The lights are on
If last week was all about GTA V, this week was lorded over by Gabe Newell. Valve's trio of announcements definitely stole our attention all week long, which makes it no surprise that we're leading off the recap with them.
A trio of scenarios for Valve's trio of announcements
My biggest conundrum with Valve's SteamOS, Steam Machine, and Steam Controller announcements are that I have no idea who the target market is for these products. It's clear we don't know much about any of these items, but after the fanfare of a week of announcements, it wasn't unreasonable for us to expect a bit more clarity.
I've tried to envision how different people might encounter a Steam Machine. What is that purchase process like? How do the economics of the products work? Who really benefits from everything we've learned this week. Let's find out...
Act I: The Casual Gamer Retail ExperienceImagine your average gamers. These are people who have a few favorite franchises (that may or may not be Call of Duty, Madden, Assassin's Creed, or the Arkham series). They don't buy many games each year, but thoroughly enjoy the ones they buy. They self-identify as people who like video games, but maybe not the way the average daily Game Informer reader does. They've held out on buying an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 into 2014. It's finally time to pick one, so John and Jane head to the store.
There, they engage in conversation with the clerk and inquire about the two options. The clerk brings up a third choice: a Steam Machine.
John and Jane are interested, so they ask a simple question, "How much does it cost?" The answer surprises them. "It depends," the clerk says. "There are different models." After a few minutes of trying to understand the three or four options just available at retail (let alone the ones available online from manufacturers), John and Jane give up. They want to walk out with something today, and they don't feel comfortable with all of the different options and price points.
"Forget it. Let's just talk about an Xbox One or PS4," they say.
Too much choice isn't a good thing. It causes people to feel overwhelmed. It's called the paradox of choice, and was fully examined by psychologist Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. We know that there are going to be many different versions of Steam Machines available next year, from different retailers. It's not unreasonable to expect that some of these will be available alongside Microsoft and Sony products. Giving consumers too many options that are similar isn't going to entice new consumers, it'll scare them away.
There's hope, though. Valve could take an Apple approach to selling its hardware. If you go into an Apple Store, there are preconfigured versions of all of their hardware. If you want to make changes though, you've got to go online. This is a good balance that allows less informed consumers to pick out a product from a slim slate of choices that are easily narrowed down, but allows more savvy consumers to access the options they want.
Act II: Same Dollar, More ChoicesBob decided to buy a Steam Machine. Or, rather, he built one. Why spend the money on having someone else build it when he's perfectly capable.
Bob's a PC gamer, and while he's got accounts with GoG and Origin, the majority of his library is on Steam. He's a fan of the sales and SteamOS makes sense. His couch is more comfortable, and he already has an Xbox 360 controller he uses with his PC.
His homemade Steam Machine is perfect for playing a few indie games natively, but better for streaming AAA titles over his home network from his PC. There are still some games that are better in front of his monitor, but SteamOS and his large flatscreen are perfect for Dishonored, Tomb Raider, and Watch Dogs.
The best part is that Bob doesn't need to spend a dime more than he already was. All of his games are either available for free on SteamOS (via SteamPlay) or streaming from his PC. SteamOS and the Steam Machine are perfect for Bob, but not so great for Valve or publishers. Bob is reaping all of the benefits without adding anything to the coffers. Publishers have been working to port their titles to SteamOS, spending money, and Bob and his friends are the ones who are playing them.
Certainly Bob doesn't represent the entirety of SteamOS' early user base, but it's hard not to see the announcements of this week mainly as a triumph for those that already game on PC. For those of us that are interested in joining the PC gaming community for the first time, limited dollars aren't likely to purchase both a PC and a Steam Machine. Given the relatively small size of the Linux library, it seems silly to choose SteamOS over PC (and dual booting currently offers no benefits that we know of).
Act III: Show and Tell versus Touch and FeelThe tricky thing about controller innovation is that no one really wants to make a change. The PlayStation Vita's back touch pad? No one liked it, but developers have found creative ways to use it. The PlayStation 4's Dual Shock 4 controller has one, too. I've used it and it works really well (and it's also a button that clicks in). The Xbox One controller improves on the Xbox 360 gamepad in small ways, but it's so familiar that no one really questions it. Heck, even the Wii U Gamepad isn't a strange design (though don't get me started on the Pro Controller's button placement to the lower left of the thumbstick).
But regardless of which of these new controllers you're talking about, they have things in common that make them familiar, like thumbsticks and button array. The Steam Controller might end up working very well, and I'm curious to try it. However, introducing it as a picture with no hands-on time granted to major outlets was a big mistake.
We are as confused as our readership. We can't tell you how the Steam Controller performs. We aren't able to tell you that it aptly mimics a mouse and keyboard as Valve promises. We just have the pictures to go on, and this input mechanism is so different, eschewing the basic laws of geometry that make thumbsticks a staple of contemporary controllers, that it's extremely difficult to believe that it will work as promised.
The trackpads look more like the terrible virtual thumbdiscs found on iPad shooters (that never work like developers think they should). The button placement around the center trackpad (I do like the trackpad) is so foreign that it's hard to believe it will be easy to adapt to. The shape doesn't look as comfortable as the Dual Shock controllers we've been using for the past 15 years. Unfortunately, all we have to go on are visuals. It would behoove Valve to give media access to these in order to share impressions and talk about how they work and not just what they look like. Thankfully, Tommy Refenes of Team Meat did get hands on and he did Valve more good than the company even offered themselves: he wrote about it. That's right, there are hands-on impressions of the Steam Controller.
Here is a rundown of all of our Valve coverage from this week:
Coverage from the October 2013 Call of Duty Cover Story
Previews and Reviews
Announcements and Release Dates
Email the author Mike Futter, or follow on Google+, Twitter, and Game Informer.