The debate of whether the Steam Machine will have a market or not has been raging ever since the formal introduction of 13 official Steam Machines at the 2014 CES show in Las Vegas earlier this year. Early on we were introduced to original prototype Steam Machine developed by Valve which mirrored what we would expect from a typical console system in terms of size, design and specs. However, the plethora of systems we were introduced to at CES had tremendous degrees of variety in all aspects ranging from tiny bricks to full sized PCs and from base integrated specs to dual GPU and liquid cooled PCs. Rather than bolster enthusiasm in the large number of options to choose from, it further sent the public into disarray as to what should a Steam Machine really be?
I recently read an interesting article at Forbes.com titled "Steam Machines Are Pointless And Valve Is Struggling To Keep SteamOS Relevant" and writer Gordon Kelly brought up a number of arguments as to why Valve in his opinion is doomed to fail. Here are some of the major points:
- PC Gaming Does Not Need Saving
- SteamOC is Butchered Linux
- Variable Pricing Causes Problems
- Upgradability Causes More Problems
- Games Are Published Outside Steam
- Mixed Control Methods
With that in mind there are a number of things that could be said to counter those arguments. Not necessarily my opinion but a few thing to consider:
- Although PC Gaming does not need saving, there total available gaming market is still huge and many areas remain untapped which could be bridged by median PC games such as indies or serve as a counter to the growing mobile gaming market.
- It's a fine line between a butchered OS and a streamline OS. When Google Chrome was introduce it met with the same argument that it was merely a butchered version of Safari browser, however now it has wide spread adoption even among diehard Mac users.
- Variable pricing is certainly causing confusion however this is expected early on just as it was with the Android phone market when everyone was jumping in with Android phone from $50 to $600. Over time though it could normalize as the release of new games titles and their hardware requirements become more predictable.
- Again if the market normalizes, upgradability will become standardized. There is a good chance for a pseudo open/propriety Steam Machine standard to emerge, perhaps with either Alienware or a sort of Steam Consortium that agrees on manufacturing standards for production and upgrades.
- The argument that keyboard and mouse controls trump gamepads every time is simply untrue. Some games are actually more enjoyable on a controller, perfect examples are Brothers, A Tale of Two Sons, Broken Age, Gone Home and even AAA titles such as Tomb Raider and Dragon Age are perfectly playable with a controller if not the preferred control method by some people.
Clearly there are plenty of misconceptions about what a Steam Machine what is or isn't. People still don't know if it is a watered down PC or if it is a over powered Console? However, rather than looking at what it is or isn't, we should look at what it should or can be.
Size Does Matter
The first thing to consider is the size of the various Steam Machines on the market. Not everyone had a chance to see it first hand at CES so even photographs of these systems on display can be deceiving. Many of these systems which we expected to be small turned out to be bigger than we thought, some as large as a full Mid Tower PC. On the other hand, some were much smaller than expected such as the Alienware which was substantially smaller than the PS4 although early photos of it made it look quite large. The thing to keep in mind though is that the Steam Machine is intended for use in the living room so it's generally assumed that people want something that is not monstrous but fits well with the decor one would expect from a typical living room. Here is a scale comparison of a majority of the upcoming Steam Machines against current consoles and other devices for comparison.
It seems reasonable that Sony and Microsoft have gone to great lengths to research what is the acceptable size of a console for the living room setting, since that is a majority of their consumer base's intended use. With that in mind most of the Steam Machines that fall within that range or slightly larger or smaller are certainly acceptable sizes. However, many have made the argument that the extra purchase seems unnecessary when consumers can just as easily connect a desktop computer to the living room TV and get much more flexibility with their systems. If this thinking was true, wouldn't we see more Apple Mac Books in living rooms connected to TVs as opposed to the numerous living rooms fitted with $99 Apple TVs which do the same thing any Mac Book could with far fewer features? The point here is that people will pay for convenience and to another extent aesthetics and that shouldn't be discounted in factoring the potential success of the Steam Machines.
There was a point when Android market had nothing. This is True.
Another argument that has been made is that there are far too few games in the Steam library that are compatible with the Steam OS i.e. Linux compatible. As of March 2014, there were 359 Linux titles on the Steam marketplace, over 100 more games than it had in January 2014. This is certainly small in comparison to the enormous 2729 titles available on the Steam marketplace as a whole and smaller still than the 1864 titles on the XBOX Live marketplace. However, it is already more than double the number of titles on the Playstation Network. However, we should keep in mind that PSN is only now starting to fulfill it's promise of offering more indie and downloadable games this year. Nevertheless, only 4 months ago, critics had already doubted its potential when it had only 100 games, now 4 months later it has more than tripled that number. If this growth rate is consistent we can expect as many as 1000 Steam OS compatible titles in September 2014. This is only a guess though and much of it will depend on the momentum it gains with new title releases which will nudges others to follow suit.
