Steam have made two of the three announcements:
- They will be rolling out their own Linux-based operating system, SteamOS
- They will be releasing officially licensed Steam Machines that they are “working with multiple partners” to develop
The third announcement is due Friday and there is some expectation that it about input devices linked to SteamOS and the Steam Machines.
This news really makes it seem like Valve is fighting an old war.
The Last Battle
If you look at the strategy of a lot of big technology companies, you can see a common idea linking them: own the ecosystem. It’s what made Apple successful. For all the talk about the innovation seen in the iPod and iPhone, for my money the thing that put Apple over the top of other competitors was by also providing almost all the content its customers could want through iTunes and later the App Store. Without Apple cutting deals to provide that music content in one convenient spot at a low price, the iPod would have been just another personal music player, albeit one that was simple to use.
Microsoft has tended to control the PC market through its operating system dominance (i.e. Windows) and Office applications. They are attempting to take bigger steps to own the ecosystem with Window 8, so that you buy things from the Windows 8 Store on your Windows 8 mobile device. Microsoft also own the Xbox ecosystem. Sony owns the PS4 ecosystem.
Valve may dominate the area of online PC game sales, but they don’t own the ecosystem. They are vulnerable to Microsoft doing things with Windows that might screw them around. Which is where the SteamOS and Steam Machines come in. This approach gives Valve a bit more control over their destiny.
The reason I see this as Valve fighting an old battle rather than breaking new ground is that the PC platform is on the decline. Mobile platforms are usually cheaper and a lot more convenient, which sees people buying a smartphone or tablet over upgrading their existing PC. Apple has led this charge, providing customers with a huge range of apps that can provide the vast majority of PC functionality with the convenience of portability.
I’m not saying that PC gaming is dead in 12 months, just that fewer new PCs are being sold each year. That’s a worrying trend, particularly for game developers who try for higher end graphics (as AAA developers often do). Some people may be just upgrading internal components over buying a new computer, but when you can get a tablet for the cost of a decent graphics card, the threat of replacement is certainly there.
The fact that mobile gaming is becoming so dominant has seen numerous commentators say that this generation of consoles – the Xbox One and the PS4 – will be the last. So it makes little sense to me for Valve to try to create a platform that competes directly against both the Windows PC and consoles in the same time frame when all are expected to drop away from relevance within the next decade. Operating systems aren’t something that work well if you release them only to start ignoring them soon after (open source or not).
In short, although Valve is trying to own their ecosystem, it’s one that looks pretty ill right now and the future isn’t that bright.
That’s A Lot of Hats
As it stands now, Valve (publicly at least) is:
- A games retailer, which is where it gets most of its money from (and Greenlight falls under here, so don’t ask); and
- A games developer.
With the SteamOS and Steam Machines on the way, Valve will become:
- A games retailer;
- A games developer;
- An OS developer;
- A hardware licensor (because Valve will need to be checking that their industry partners are making Steam Machines up to spec);
- An app certifier so that SteamOS does more than just play games;
- A deal maker with partners to provide non-gaming content (e.g. movies, videos) just like the consoles offer; and
- A marketer that puts its Steam Machines into stores worldwide and convinces people who have never bought a title from Steam in their lives why they should buy one.
Valve have excelled while they concentrated on PC gaming and earned a lot of goodwill through selling cheap video games. This new phase spreads Valve’s attention over a lot more areas where they are yet to show any experience. Will Valve be able to maintain its winning streak when it spreads its attention more thinly and over a range of different areas?
Valve tacitly admits that the face of gaming is changing from sitting at a desk to sitting on a couch – the Steam Big Picture was the first step towards that end. This leaves the major area that truly differentiates PC and console gaming is control schemes. To date, I’m unaware of any sort of couch-based controller that means PC gamers can still use keyboard and mouse (K+M) while sitting on their couch – sure, they can rig up something that works (probably something wireless) but there isn’t an off-the-shelf product that allows you to use that control scheme.
Given that such a control scheme is important to PC gaming, maybe Valve’s third big announcement will be a controller that fixes this issue. This would mean a Steam Machine gamer really would have all the benefits of playing on their PC without losing out on any typical PC gameplay.
We’ll find out on Friday.