Why a Steam Box Can’t Work Just Yet

At the start of the month, rumors consumed PC and console gamers alike at the thought of a Steam created console. Most PC gamers thought to themselves, “Well I’ve already got a Steam box. It’s called my PC.” Console gamers had mixed reactions whether it was excitement at the thought of Steam powered games being available on a home console for the first time while others worried about the thought of adding a fourth major console to their home collection, especially with the impending release of the Wii U, next XBox and PlayStation 4 within the next few years.

These rumors were dispelled in under a week when Valve spoke to gaming site Kotaku saying that the company was a long way off from releasing a home system and that the rumored boxes that had been created were meant for internal purposes only to test streaming content from a PC to television, not acting as a console in and of itself. Valve told Kotaku, “We’re always putting boxes together,” he said. “Going all the way back to the Half-Life 1 days, we built special boxes to test our software render…it’s just part of development.”

While on the surface the concept of a Steam box might sound good, there are a few essential problems it must overcome before this idea should attempt to become a reality. The first is the current state of the home console market. Right now, the console market is dominated by the big three: Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. While Nintendo diverged from the hardcore gamer with the Wii, they claim to be aiming at taking a hold back on that market with the release of a more powerful Wii U.

Meanwhile, even though they took steps into the gimmicky market with the Move and Kinect, both the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 cater to the hardcore. The original XBox was referred to as the shooter box. If Steam were to release a console, it’d most likely be targeting the hardcore audience as well since the name Steam means something to PC gamers in the know but little to the mainstream audience. That means these hardcore gamers would need to purchase another console system, not an easy pill to swallow with the country still in recovery mode and set to go through a new console generation soon.

Steam’s main proprietary games also appeal to that hardcore audience with titles like Half-Life, Team Fortress, Portal and Left 4 Dead. These games also sell well on both the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360. If Steam were to release its own system, they would have to deal with the double edged sword of making these games exclusive to their console. On the plus side, making these exclusive would help push console sales. But, conversely, the market share by the game maker would be drastically lost with a much lower install base which will inevitably result in the loss of millions of units in sales of the individual games as well.

One of the other main problems is that Steam as it is now is an evolving platform, with its games only limited by the power of the individual PC it is being run on. With gamers having thousands upon thousands of different gaming rig combinations, Steam allows them to all download the same games and just run them with differing levels of detail. Making a Steam box would put a cap on the level of detail in the games. While PC games continue to grow and downloadable Steam games can adjust to the increasing PC power, a Steam box would have a preset, and thus pre-limiting, set of specs. While games on the PC downloadable Steam platform could continue to grow, games for the Steam box would be stuck within the confines of the box that isn’t easily upgradeable… unless the Steam box became the first upgradeable console. But that would create a whole new set of problems to deal with for game makers trying to develop for differing SKUs of the system which has created problems in the past (like the lack of development for games utilizing the expansion port from the Nintendo 64).

While the guys at Valve are amongst the most talented game makers and even leaders in the PC game distribution world, it doesn’t look like moving to the home console market would be the right move for them just yet. If Sony or Microsoft were to take the other out and create an opening in the market, it might make a little sense but releasing a new console would drastically limit the sales of their own proprietary games that would be needed to push the sales of the console itself. All that along with the upcoming consoles coming out soon for Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, the Steam box’s lifespan would be quite limited, pushing it the way of the Atari, 3DO or even the much beloved Dreamcast before it even had the chance to take off.

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