Steam Machines represent a bold future for PC gaming. One where PC games are played alongside console games in the living room. One where Windows isn't the only game in town. Except this dream will remain in the far off future long after Steam Machines officially launch this fall.
There's No Such Thing as a Steam Machine
If were to define what a Steam Machine actually is, it's any computing device that's running SteamOS as its primary operating system. It's also likely to be using the Steam Controller. That obnoxiously broad definition is all there is to it, and that's why Steam Machine prices start at around $480 and go up to $5,000 or beyond. SteamOS is still in beta right now, but the final version is expected to be available for free. The Steam Controller can be purchased this November for about $50. So, practically any computing device can be a Steam Machine. Just download and install SteamOS, then pick up the controller, and you have yourself a Steam Machine.
This broad approach could be benefit or hurt SteamOS's chances for success. It certainly does nothing for officially branded Steam Machines. The idea that something can vary in price by thousands of dollars, but are all still "Steam Machines," might be a lot for non-PC gamers to process. Although consoles like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have different models, they only vary in price by a few hundred dollars. Prices are defined by different hard drive sizes and optional accessories like the Kinect. The rest of the console's components remain consistent from model to model. Consoles also have a consistent look, in stark comparison to the wildly different Steam Machines that are being offered. Diversity is great, but it's tough to sell someone on a gaming based on abstract features.
Right now, no manufacturer can answer one fundamental question: If you're going to spend a thousand dollars or more on PC gaming system, then why should it be a Steam Machine? The truth is, unless you have an extremely high disdain for Windows, or you absolutely need system dedicated to running Steam, there's really no reason to pick one up.
One could argue the performance benefits of having an operating system that is solely dedicated to running games, but the position wouldn't hold much weight until SteamOS is out of beta and benchmarking comparisons can be made.
You could also say that the benefits of SteamOS are similar to how Chromebooks run ChromeOS. Except that ChromeOS machines don't have the huge price gaps and designs. Performance expectations are radically different compared to SteamOS, and ChromeOS has a more unified experience compared to its PC and Mac counterparts.
It's Still a Windows World
But the biggest challenge Steam Machines and SteamOS face is the fact that PC gaming is pretty much synonymous with Windows. Even though Steam is a big part of the PC gaming community, and it is always adding new features, it can't match the versatility of a Windows environment. Plus, a Steam Machine wouldn't be representative of PC gaming, since it would only be able to play a small fraction of what's available.
When it comes down to it, whether or not Steam Machines succeed rests mainly on how quickly developers adopt the platform. SteamOS can only play games that are ported to it. Although an impressive number of games have been brought over, they still make up a small fraction of the Steam catalogue. So, a Steam Machine wouldn't offer the full Steam experience. If you want to play older games, like the original BioShock, you'll need a Windows PC.
Let's not forget that games that are published by EA require its proprietary Origin client to run. Additionally, it seems unlikely for Ubisoft to jump on-board unless it supports Uplay, which has its own issues without adding SteamOS compatibility on top of it. Then there's Blizzard with its Battle.net client, and how popular games like League of Legends wouldn't work. It all adds up.
On a personal note, I've been using an Alienware Alpha since it first launched in November. Although it's far from being perfect, I'm convinced it would be far worse if it were an actual Steam Machine running only SteamOS. I wouldn't be able to play the games that came shipped with it like Payday 2, Gauntlet, or Magicka because they're all developed for Windows. Furthermore, I wouldn't be able to use it for other purposes like watching streaming video. With Windows installed, I can use the Alpha as a backup PC. I spend more time in desktop mode and launching Steam from there than from the minimalistic Alienware UI.
Like it or not Steam's success is inextricably tied to the popularity of Windows. It seems like Microsoft might finally understand that now, and may actually try to hold on to its gaming advantage with Windows 10 / Xbox One cross connectivity. True, it's far from the first time Microsoft has promised to emphasize gaming, but who knows? It might happen this time around.
Whatever your thoughts might be about Windows, it is still the go-to platform for PC gaming. By extension, unless your device dual boots between SteamOS and Windows, Steam Machines won't really bring PC gaming to the living room. Similar to In-Home Streaming, it would kind of be cheating to say that it does. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that it brings SteamOS gaming to the living room.
It might take a long while for SteamOS to catch on in a significant way, if it ever does. Some of the first generation Steam Machines will probably be completely obsolete by the time SteamOS is half as successful as the Windows version. Even then, unless some major changes happen - like EA ditching Origin and Ubisoft not using Uplay - Steam Machines still won't be able to play some of the best PC games out there.
There is great potential in having a device that can play Steam games on your television. But even when Steam Machines officially release in November, it will be far more practical to invest in an inexpensive Windows gaming PC or notebook to hook up to your television, and then just run Steam in Big Picture mode. You would be get the same result as picking up an actual Steam Machine. Enthusiasts that absolutely must have the SteamOS experience can download the operating system for free.
Although Steam is a huge part of PC gaming, that doesn't necessarily translate into success for SteamOS or the Steam Machines that rely on it. Some gamers might by some of the less expensive models, but even the least expensive Steam Machine is still a couple hundred dollars more than a console system. Plus, it wouldn't even be able to play everything that's in the Steam catalogue.
Steam Machines could end being a niche device, at least until the novelty wears off, causing many to return to Windows. Valve or one of these hardware developers come up with a feature or superior experience that can't be had through Windows for them to really take off.
Steven Wong posted a new article, Opinion: Steam Machines Need More Than SteamOS Power
I hope Microsoft is doing some hard thinking here about how they can approach games integration with Windows. If they can put together an interface that isn't the train wreck that Live has become, and offer a competing service to Steam they might find themselves in a very good situation.
No, that would put them in the same kind of situation Valve is in with SteamOS. There is no good reason to offer Live as an alternative to Steam or SteamOS as an alternative to Windows when the combination is what makes it all work. Just because Gabe Newell wants play Don Quixote and tilt at some windmills with LINUX ON THE DESKTOP doesn't mean people should follow him down that path.
Actually it's a very different situation from SteamOS since the underlying operating system is still Windows. SteamOS is Linux, and as such has the same limitations as using Linux as a desktop operating system. Namely support.
What I'm suggesting is that Microsoft offer a version of Live that's built into Windows 10, that acts as a storefront in the same way Steam does.
Which will be a great idea until it doesn't take off like it hasn't taken off the last ten times they tried something and then another management reorganization occurs and then they cancel it only they don't cancel it they just abandon it and it lives on half assed for a long time.
They haven't tried 10 times, and a failure of a great idea due to poor implantation doesn't mean that it's a bad idea.
I just want Half-Life 2:Episode 3.