Valve Software's Steam platform has become the go-to source for gamers focused on the PC. With a huge catalog, constant sales and a consumer-first attitude, the digital store for games has exploded. As of the beginning of 2014, it had topped 75 million users.
But can that success translate into the living room and hardware, two arenas Valve has yet to conquer?
Valve's first round of officially branded Steam Machines will roll out from several manufacturers beginning on Nov. 10. Before that happens, Polygon was able to go hands-on with Alienware's version of the Steam Machine, which comes packed with a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, a custom-built Nvidia GeForce GTX card and 8 GB of RAM. We also got to test out Steam's unique new controller.
To give a few different perspectives, we'll be splitting our impressions into sections. In each section, we'll provide three points of view. First, we'll give some quotes from Valve itself, to give context to what they're going for with the Steam Machine. Then we'll offer thoughts from senior editor Phil Kollar, who spent a few hours with the Steam Machine at Valve's headquarters. Finally, we'll get some in-depth impressions from executive editor Brian Crecente, who's spent the last week testing out the Steam Machine in the comfort of his own home.
Hands-on with Valve's amazing Steam Link
While we're going to provide our frank and honest impressions of the Steam Machine hardware thus far, it should be noted that a lot of the functionality we've been playing with is not final. This should not be considered an official review, and it's possible that a lot of what we're discussing could change before Steam Machines hit retail on Nov. 10.
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"The Steam Machine" isn't really something that exists. There's all kinds of different Steam Machines out there, including machines people have just made themselves. Think of it like there's a set of form factor and heat and sound issues that a bunch of companies are going to go out and attack, like Alienware and ASUS and Falcon Northwest. All of those different hardware vendors have specific kinds of customers that they like to work with.
It's no different than saying, "Hey, I want to go build a new gaming PC. What do you think I should do?" Some people have a friend that will order all the parts and put it together for them. Some people buy it directly from Alienware.
We think that openness is important. Having all those choices is the engine that ends up making virtual reality happen. It ends up making subscription-based massively multiplayer online games and Facebook and all of these things that happen on the PC first, because the PC is an open system that allows any designer or engineer or artist to create anything they want. It allows Minecraft to happen. We think all of those things are fundamentally critical to our business, even though we don't sell Minecraft.
What I'll say for Alienware's Steam Machine model is that, while it's not the most powerful PC in terms of its guts, it's got an incredible form factor. It's hard to believe there's as much power as there is packed into such a tiny, nice-looking box. I think it at least looks as good, if not better, than the PlayStation 4, and certainly better than the hulking Xbox One.
will they be able to tell the difference between a Steam Machine manufactured by Alienware and one manufactured by Falcon Northwest?
But what's especially interesting about the hardware is that this Alienware box is just one model of Steam Machine. There will be a bunch floating around from a bunch of different retailers. Any one of those models could look worse but have more power behind it. Or look a lot cooler and take up less space but have significantly less power. Or anywhere in between these different metrics of aesthetics and performance.
I appreciate what Valve is going for here, but I'm very curious to see how the public reacts to it. If consumers by and large couldn't figure out the difference between the Wii and Wii U, will they be able to tell the difference between a Steam Machine manufactured by Alienware and one manufactured by Falcon Northwest? Will they care? Will they be upset when they purchase one Steam Machine and discover a couple years down the road that it will require serious upgrades to keep running the latest games at high settings?
As someone who's been building my own Windows computers for more than 20 years, I have mixed feelings about Alienware's Steam Machine. It's a beautifully designed fragbox, a diminutive, sleek kit custom-built to take up little space, run quiet and run cold. And I appreciate that.
It has four easily accessible USB ports — two in the front and two in the back — a LAN jack, and two HDMI ports designed to allow you to pass cable through your system. Heck, they even have a panel on the underside of the machine that hides the USB port used for the wireless Steam controller dongle.
The machine is about the size of a Wii U, and includes Alienware's trademark, light-up alien head logo on the front as well as a light-up Steam logo on one corner. Both lights can be customized inside Steam's settings.
It's a pretty device that looks more like a console than a PC, but it also brings with it some of the downfalls of a console.
There appears to be no easy way to get inside Alienware's Steam Machine. Where most modern PCs now feature quick-release latches, thumb screws or pop-off panels, Alienware's machine relies on four old-fashioned screws. Fortunately, once you've removed them, the rest is fairly straightforward. Upgrading your memory requires removing the top plate, which just pops off once you've removed the screws, and then removing one of the two relatively massive fans in the system (each one is held in with easy-to-use clips.) You can get to the hard drive by removing the back plate of the computer. Once inside, you remove a single screw and slide out the hard drive and the plate it is attached to. Then you have to remove the four screws holding the hard drive in place. It's worth noting that you'll want to research the replacement parts before you get started because there is no wiggle room.