In the Forbes article mentioned earlier, one particular reader, kevinxucs commented "well, how much percentage of steam titles are compatible with SteamOS ONE year ago? ZERO!" to which Gordon Kelly replied "There's no logic to your comment!". Yet there is quite a bit of logic in that simple statement. The point he was trying to make was that you can't expect mass compatibility overnight, and at launch would be even more of a dream. At 359 games 6 months before launch, it is already a phenomenal accomplishment that no console could achieve, who's average available launch titles have historically been around 10 to 15 day one titles. This statement reminded me of the Android market which also had the uphill battle of introducing a completely new platform, garner tremendous support from third party developers to help it grow, all the while fighting two already established market giants Microsoft and Apple. Yet, as history has shown, "open" platforms have a way of growing and often quickly.
What do today’s top selling Steam games need?
Rather than saying it's not PC enough or not console enough, we should take a look at what is actually selling on the Steam marketplace to give us an indication of what the average Steam system would need to satisfy a majority of gamer buying habits. The assumption that it needs to be super powerful and on par with a complete gaming system is simply wrong. The fact is that gamers are not buying only AAA titles that require the newest and most advanced gaming technologies. In fact, a majority of the top selling Steam games fall into the indie, casual and free-to-play categories, with only a handful of AA titles with Dark Souls II being the only game that could technically be considered a AAA title game. Another thing to consider is that most of these games would work perfectly fine on a controller as opposed to a keyboard and mouse.
We took a closer look at the system requirements of all the current top selling Steam games as of March 2014 and recorded the maximum system requirements and the average system requirements across all of the top 10 titles and here is what we found.
As you can see from the above findings, if the Steam Machines were released today, the system requirements to meet the needs of all 10 of the top selling titles are quite average with a maximum requirement of an Intel i5 3.2 Ghz processor or equivalent, 8GB of Ram, a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 670 or AMD Radeon HD 7000, and approximately 8GB of storage space per game. This would be to play all the top 10 games at full resolution with most of the graphics settings set to high. On the opposite end the minimum requirements are far lower which averaged out to a Intel i3 2.5 Ghz processor or equivalent, 4GB of Ram, a NVIDIA GeForce 460 or AMD Radeon HD 5000, and approximately 14GB of storage space per game. This gives us a clearer idea of what the Steam Machine needs to be rather what we want or think it should be.
Additionally we found that of the entire 2729 titles on Steam, AAA titles only made up approximately 4% of the available games (triple AAA titles being big publishers and big budgets such as the Call of Duty franchise), AA and Free to Play titles made up approximately 9% (AA being big and smaller publishers with good budgets such as Darksiders II, Thief) while indie and casual games made up 51% of the titles. Based on some purchasing behavior date from Forrester and other online sources we estimated that gamers actually only buy 2 to 10 AAA titles per year at most while the remaining majority of their purchases were with the AA, Free to Play, Indie and Casual gaming categories. This means that many of the Steam Machine manufacturers were building systems far over spec'ed to satisfy as little as 2% of the average games purchased. Additionally, most of the AAA titles were FPS or RPGs that would only play best at a desk with a mouse and keyboard which the Steam Machine would not be ideal for any how.
What the ideal Steam Machine should be.
Now taking all this into account, we came up with what we think would be the ideal Steam Machine specifications based on size, compatibility, performance, and price. We determined based on the research findings that the recommended Steam Machine Requirements were an Intel Core i5 at 3GHz or higher (or comparable AMD CPU), a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 670 or Radeon HD 7870, 8GB of Ram and a 1TB HDD plus an additional 64GB Flash Boot for the OS. All this would be perfect if it could fall within the $299 to $399 price range. Based on the existing data we gather of specifications for the upcoming Steam Machines by various manufacturers, we found that the Alienware would be ideal, if, and only if, it lives up to it's promised specs of being equivalent to a PS4 or XBOX One. However, the Alienware system is still completely speculation and for all we know it could just be pure vapor. Most people still question whether that is even possible in such a small form factor, but if they are capable of manufacturing a majority of the parts, making it proprietary as they had stated, there is a good possibility that they could jigsaw together a relatively adequate system by forgoing many of the unnecessary features on generic Mini ATX and ITX motherboards such as excess USB ports, onboard Video, etc.
The Best Steam For Your Buck
Even still, the Alienware Steam Machine only falls into our recommended specifications and as Alienware stated it is intended to have a ownership lifespan of 1 to 2 years. With that in mind, the optimal Steam Machines would be the iBuyPower and the CyberPowerPC version which have more than enough hardware to handle most of today Steam titles with room to grow before needing any major upgrades. The price is still on the higher end and if either iBuyPower or CyberPowerPC were able to bring the MSRP down to $399, they would have a winner since already out of the gates they would already have superior hardware than the recently released consoles. Although we recommended 1TB of storage space, it certainly isn't absolutely necessary, after all, the PS4 and XBOX One both only have 500GB of internal storage space and are expected to last 5 years so by comparison, it's fairly acceptable. The remaining majority of the systems available are just far too over priced and over spec'ed for the needs of the average Steam marketplace consumer. They would probably make great PCs, comparable to some of the top gaming rigs out there but even still are on the high end price bracket even by that comparison.
So what do you think? Who's doing it right, who's doing it wrong and does the Steam Machine still have a chance to succeed in the market? Let us know your thought by commenting below.