xbox One, a shitty little computer, and godlike internet might just find Xbox to Windows streaming worthwhile. I’m sure that microscopic segment of the market is very excited about it.

(A lot of my opinion on this topic is informed by TotalBiscuit’s Content Patch on the Windows 10 conference back in January. If you want more detailed commentary on this particular gem, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beny_-IJAyE)

More to the point, in the buildup to E3, Phil Spencer has expressed Microsoft’s new cross-platform gaming strategy to PC Gamer. Addressing the absolute shitpile that was Games for Windows Live, Spencer could have been addressing Microsoft’s relationship to PC gaming from time immemorial: “We weren’t fully committed as a company…. We made commitments to developers and consumers that I don’t feel we lived up to. The key difference now is that the Xbox team is driving the Windows and console gaming efforts as one connected ecosystem.” This would suggest that Microsoft’s stance on gaming hasn’t changed: more Xbox. They’re just bringing more Xbox to Windows.

I’m pretty young, but even I’m old enough to remember when PC games were ported to consoles, not the other way around. I remember when games were designed to be played with a keyboard and mouse, and now some PC games don’t even have resolution settings or rebindable keys. I’m sick of this toxic interplay between PC gaming and console gaming. It’s like the exact opposite of a symbiotic relationship: it’s parasitic in both directions. The two markets are taking the worst parts of each other and killing themselves in the process. Microsoft and Valve are pouring resources into blending these two ends of the market instead of better understanding their differences.

People who buy consoles instead of computers do it, for the most part, because a console is cheap, easy, familiar, and they can plop in front of it with their friends and family on the couch for a night of fun. People who buy/build computers do it because they want the precision of a keyboard and mouse, free access to their hardware, and the confidence that a game made in 1994 can be made to run on a computer built in 2015 so long as you’re willing to fiddle with it for a couple of hours, simultaneously cursing and praising DOSBox all the while. People who own both a console (or two) and a PC generally play different games on their different platforms. Phil Spencer said it himself: “While we want to break down the walls between platforms, we also know that certain games are optimized for certain devices.” There is a place for console gaming and PC gaming, so long as both are cognizant of what makes each gaming experience unique and why people run to one and not the other.

I was raised a PC gamer. I never really had consoles growing up. From that perspective, I have never had hope for a Microsoft that gave a damn about PC gaming. Frankly, I don’t need or even want a Microsoft that gives a damn about PC gaming. I, for one, am used to Windows sucking ass. Windows 8.1 is tolerable, compared to the shit I’ve seen. (Vista? 2000? ME? They haunt me.) 8.1 knows when to shut up and get out of my way. That’s all I want from Windows in my gaming experience: for it to shut up and get out of my way. So when Phil Spencer talks about breaking down walls, I don’t see that as tearing down barriers: I see that as a protracted siege on the relative peace and security of a Valve-dominated PC gaming market.

Steam has its many problems, but it almost single-handedly brought PC gaming out of the doldrums of the early-2000s. Microsoft went to war with Sony when the first Xbox came out and in that time Windows kept on with the same old crap. Then along comes Steam and all our prayers were answered. So many games you guys. It was heaven. Even old games! I wouldn’t have to scrounge around abandonware sites or dusty cabinets to find older games that I loved: they were RIGHT THERE. Steam gets flak for its old games not working on modern OSes, but in the 00’s GoG was much less of a thing and toying around with compatibility settings was the name of the game if you wanted to play older titles. Sure, its DRM is totalitarian, but Steam opened up computer gaming in a way that my 12 year old brain just couldn’t handle. I’d rather have Steam dominate gaming on PC than Microsoft: no question. Microsoft had its chance and it kicked PC gamers like me out of bed for Xbox. And so, when and if I upgrade to Windows 10, these gaming features will more than likely be lumped in with all the other useless nonsense that comes prepackaged with Microsoft OSes. And on any computer of mine, Windows default programs are one thing and one thing alone: an invasive species to be culled.

Valve isn’t guiltless though. What’s the starting price on a Steam Machine? $450. The price goes up from there. PS4s and XB1s are going for around $350-$400 right now. I have to ask: What is Valve’s market here? People who already have decent PCs will, at most, be looking at one of their Steam Links to stream games from their PC to their TV. (That’s how streaming should work, by the way. Let the big horse pull the most weight, so to speak.) I can’t see a dedicated PC gamer being interested in a Steam Machine. At the same time, they’re priced so prohibitively that I can’t see a console gamer being very interested in them either. Console gaming is supposed to be cheap and easy. If someone already has a PS4 or an XB1, I don’t think a Steam Machine is going to be for them. Certainly not for a dedicated console gamer, because the whole machine is run through SteamOS and plays games purchased through the Steam client. If you don’t have any games on Steam, you’ll have nothing to play. The only person a Steam Machine will be worth the money to is someone who is in the market for their first gaming platform (or maybe a potential console convert?), but Valve has, to this point, done virtually nothing to seriously differentiate a Steam Machine from the other two “serious” consoles.

So, at the end of it all, you have a machine that a PC gamer surely will not need and a console gamer probably will not want. How exactly is this going to bridge the markets? Obviously, Valve thinks there is a market for Steam hardware: otherwise they wouldn’t make it. I know there are some people firmly in Valve’s corner, but I’m not sure there are enough to make the Steam Machine a real success. I mean, sure, it could pull a Wii U and come from behind to win the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere, but the Wii U was just the next link in a long standing chain of Nintendo success stories. The Steam Machine faces a lot of issues with regard to building its brand and, based on what little promotion I’ve seen from Valve, I can’t say I’m optimistic for its future.

There is a space for console gamers and PC gamers in the industry, absolutely. But, they are two distinct markets who are playing different games in different environments for different reasons. Microsoft can’t mend fences with gamers disheartened with Windows by making Windows more like Xbox Live. If we want to play on an Xbox, we’ll play on a fucking Xbox. On the other hand, Valve seems to have no clear grasp on what console gamers want out of their video games. Valve knows the PC market. And Microsoft knows the console market! So why don’t they work with what they know instead of trying to expand into the other side of the industry? Xbox isn’t going anywhere and neither is Steam. Depth is almost always better than breadth. Gamers are diverse: we want different things out of our platforms. It seems like, when figuring out how to give a diverse market what it wants, Valve and Microsoft forgot to ask us what we wanted.

Cited and Related Sources:

http://www.pcgamer.com/interview-phil-spencer-on-why-microsoft-is-joining-the-pc-gaming-show/

http://store.steampowered.com/hardware

http://www.polygon.com/2015/6/4/8727269/steam-machine-launch-date

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