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Valve’s Steam Console – Why It Could Revolutionise Gaming

Dave Cook

NowGamer Team Blog


Valve is rumoured to be working on a Steam console, but would this be a guaranteed hit for the developer? We weigh up the evidence.

Published on Apr 18, 2012

 

Valve has already conquered the realm of digital PC game sales through its Steam service, but recent rumours suggest that Gabe Newell and company are looking at taking on the console market as well. 

Although Valve has staunchly debunked claims that it’s developing a console, computer engineer Jeri Ellsworth recently tweeted “I’m working at Valve on next gen gaming hardware”. 

Now, either Ellsworth knows a whole lot that the rest of us don’t or he’s a massive troll. True or not, recent rumblings in the industry are pointing towards some kind of hardware interest at the studio. 

On the face of it, a Steam console sounds like a great idea. The games on Steam are affordable, there’s no subscription fee, the selection of titles is vast and there are tons of big name studios already on there, not to mention giving indie developers a viable platform to peddle wares.

When Steam launched in 2003, it quickly became a go-to storefront for digital PC games. With retailers reeling back PC stock to only the biggest of triple-a releases over the years, where do you go to buy your PC games? For many, the question is a no brainer. Steam of course. 

Many gamers believe Valve to be infallible, and I don’t mean to sound like I’m poking fun at these people for thinking that way. After all, I’m also a big fan of Valve’s work, and the studio’s track record for producing critically acclaimed and influential IP is without question. 

Industry giants like Activision and Nintendo aren't immune to tough financial times.

But these are tough times, and it really doesn't matter if you’re Valve, Blizzard, Activision, or EA – every business decision, especially when a lot of money is on the table, is a huge risk, especially as the industry is in the middle of a transition between physical and digital media.

This sea change has led many companies to try and figure out the best way forward in terms of how gamers invest in, store and digest content over the long-term. Luckily for Valve, Steam is a service that has already cracked all of the above and more. 

Not only would a Steam console open up all of the content on the service to those who prefer to enjoy gaming through their television rather than a PC monitor, but it would consolidate the work of countless big name and indie publishers into one, affordable single format. This makes absolutely sense.

But where the idea falls down – for publishers, not Steam – is that companies might balk at the prospect of Valve making a cut off every single game sale. This reluctance to share could have been the catalyst for EA’s Origin service, and the notable absence of Mass Effect 3 on Steam. This is a bad move on EA’s part.

Mass Effect 3's absence from Steam may have been a bad move by EA.

So what if Valve would make a profit on each digital copy of Mass Effect 3 sold on the service? Steam’s install base is so vast that EA would stand to make a truck load of cash regardless, reach a higher audience than Origin ever would. Launching a Steam console would only widen that audience and result in more potential customers.

This is why third-party support of a Steam console would likely skyrocket. As a purely digital service, publishers would be free to set their own price points and neutralise the threat of physical preowned sales in one fell swoop. As ever, money is the key issue, and should digital become the norm, that issue would begin to fade for many. 

It seems a tad premature to suggest that Valve’s alleged console would simply replicate the Steam service as it exists now, after all, the studio never does things by half. Looking at the way Sony and Microsoft handles digital content could be an indicator of where Valve could go.

Both PS3 and Xbox 360 have expanded digital offerings that encompass apps like Netflix, Zune, YouTube and Facebook. Valve would do well to add these features to its console as well, but giving indie developers the chance to submit their own apps would be a real coup. 

Never underestimate the staying power of indie developers.

In fact, Valve’s approach to home grown development would be real boost for indies, giving them a cheaper and relatively risk-free way to tap into the home console market when compared to Sony or Microsoft. 

The potential influx of innovative and insightful indie content in the console market through a Steam console would be invigorating, and widen the range of new experiences available at home. There is however, one problem Valve would have to overcome first.

By nature, we all have our own, differing tastes and approaches to how we buy and play games. Ask Mr or Mrs. “I only buy Call of Duty every year” if they would consider buying Steam console, and chances are they’d say no, and that’s perfectly fine as well.

Steam – no matter how profitable and prolific it is among the PC massive – is still a single format entity that is yet to encapsulate gamers who shy away from PC gaming in favour of consoles. To crack the industry at large would take something massive, something revolutionary. Something like Half-Life 3.

Half-Life 2 debuted exclusively on Steam and made millions aware of the service’s existence, so it’d make sense for Valve to debut Half-Life 3 on a new console. Would you buy a Steam console if it was the only way of playing Half-Life 3? I know I would.

Alright, stop drooling please, your keyboard is getting sloppy.

Another thorny issue surrounding a Steam console is DRM and other security measures. Gamers who tend to get upset by DRM might not take to a console that potentially demands it, and the recent uproar over Namco’s approach to DRM in Dark Souls is testament to this.

Some people might not use a Steam console at all, especially when Steam on their PC delivers the same basic service. But Valve doesn't exactly have to win those people over, they’re already sold on the concept. It’s the wider market that Valve needs to convince.

If a Steam console is cheap, boats the same catalogue of games and retains its strong third-party support , Valve could just be the most significant player going into the next wave of consoles. Sony and Microsoft would really need to step things up a notch to compete.

But with rumours of Sony and Microsoft looking to really push digital content into the next-gen, it’s clear that both companies realise that the change is upon us, and are starting to adapt to what lies next. 

Coaxing PS3 and Xbox fans away from their hardware of choice would be a tall order, but Valve definitely has the financial clout to come up with a format that captures the imagination and wallets of the masses, and again, Half-Life 3 as a launch title might grease the wheels a little. Make it happen Valve yeah?  

 

 

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