The Steam Deck seems to promise a lot of good things for a portable PC. It’s something cool to me: a portable PC gaming machine with enough tech under the hood that I can reliably access my Steam library on the go in a way I can’t with a laptop or other on-the-go PC devices. For someone like me in particular, who partakes in indie games regularly, as well as sharing and talking about them for a publication like Shacknews, the Steam Deck seems like it was made to fit a niche I fill quite well. The only thing that gives me pause is Valve. You see, Valve has only a few hardware wins under its belt and a lot of spotty history with hardware. As much as I would like to believe entirely in the Steam Deck, I can’t help but think both about the history behind Valve and current situations that may hinder the company’s promising new hardware.
Machines, Links, & lawsuits
When considering the misses in Valve’s hardware library, the one that comes to mind most easily is the Steam Machine. Steam Machines were meant to be Gabe Newell and Valve’s answer to their pessimistic view of the direction of Microsoft and Apple’s operating systems at the time and the abysmal Windows 8. It was a Linux-based machine that was meant to provide gamers with a meaningful approach to PC gaming and their Steam library in the living room. What’s more, Steam Machines were meant to be wildly customizable to your needs. It could be as simple as streaming Steam from a PC (a concept that formed the foundation of Steam Link and other, more successful products) to a proper console-sized device, to a bulky PC in your living room that might even run Crysis.
In reality, the Steam Machines at launch were not capable of delivering in the way Valve envisioned. Linux was not quite at the stage where it was good enough for practical consumer use and the groups Steam gave license to create the Steam Machines sometimes didn't load SteamOS with it at all. Instead, many of them loaded it with Windows despite the project's original purpose. As a result, some of those machines were barely capable of tapping into the Steam library. Reliable PC gaming in the living room would continue to be a pipe dream to all but the niche tinkerers for years. The first Steam Machines became available in 2015 and while better machines would come out that were capable of doing what Valve promised, it was only three years before the last of them were removed from sale in 2018.
Arguably, the most noteworthy device to come out of the Steam Machines was the Steam Link. This device was meant to link up to your PC and bring gaming to your TV via your home network. Many users reported that as long as you had a good Wi-Fi network, it did that just fine. The Link did well during its time in production, but the main drawback to it was that it was limited to what it was made for in a way other products like it were not. It became outdated, mostly due to the fact that everything you'd need a Steam Link for was eventually integrated into apps and software that could be loaded into mobile devices or Smart TVs. Valve itself recognized this and discontinued the Link in 2018 in favor of building a Steam Link application for mobile devices and creating a version of Steam Link software specifically for use on Raspberry Pi microcomputers.
Then there’s the Steam Controller. Quite the device, this controller aimed to replace analog d-pads with haptic thumbpads. It was interesting technology in theory. However, its critical flaw was removing the basic functional format of the d-pads entirely to replace it with those thumbpads. They were interesting, but not something you should entrust a primary level of control to. Even the PlayStation, which has been using a touchpad of arguable merit for years, keeps it in the center as an alternate control device. There are people who really enjoy the Steam Controller, but it was just never intuitive and easy to use the way something like PS and Xbox controllers have proven themselves to be.
Heck, even if you did put aside the fact that the Steam controller was unintuitive, that would be leaving out the lawsuit that hit Valve for $4 million from SCUF and Ironberg Inventions. Sued for patent infringements, SCUF and Ironberg successfully argued that Valve had ripped off key parts of their designs in designing the Steam Controller. It was already discontinued in 2019, but that lawsuit made dang sure that Valve was likely never bringing the Steam Controller back in any way, shape, or form.
Not all bad, says the VR sector
It’d be disingenuous or just plain ignorant to say that all of Valve’s hardware history has been a failure, even without the Steam Link saying the contrary. No, the company has actually been quite the player in the cutting edge of VR. Sure, products like the Oculus Quest 2 and HP Reverb G2 have brought some level of accessible VR to players around the world, but when it comes to the cutting edge of VR, Valve has been almost more involved than anyone.
