Steam Box? PC Gaming’s Salvation?

Late last week, The Verge broke in with the story that Valve may be secretly working on a Steam powered set top box for the living room based off of Valve’s Big Picture mode they displayed last year at GDC and that the Alienware X51 may have been intended to be one of the first devices released under the Steam branding.

This could go a few different ways, with Valve setting the minimum specifications for a Steam Box and then any other manufacturer building their own and selling it on their own. Could this usher in a revival of PC gaming to the masses which has been slowly on the decline for the past few years? The costs associated with PC gaming as well as the moving target for developers have long been blamed for the decline in PC gaming sales. This proposition of a one size fits all PC for TV option is quite intriguing. The prospect of PCs heading to the home entertainment center raises a few questions though.

If Valve does launch this service with the help of PC partners, (Valve built hardware is not something I see happening) how will they manage to keep the costs competitive with consoles? If anything, this year is the time to introduce a standard of PCs along these lines as the consoles are looking long in the tooth, Nintendo is gearing up for the WiiU launch, and rumors are flying over Microsoft’s Nextbox, this is a great time to bring PC gaming to the forefront of people’s minds as they begin to weigh their upgrade options. The cost is what concerns me. The Alienware X51 starts at $699, a great price for a gaming PC, but $200-300 north of the usual cost of consoles. Not only does Valve have to pack in all the hardware that is necessary, but must also include the cost of Windows. Windows is going to be part of the problem. Not only will the PC in the living room play games, but it will also browse websites, write Word documents and ultimately, get viruses. No one wants to deal with pop-ups and infections on a 55-inch screen.

This presents a problem for Valve and this overall strategy. Even if Valve puts in some heavy customization work to lock down Windows to just the bare essentials and somehow centralize management of the devices so they were in control of rolling out patches and updates, users will either find themselves in Windows at some point or Windows will interfere with what Valve wants, much like how going from Windows 8 metro interface to the desktop is a jarring experience and strange mash-up of old and new.

Even with all the potential pitfalls of this platform, the possibilities are huge, if nothing else, it gives developers a base platform to code for. Part of the problem with PC gaming, is that to account for as many people as possible, developers have to code for the lowest common denominator and then work to scale up graphics options from there so those who can afford the latest and greatest can have the best looking experience. If developers are able to code specifically for a base configuration and include a “Steam Box” configuration option, it ensures that the gamer will be seeing the graphical representation that the developer intended and knows that the game is tweaked just so for their system.

That prospect is exciting. No more fumbling through settings menus and switching the dynamic shadows on and off to see if it makes the game perform any better on your machine. This baseline if you will allow developers and gamers to coexist in a better fashion than they have for the past decade and bring some stability to the PC gaming platform, hopefully allowing it to thrive and grow. Other issues need to be addressed, such as player input, because keyboard and mouse while sitting on a couch hasn’t been done well for gaming yet and would be a major sticking point for many gamers.

Overall, it represents a banner that PC gamers can come together around, and while plenty of gamers will still spring for a PC that’s thousands of dollars and could run circles around any Steam Box, having a low end option that the masses can purchase will do more for PC gaming than anything else. Could this usher in a new golden era of PC gaming? Maybe. One this is for sure, it couldn't’ hurt.

Image Source: IGN