And lo, the promised land hove into view, and the future looked brighter for PC games. First there was the Steam gamepad/controller, then there was the Steam linux beta, after that followed Steam big-picture for a console style interface on HDTV’s, now the final piece of the puzzle falls into place that ties them all logically together. Console hardware. Who will make it, what will it contain, and how will you buy it?
Valve will retail their ‘own’ hardware, it will contain standard PC hardware and software, and you’ll find 3rd party licensed versions.
Valve’s enormous advantage as a new entrant into the console environment is its worldwide digital distribution portal and a huge catalogue of existing games, nothing will deviate too far from this two themes.
1. The official Valve “steambox” will have no optical disk drive, deliberately, as a political statement of intent. That is not to say that 3rd party versions, say a Dell Alienware version, would not be supplied with a DVD drive.
By mid 2013 an average 256GB mSATA SSD will cost around £80, and with that much space you have room for an OS plus system reserved space (say 64GB), eight AAA titles (say 128GB), and eight normal titles (say 64GB). With high-speed internet and a bombproof digitial distribution service people can uninstall and reinstall games at their leisure.
2. The “steambox” will run a pretty standard linux stack, nothing exotic. Consoles derive a lot of their performance efficiency from running very close-to-the-metal, not an option open to Valve if they want to cash-in on the PC back-catalogue.
Games will of course continue to be sold on Windows, and they will continue to be sold on Linux and Mac, but the “steambox” linux will be an customised evolution of a standard distribution, with Steam big-picture as the ‘desktop’ environment. It may well mandate a few technologies such as SDL 2.0, Wayland, etc, but it will be a standard linux stack.
3. The “steambox” will run standard PC hardware, again, nothing exotic. Consoles derive a lot of their performance efficiency from running highly customised hardware, again, not an option open to Valve if they want to cash-in on the PC back-catalogue.
The hardware will need to be capable of running today’s triple AAA titles as a minimum threshold, you cannot introduce a new platform and have the first reaction as; why can’t it run battlefield 3 properly. This is a trade-off between needing an RRP not (significantly) greater than the £450 pricetag expected of the Xbox 720 and PS4, assisted by the low-bar for living-room performance as compared to PC gaming (1080p only, no eyefinity and no WQXGA).
4. The “steambox” is obviously not going to acquire the whole back-catalogue of PC games, as the majority of games in existance use linux incompatible game engines and middleware, and for games out of the support period that is not going to change.
On the other hand indy-games are increasingly being developed and released as cross-platform titles, built from day one with win/mac/lin support in mind, and the increasing use of middleware in games development will only accelerate this trend as licensed game engines will come with linux support out the box. Unity has already got there with v4, how long before the likes of Unreal engine and ID_Tech return to their linux supporting roots?
With Valve’s own back-catalogue of games ported to linux and all the linux native indy-games arriving day-by-day, as well as good controller support in the majority of PC titles thanks to Microsoft’s Games for Windows standard (how weird does that sound!), Valve has a strong following-wind to help launch its new venture. Back to the hardware for a second: how does one create a box capable of getting an average frame-rate of 30fps in Battlefield3 (my chosen representative of AAA PC gaming titles) on medium settings at 1920×1080………………… for just £450?
The following would be required: An ITX m/b with wifi and BT (£60), 8GB of DDR3 1866 (£40) 256GB mSATA SSD (£80), Intel ivy-bridge i3 (£80), Nvidia 650 Ti GPU (£100), controller (£20), and a case and PSU (£40). That comes to £420, and we would want to consider assembly and distribution too, but it all seems terribly achievable.
I believe that Valve will sell the basic branded console at-cost and claim their profit from sales from Steam, but I am sure that boutique vendors who license the “steambox” platform will exceed this price and performance in search of their cut (would they receive a percentage of the steam sales too?). No reason to leave them out, as Steam has little bricks-n-mortar presence, so why not make use of the distribution channels painstakingly built up by the likes of Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc…………
Four other predictions:
a) The controller will have the same basic arrangement of buttons as the 360/PS3/WiiU, to ensure good PC compatibility and ease of cross-platform porting from the console, but to also include motion control
b) Steam has already branched out into application distribution in addition to games, so software is well covered, but I imagine that media in the form of music/video/docs would arrive shortly after any console launch
c) Valve have no interest in hardware other than as a mechanism to consume content bought from Steam, much as with Google with Android, so I anticipate ‘Nexus’ style consoles with Valve expecting PC vendors to compete for the privilege of producing the 201x “steambox”
d) Some form of WINE integration to be included, to allow easy support for must have PC titles like Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft.
I did suggest back in the dawn of 2010 that the following year might well see the “year of linux” finally arrive, and because of Apple and Valve. Obviously I was wrong, but perhaps the error was purely a matter of timing. Steam and 2013 as the year of Linux, anyone?
Update 24/12/2012 – How about that, a few days after the article was posted the first Unreal 3 engined title is released on Linux!
Update 28/09/2013 – Valve have made their three announcements and I am still feeling pretty good about the predictions. ;)
Update 05/03/2015 – two years later and steam machines are listed on the steam website: http://store.steampowered.com/sale/steam_machines