First off, Valve's early experiments in VR design were apparently a foundational part of what allowed Oculus to succeed. According to various sources including Valve chief engineer Alan Yates, Valve lent a key prototype to Oculus, who would supposedly go on to modify the design and create the Rift. Even then, Valve was also playing a major role in helping HTC design the Vive. The first Vive was clunky and difficult to set up (as pretty much most VR headsets of the time were), but Valve’s technology under the hood provided the most incredible functionality and performance as well. Since 2016, HTC and the Vive brand have continued to be one of the most powerful players in the commercial and consumer VR space.
Valve wasn’t content to sit on the sidelines after the Vive though. Gabe Newell has long been an investor into advancement in brain-computer interfaces, so much so that it was one of the few reasons the Half-Life series came back for the spectacular Shacknews 2020 Game of the Year, Half-Life: Alyx. Valve had already helped HTC along, but the developers wanted to use their technology to entirely create their own device, and they succeeded in creating the powerhouse that is the Valve Index. The Valve Index is by no means practical with a price tag sitting around $1,000 USD, but there is arguably nothing quite as good for VR gaming in the consumer space.
That’s the thing, though. Valve has arguably largely innovated in consumer gaming technology and hardware, but the results have either been spotty, limited, insanely expensive and niche, or sued into oblivion. We have yet to see a practically-priced piece of innovative Valve hardware that could provide unique function and versatility past more than just a few short years. If it wasn't a fault of Valve, it was a fault of groups they chose to partner with and the stipulations of those partnerships. However, the point is that Valve's practical hardware just hasn't been built or marketed to sell or stand the test of time.
Valve isn’t above an ongoing tech crisis
Let’s get back to the Steam Deck. Again, this device looks promising. Its specs are quite impressive for the price it is being offered at and the customization and add-on factors for it make it seem as though those who want versatility out of it will be delighted. Even if you don’t want to DIY, the models each look like they will deliver a worthwhile portable PC gaming experience capable of accessing Steam libraries with relative ease. Valve has even been promising that their design of Steam Deck will address prominent problems that other, similar handhelds have faced.
However, for all the promises, there’s another thing Valve isn’t in control of: the semiconductor famine. The Steam Deck sounds wonderful, but Valve is just as much at the mercy of supply and demand as everyone else in the business right now and then some. When you look at the fact that Valve said the first batch of Steam Decks was coming in December, and then pre-orders after that fell back to Q2 and Q3 of 2022, it’s not hard to see that the Steam Deck may be in very short supply for quite a long time. Is that indicative of the overall quality of the Steam Deck for what we’ve seen? Of course not. The baseline models still look good. Will Valve look for cheaper and more available components to meet that challenge? That’s the part I’m curious about because they are already pricing the Steam Deck at a deep loss in order to stir more hardware developers to compete in the portable PC space.
Overcoming challenges of the past & present
I’m not rooting for the failure of the Steam Deck. On the contrary, I pre-ordered it. I want this thing to be as good as Valve says it will be. I want to play PC games and access my Steam library with an easy-breezy portable device. I want to explore new options in covering and sharing the indie games I love so much. I also like the idea of a portable machine that can take on some more modern games reliably when plugged in or docked.
That said, Valve’s hardware history and the current ongoing issues in technology are something that’s going to keep me concerned. It should be something any player should be aware of going into this because we’re all taking a risk. History casts a shadow over the Steam Deck this holiday. I truly hope Valve has what it needs to tally the Steam Deck among the win column this year and keep it in rotation for years to come as practically-priced and versatile gaming machine.
TJ Denzer posted a new article, Steam Deck's promising specs have Valve's hardware history to overcome this holiday
There's some kinda silly stuff in this. I mean for one, regarding the steam controller lawsuit the steamdeck literally has all the same functionality, including the buttons on the underside that were the focus of the lawsuit.
They have modified how the buttons actuate, but that has no bearing on functionality to the end user. There's certainly nothing that would stop them from releasing an updated controller.