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Why Steam Box Is The Biggest News This Year…

The night before last as I was finishing up a blog and preparing to go play when I checked Game Informer's front page news and was shocked to discover an article about the Valve and Xi3 cooperative effort to produce what is being called the Steam Box by gamers but is actually codenamed Piston. As one of the first responders who arrived on the scene of perhaps one of the most monumental events of the year (we're only a week into the new year, so don't panic), I was one of the first dozen or so to respond to the news that reverberated through the industry Faster Than Light (pun intended - FTL is a relatively new indie game available on Steam).

My loyalty to Valve is well known among friends and followers (and perhaps a stranger or two) and I couldn't be more excited about this announcement. I was literally giddy with excitement, like a kid going to Disney for the first time. And despite the hefty price tag of $999 that's being tossed around, I'd like to think I'll be able to haul one of these babies home when they do release. It couldn't come at a better time - I was in the market to upgrade my PC gaming rig after an unfortunate event occurred last weekend when attempting to update drivers and discovering my high dollar Creative Labs Audigy II sound card that I feel like I purchased not all that long ago is no longer being supported by Creative Labs. Makes me wonder what other pieces and parts have reached their End of Life.

Looking at the released photos of this mysterious Steam Box, you can't help but notice the smallish size; and if you're like me, maybe you also noticed somewhat of a resemblance to the Ouya, at least in terms of physicality. I'm reminded of a blog I posted not all that long ago about how the boundaries between the PC platform and video game consoles is converging - how the PC is becoming more like the traditional video game consoles and how traditional video game consoles are becoming more like the PC. Clearly this initiative by Valve offers the strongest evidence this is happening - a new PC designed to play games and connect to your TV, and perhaps integrate into your whole entertainment center. Don't worry about patting me on the back, I've already done it. All jokes aside, think about the bold challenge before Valve, designing a PC video game system that will likely occupy real estate in close proximity to your Xbox 360 or PS3...and compete for one of your TV's HDMI ports. If your setup is anything like mine, HDMI ports are a valuable commodity in short supply. What can I say, I have an older TV.

The other element associated with this news release is talk the Steam Box will run a Linux based operating system. I have been following various entities of Linux for years, and one of my favorite versions still quite popular today (and installed on a laptop I have) is Ubuntu. If you've never experimented with Linux, Ubuntu is a great package to test drive, with aesthetics and features that rival Windows and an installation process that's probably easier than Windows (anything that gets away from authenticating has to be better). I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Ubuntu is awesome, and we even have a few systems in the Navy that use it as its operating system. When you power the system on, it automatically boots the application you need to access and you don't even really interface with the OS...it's quite transparent. If Valve and Xi3 proceed in this direction, I think it could be quite successful and beneficial. The great thing about a Linux based solution is it's stable and will run on relatively low hardware requirements...and it's free (for individual use, not sure how it would work for a commercial product). That should make the cost a bit more affordable and the ability to customize and configure a little easier. Heck, according to the latest reports, you can install Windows on it if you want, which isn't too surprising...Valve is well known for giving consumers what they want.

Okay, so let me set the fanboyism aside and discuss the three main reasons why this announcement is a big deal. Trust me, I could gush for a few pages, but for the sake of your sanity I'll keep it to three.

TIMING

Many of you may recall Nintendo's shenanigans from last year's E3 where they had a press conference to share details about the Wii U just prior to the official kickoff of the industry's biggest tech show. Some thought it was a brilliant strategy - virtually the entire industry was present anxiously waiting the following day's events, so they had a huge audience essentially available to cover their event. Others thought it was kind of a cheap trick that didn't solicit near the response Nintendo thought it would (or hoped it would).

