Can the Steam Machine take on the Xbox One and PS4?

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This is London calling. The war continues around the world this morning as the fight between the blue and green armies intensifies – with no signs of a Christmas truce. The blue armies, fighting for their leader, the great PS4 having performed well in the phony war have a narrow lead, but are quickly approaching stalemate with the green armies, backed by the Xbox One. Dispatches from the frontlines suggest we could be bogged down in the trenches for some time – unless something big happens.

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All eyes are currently on a populous but lesser known kingdom in the mountains. Despite having the best weapons, it is a sleeping giant – the people of Steam not choosing to involve themselves in the petty squabbles of man… but could all this be about to change?

Reports from inside the country suggest that King Gabe is currently working on a new superweapon that could change everything: some sort of Steam-powered machine. Our best military intelligence analysts suggest that if they were to join the war, they wouldn’t pick a side – but would attempt to dominate, stepping over the exhausted and the dead. But could they make an impact?

I’ll drop the war metaphor now – lest we get bogged down in trying to explain why Twitch is the Ministry of Information or whatever.

The Battle for the Living Room though is very much real – and contested. The battle for the desktop has long since concluded, and unless Windows managed to pull off the biggest upheaval since the Russian Revolution, the battle for mobile is too settled for the time being… now the living room is in sight.

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If thinking traditionally, then it’d be obvious to assume the winner this generation is going to be either Sony, Microsoft or – assuming that hell could freeze over during a cold snap – Nintendo. But this may not be the case. Now that everything under the sun connects to the internet, and deals in digital content, it’s a wide open field: and we’re seeing the unusual situation of the likes of Apple, Google, Roku, Sky and even Smart-TV makers like Samsung and LG butt heads in the same space.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Sony & MS have though is that they’re offering proper full-fat gaming experiences, rather than just a casual mobile-game type thing. And there’s not many companies that could surely upend this duopoly. Unfortunately for Redmond and… wherever it is that Sony are based… Valve seem to be attempting to do just that with the Steam Machine and Steam OS.

If you’re not a hardcore gamer, you could be forgiven for not being familiar with Steam – despite having a user base comparable to Xbox Live and PSN it has flown a little under the radar – whilst essentially providing the same services as Xbox Live to PC gamers. It has long been a part of any PC gamer’s essentials and has basically obliterated the idea of selling boxed PC games.

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It’s interesting times at Valve though – not content with owning the PC market, they’re making a big push into the living room too. Steam OS was announced a few months ago and very early versions were released in recent days. Based on Debian Linux, it’s an operating system designed for gaming that cuts out the Windows middleman. What’s more, is that it’s major feature is “Big Picture” mode – with an interface optimised for operation with a controller and not a keyboard and mouse. The idea is that rather than sat hunched over a keyboard, you’ll be to lean back on your sofa and play on your massive living room telly.

Valve aren’t leaving this to chance – rather than expect normal, human people to be able to build a gaming PC and install the OS themselves, in tandem they’ve come up with the Steam Machine – which is essentially a high-powered gaming PC, that looks like a console. It’ll obviously come preloaded with Steam OS and a controller, so all you’ll have to is plug it into your telly, power up and away you go.

Spec-wise, it’s pretty phenomenal – said to be three or four times as powerful as a PS4 or Xbox One… which is bound to appeal to the sort of hardcore gamers they want to attract.

Whilst it’s still early days for both the OS and the machine, it does raise an intriguing question: could Valve really take on the might of Microsoft and Sony?

Unlike other competing platforms (say, the WiiU), there won’t be a problem with the games catalogue – apparently hundreds of other games already work natively on SteamOS, and apparently for other titles players will be able to stream the game wirelessly from their Windows PC to play on the telly. As it’s built on Linux, there’ll inevitably be lots of emulation options too (and perhaps WINE support?).

Personally, I wouldn’t expect the Steam Machine to be a huge threat to, umm, S&M – though it sounds like it’ll be an amazing machine, amazing things comes at a big price. And for a top of the range gaming PC we’re talking thousands, not a few hundred pounds… so price will be a hugely limiting factor. That said – there’s potential for more affluent gamers choosing to take a Steam Machine into the living room – which could disrupt the cosy duopoly as Microsoft and Sony get nervous about the skimming off the top. Innovations in Steam OS could end up trickling down into the PS4 and Xbox One – so it should be good for all gamers.

James O’Malley
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