The Steam Machines play fewer games than your PC, with less functionality

A Steam Machine is a PC that can do fewer things, and run fewer games, than the system you have in your home right now.

That’s the marketing challenge that’s in front of Valve and its partners, and the fact that Valve had a rare CES press conference was interesting, but there were precious few details about what the platform adds to the world of gaming.

The idea of an affordable PC that’s inside a console form factor, complete with an interesting controller, has merit. But everyone involved is doing a dismal job of explaining those merits to the press or consumers.

Valve didn’t give us a reason to care

Let’s take a look at the Steam Machines that are being shown at CES, and we’ll try to find some vision to the product line. Some are shaped like consoles, other look like standard computers, and pricing is all over the board.

Some of these systems are competitive with the pricing of the Xbox One, but the PlayStation 4’s $400 sticker is going to be much harder to hit, especially since so many options means that no one will be able to take advantage of true economy of scale. The idea that any of those can match the three million units of the Xbox One sold to date is… quaint.

This is mostly due to the fact that the SteamOS has only just launched, and it can hardly compete with the game library you’ll find on Windows. SteamOS itself, and this fact was somewhat glossed over during the press conference, is based on Linux, and only a percentage of the current Steam library is currently compatible. Why would you buy an able gaming PC only to take away a good chunk of your game selection and functionality by installing a gaming-specific OS?

It's not a rhetorical question. If you have used SteamOS and have a good answer, I'll be watching the comments. Newell may brag about the 65 million users Steam enjoys, but many of the games that brought those players to the platform won't run on SteamOS unless Linux compatibility is added by the developer. Which won't happen until the market is bigger. Which won't happen until more games are added. You see the issue.

Most serious gamers had the same concerns about Steam itself, and now the platform controls a large, if not majority, share of PC gaming, but we’re looking at what SteamOS can do now, not what it may do in ten years. Dual booting may be interesting for curious players who want to see what the fuss is about, but a PC that is only running SteamOS makes almost no sense.

SteamOS is a good deal for Valve, of course. They get to control the platform, and they have an escape hatch if Microsoft ever tries to further lock down its own OS. As a business decision for the PC gaming company it’s a no-brainer. What they’ve failed to do is explain why it’s a good thing for us.

An exclusive would certainly help adoption, and it's an obvious solution, but Valve so far seems unwilling to lock out the massive numbers of paying PC gamers from any of its games in order to push a free OS. Keep in mind exclusives only move units if they’re both exciting and unavailable to a platform’s competitors; this is why Titanfall was such an important get for the Xbox One, and why the PC version doesn’t matter. Microsoft simply doesn’t see the PC as a competitor to the Xbox One.

Can you imagine the backlash if Valve were to release something truly interesting from its catalog of games … only to make it exclusive to SteamOS? This is an easy way to get gamers both excited and enraged about a possible Half-Life 3.

Valve can’t expect any of its partners to make that move if it’s not willing to do so itself. SteamOS will be defined by the games it can’t play until it offers any sort of advantage that Windows can’t match.

What do we want?

It’s easy to describe the platonic ideal of what a Steam Machine should be. It should be shaped like a console and offer the same ease of setup and use. It should be able to offer roughly the same amount of power as a PlayStation 4, while costing around $500.

SteamOS is a good deal for Valve, of course. They get to control the platform, and they have an escape hatch if Microsoft ever tries to lock down its own OS.

I don’t just want to play Battlefield 4 at the fidelity the PlayStation 4 offers, I also want to be able to try early access PC hits like Starbound, as well as something as niche as the latest Twine game on a fully-functional browser. These systems should play every game available on Steam, with no exceptions, and do everything a standard computer can do in a form factor and price that puts pressure on consoles.

So far the examples of Steam Machines we’ve seen fall far short of this ideal, as does the OS itself.

Valve also missed a trick by not creating a wall-to-wall media suite for SteamOS that shames Microsoft and Sony into opening up their own offerings. Both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have limited the media options from the last generation in order to lock players into limited, proprietary options for movies and music.

A PC connected to your television should ideally give you access to everything from Spotify to your own local files and everything in between. SteamOS isn’t there yet, and it may never be a priority for Valve. This is a problem for people who have working, high-quality gaming PCs: Who buys new hardware or installs software that does less than the systems you already own?

To be fair, I keep a PlayStation 3 hooked up next to my Xbox One and Playstation 4 so I can watch 3D Blu-rays with my family, so maybe it’s best you don’t answer that.

A side note: The controller is interesting, but it’s hard to have an opinion without one in my hand to try, and Valve failed to offer any details on pricing or release dates.

So the bottom line is that the Steam Machines, loaded with SteamOS, make perfect business sense for Valve, but at the present they offer a rather inoptimal deal for PC enthusiasts.

Valve’s moves seem to have lit a match under the collective butt of a few hardware manufacturers when it comes to experimenting with form factors and pricing, and that’s a good thing, but right now the best thing you can with a Steam Machine is install Windows.

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