Remember earlier this year when the internet went all a-tizzy about the idea of Valve releasing a console-esque PC for the living room, and all the associated headlines? Yeah I was sick of them too, though not because I’m averse to the idea. The Numinous Ivory Citadel of The Glorious PC Gaming Master Race is as sparsely populated as it is beautiful, and needs more worthy beings drifting amongst it’s gleaming hallways being all Divine and shit. My problem was with all the headlines screaming guff like “SEE THIS SCRIBBLE ON A BEERMAT? VALVE ARE MAKING A CONSOLE I SWEAR GUYS! ALSO HALF LIFE 3!” When it comes to talk of some mythical “Steam Box” I’m the believe-it-when-I-perceive-it kind of Ascended Gamer.
And now the whole bloody furore will begin again thanks to some innocuous comments from Gabe Newell to Kotaku, at the Spike VGAs, about living room PCs competing with next-gen consoles. According to the avid knife collector the reaction to Steam’s Big Picture mode was “stronger than expected”, and he expects we’ll start seeing PC packages for living rooms as early as next year. Standardised boxes with Steam pre-loaded that you’ll plug into your telly and be able to play games on within minutes. Corralling all your dirty console-owning friends into your living room, ready to be wowed by such mind-blowing miracles as “60 frames-per-second”, will take a bit longer.
Newell confirmed Valve have their own plans along these lines but he also predicted they won’t be the only ones. “We’ll do it but we also think other people will as well” he told Kotaku. “I think in general that most customers and most developers are gonna find that [the PC is] a better environment for them. They won’t have to split the world into thinking about ‘why are my friends in the living room, why are my video sources in the living room different from everyone else?’ So in a sense we hopefully are gonna unify those environments.”
Confirmation that the legendary Steam Box is real after all? Well, yes and no. A pre-built PC with Steam installed that you can plug into your telly is still just…erm, a PC with Steam installed that you plug into your telly. If you’re one of my PC-owning comrades-in-Divinity you can do that right now with your own Ark of the Covenant. In fact you’d be better off doing that anyway if you want all the benefits of a PC in the living room, since any such device produced by Valve or other manufacturers probably won’t be as flexible and open as our current boxes of joy. “Our hardware will be a very controlled environment,” Newell has said. “If you want more flexibility, you can always buy a more general purpose PC. For people who want a more turnkey solution, that’s what some people are really gonna want for their living room.”
Not so much a Steam Box, singular, then but rather boxes, plural. “Standardised” living room-based PCs that’ll give you much of what you enjoy about PC gaming from the comfort of your sofa, armchair, or beanbag if that’s how you choose to live your life. The question I have is whether regular Joe and Jane Public would even be willing to buy such boxes for the living room. To compete with next-gen consoles these living room boxes will have to be affordable and affordable means sacrificing raw power and other things that make high-end PC gaming what it is. Even if Valve and other manufacturers offer a range of specifications people will likely settle on the cheapest, in which case they may as well just buy a next-gen console instead, right?
Meanwhile the core-est of the core likely already have their uber rigs and will not likely splash out on another, less-powerful one, just to play PC Far Cry 3 at a slightly higher resolution than console versions on their couch. It’s more economical to lug their existing PC into the living room or connect it to their TV with metres of HDMI cable instead, which more and more PC owners are doing anyway, thus defeating the point of having a separate PC next to your TV. I can only see them being of interest to people without consoles or an internet-enabled HDTV, who want something in their living room that’ll do high-powered gaming and internet stuff in one convenient unit. Albeit one without the free and open architecture of standard PCs.
So as much as I love the idea of PCs becoming a permanent fixture in people’s living rooms, I cannot share Gabe Newell’s optimism at this time. I’d love to be proven wrong though.