Tuesday, 13 March 2012

OPINION: Is a PC Games Console Really Happening?

Everybody loves the excitement of new console rumors, of eye-melting PC games graphics, open retail platforms and talk of Gabe Newell changing the world once again.

So the mere possibility of a Valve-made PC gaming console, aka 'SteamBox', is cause for celebration.

The long-awaited PC games console lives in the imagination like a beautiful vision springing forth from a light-filled, sky-splitting portal. Gabe, the sacred heart of gaming's salvation, accompanied by polyphonic choral ecstasy.

The intense desirability of this coming is also why such declarations are invariably met with skepticism. Just prior to GDC,a story appeared suggesting that Valve is readying a PC games console (of sketchy nature). IGN's tech editor Scott Lowe followed up with an editorial on how such a thing might make sense, allowing that it faces obstacles. 

What still remains unknown is whether or not it's really happening. 

GDC was to be the crucible upon which SteamBox would be forged, but the game development's annual get-together came and went without a sound from Valve, save a quote from marketing boss Doug Lombardi that the company is "a long way from shipping any sort of hardware." 

This is disappointing news. We're talking about a 'console' based on an open development platform, with no hardware manufacturer fees. You can upgrade your machine. It plays any PC game you care to buy. It's connected to multiple downloadable retail environments. You connect it to your TV. 

It all sounds lovely. Imagine an AppleTV that plays PC games and isn't evil. 

Lombardi's quote doesn't completely rule out some sort of initiative from Valve, but it does add a tempering element of reality to the mix. 

The original story made allusions to low-cost gaming PCs currently on the market but there is a big difference between a cheap games PC and a mass market games console. 

Because if it costs, say the $1,249 of a top-tier Alienware X51, then it's basically a snazzy games PC with the word SteamBox stencilled into the side. It's reduced to a snooze-worthy badging operation between a Dell-type company and Valve. 

But if it's cheap, you have to wonder about the thing's power. Is Valve really going to be interested in marketing a box that doesn'tplay the best in PC games; that's essentially a download station for classics and casuals? Hardly. 

In the great game of getting a box sitting next to the world's TV sets, price is everything. And the things that go into games PCs cost a great deal of money, make a lot of noise and take up a fair amount of space. Suddenly, questions arise about how such a thing is even possible. Sure, Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo have all managed to launch games consoles offering high graphical power (to a greater or lesser degree) but not without enormous cost, global brand recognition and a closed-system business model quite unlike anything Valve might be contemplating. 

    If Valve is repackaging the PC for a consumer market, it's taking on a task that has been the ruin of other companies. Remember Phantom?

Also, traditional marketing is key, a skill-set which Valve has historically treated with apathy, if not outright derision. The company makes great products and people love them. That's the Valve way of marketing; through its enormous community. This is why the company is so damned popular. But in the business of consumer electronics devices, such new-age populism might not be enough, despite what the gurus say about the death of 'old' mass-marketing. 

Perhaps Valve is tinkering with an idea that amounts to little more than a standard for PC manufacturers to 'run with', a baseline from which PC games developers can address the market. But such a thing sort of already exists in the strange ether of PC game development. Valve is not the kind of company to waste time on pedantry. 

If Valve is repackaging the PC for a consumer market, it's taking on a task that has been the ruin of other companies. Remember Phantom? Valve could point to its own massive games distribution network and brand-value, something PC-console wannabes of the past have not enjoyed. But no-one can deny the magnitude of launching any kind of PC-based games console into today's market. 

Analyst Michael Pachter doesn't believe such a thing is going to happen. He told IGN, "It just sounds like a high end PC to me, with maybe some Steam branding, which is fine, but so what? You can brand a PC and call it a 'Steam Box' but it's not a console." 


Warface: Coming to a Console Near You?

We are told that there might be some fancy biometric element to the console. And that Valve will released a real version of its famed patented adjustable controller. All very interesting. but none of this gets us away from the simple fact that PC gaming technology is really expensive, and that PC gaming consoles already exist. They are called PCs. 

These are inescapable obstacles. We hear about the controller, but many great PC games require multiple inputs that call for a keyboard, and although it's possible to sit in from of your TV playing PC games, it is not always ideal. 

There is an argument to suggest that Valve is playing the old razor-blade game. That it can take a hit on the cost of the hardware and reap it back with Steam sales. But this requires extremely active users - who likely already own gaming-ready PCs. And although this strategy is a favorite for the likes of Sony and Microsoft, it's extremely expensive. Finally, getting third-party hardware partners on board makes the whole construct look shaky. 

SteamBox is feasible, but with GDC come and gone without much in the way of market-buzz, it looks less and less likely in the short term. The main argument for such an occurrence is that PC gaming is on a roll and that Valve has a particular talent for puling rabbits out of hats, for surprising us all. 

Once again, this is why we live more in hope than expectation, that Gabe will blow us away with an amazing hardware idea. 


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