Fast forward to the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada - an industry event that nearly ever legitimate news agency, techie website or video game journo will tell you has significantly diminished over the years with regards to its video game footprint and representation. Based on the articles I read and podcasts I've listened to, nobody was expecting any major video game releases, much less a concrete announcement from Valve regarding the Steam Box. This is somewhat surprising since there has been a flurry of activity reporting on the "supposed existence" of such a box and how it "might be Linux based". It appears like nobody was expecting this, and Valve caught the collective industry with their pants down, or at least their pens down.

It was really kind of a brilliant strategy. It generated a whirlwind of activity as articles were posted before the ink was even dry. But even more than that...looking down the road, it kind of placed them in a perfect position for E3. Either they can demo their little magic box to a hungry audience starving for anything new from Valve, or they can choose to not show anything if it's not ready to showcase yet and claim they made their big announcement at CES. Either way, imagine the hype and speculation leading up to E3 and what Valve might be doing about it. They have sparked an interest with their CES announcement that is sure to spread like wildfire over the next few months. Sounds like a grand idea to me.

INNOVATION / SUSTAINMENT

PC gamers have battled the deluge of claims suggesting the PC as a gaming platform is dead (or dying). I was never worried about it and the past couple of years the beating of the drum has slowed, but I'm here to tell you, last year I was more worried about the PC dying than any previous year...and here's why. I thought it was dying a slow unnoticeable death that gamers and old dinosaurs like me didn't see coming. Case in point -  I went to the store (several stores actually) trying to buy a new PC. Nothing special, certainly nothing to play games on. Just an email, web browsing box. I couldn't find one. The military store had a full complement of laptops, iPads and tablet PCs...but no desktops. Most stores had a shoddy selection...like Wal-Mart and Best Buy. So I started looking at pieces and parts - can't really find those in the store either. Best Buy has a few high performance parts, but the days of building your own PC gaming rig seems to be mellowing out. Sure, they're still making them and you can get them online, but the trend we witnessed in the late 1990s to early 2000s with modded cases and extreme PCs seems to have subsided. Now, it's almost as if the smaller and more compact the system is, the better. I firmly believe Valve has been a major (if not the biggest) advocate for PC gaming and the single greatest force in keeping the PC alive. As long as they continue to introduce innovative and creative technological solutions, PC gamers have nothing to worry about. Have you seen Big Picture yet? It's pretty nifty.

COMMUNITY

Valve is one of the few companies who understand that you can give stuff away for free and still be profitable and that if you take good care of your supporters, there is a great chance they will buy more and more stuff from you. Consider this - when was the last major video game release published by Valve? Been a while, no? How did Gabe Newell make it to the billionaire's list without releasing a sequel to Half Life year after year after year? Well I think it's because Valve focuses more on the quality of their games and the user experience, instead of just about making money. The way they endorse and encourage their fans is nothing short of phenomenal and many of their games openly support the creation of user content, some of which becomes material featured in the game with the proceeds going back to the creator. They have released tools and software for nearly all (if not all) of their products and oh by the way, they own Steam, now with Big Picture, which is easily comparable to Xbox Live and/or PSN. You can watch videos, download demos, have a friends list with a chat client, manage your games and achievements...and it even includes a handy dandy app for your smart phone. All for the low price of free. Well, you have to buy the games of course, but there is no premium service you have to pay for to get content or the capability of playing with your buddies, and nothing has been suggested they would chance this service once they are producing their own hardware. They also created the Greenlight initiative, which is somewhat similar to Kickstarter in that it helps independent developers create, promote and distribute their products.

This one-time fee will grant your Steam account access to post and update as many of your games as you like within Greenlight. All proceeds from this fee (minus taxes) will be donated directly to Child's Play, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of children in over 70 hospitals worldwide.

Now I know I said three, but come on...just think about Valve and what they've done. Half Life, Portal, Left for Dead, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, Steam, VAC...everything they do is awesome and there's nothing to suggest this won't be just as amazing.

I said it in 2011; I thought it 2012...but I feel it in 2013.

This might just be the greatest year in video game history.

 

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