I did find it strange that the SteamOS system information didn't have a lot of detail. While you can check a box in settings that unlocks the option to boot into a Linux desktop and gain full access to your computer, getting to even the most basic of information about your system isn't exactly streamlined.
If, for instance, you want to know what CPU you're running, you can't find that from Steam's system description.
With just a week spent with the system so far, I do love that it brings a PC-powered, console-like experience into my den with very little effort, and basic upgrades seem relatively easy.
We want to make sure that if you're playing an old game and want to be able to type with a keyboard — like when you need to name a character — we want that keyboard input to go into the game. Or if you're playing a game that has a really small font, there's a button to zoom into the area of the screen around your cursor, so you can read it.
We tried to handle as many of those sorts of cases as we can while at the same time making sure that if you don't want to deal with all of that, you can just plug it in. You can just plug it in, and it should work all right.
We're still working on a bunch of the interface. It's still being rolled forward. The big one is the store. It's still our old store. It's three years old at this point. New features will show up. We're still plugging away at it.
There's no getting around it. Even in the few hours I spent with it, the current Steam Machine and SteamOS interface is pretty clunky. It's hard to know how much work Valve has left to put into it, but I found the current version of the user interface very difficult to parse in my short time testing it.
Valve has talked about wanting to Steam Machines to be "plug and play" for those consumers who don't care about all the extra stuff. My concern is that having all the extra stuff available will get in the way for those who just want to jump in and use it. Even current-generation consoles like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have much more complicated UIs than console gamers used to have to put up with, but this takes it to another level altogether.
Then again, Steam Machines also have every option you'd expect from running Steam on a non-Steam Machine PC — from chat to checking out user-created content to watching people stream games. It's undeniably cool that it's all there; I just wonder how many people will get use out of it versus being hindered in finding what they're actually looking for.
And here it is: Steam's biggest flaw, running up against a design concept that most heavily relies on it. If you want to deliver a console experience with a computer, the user interface is just as important as, if not more so than, the hardware. And Steam's just doesn't cut it.
It's important to note that when this system was sent out to us we were to make it clear that whatever we were writing was not a review. And this isn't one. It's not one because the system is still in the process of being updated. Chief among those updates, we're told, is the store and library interface. And they need it.
To be fair, when I say that the Steam interface doesn't cut it, I'm very specifically talking about the process of finding games to purchase or digging through your own library.
The rest of the experience is stellar. This is Big Picture mode running as it was designed to run. The controller lets you easily navigate between the store, library, community, web browsing and friend chats. You can even access music you've uploaded to your machine and design how and when it will play. The split keyboard — which uses the twin touchpads of the Steam Controller — is a delight to use. It's one of the things that makes this box feel almost futuristic. And jumping between things, including a Netflix movie running on the browser and the store, is almost instantaneous.
The experience is fairly easy to navigate, and those five broad topics, easy to quickly navigate between. But everything good about that top-level navigation completely breaks down when you hit the store or your library.
Steam's user interface just doesn't cut it
Both use filtering, but in wildly different ways, with different fixed options from one another. Neither the store nor the library allow you to create filters and the ones you can choose from feel almost arbitrary.
In your library, you have the option to narrow down what you've purchased by those games that support the Steam Controller and by the games that can be installed on the Steam Machine. But it appears you can't do the same while browsing the store. So if you're going through the thousands of games available to buy, there's no easy way to figure out which ones you can install and play on the system you're using with the controller it supports. You can go into each game, or scroll through looking at the icons at the bottom of each, but that gets us to the second problem: the store's game listings.
The store currently doesn't seem to give you access to everything on the system for browsing. Instead, you're given a number of seemingly arbitrary topics to choose from and look through. Last night, shortly after an update rolled out to the system, I was able to choose $10 games as a topic, demos, even early access games, but I couldn't just select all games.
Once inside those groupings you can apply filters by genre, whether it supports a form of multiplayer and whether it includes ... Steam achievements? It's a weird mix right now, and frankly, it isn't working. You can just search for everything by name, but that hardly helps with discoverability.
Maybe the overwhelming need for better search options and filters on a system designed to be more console like will drive changes that have been so long in coming to Steam as a whole. I can only hope.
We don't want it to be that just because you go in the living room, your experience becomes more constrained. We're not going to take the internet away from you because you're in the living room. All your games are still going to work. You still get to chat with your friends. You still get to install mods. You still get to do all of the things that you can do in Steam.
A Steam Machine is a PC running Linux. You can do whatever you want. We're not going to do anything to get in your way or lock it down. A lot of people are going to buy it and plug it in and only run Steam. That's cool. We also think, given history, there's a pretty good chance that users are going to find something new that we have not anticipated that's going to be super awesome, that's going to make a bunch of other customers really happy. To the extent that we can add value and make that more likely to happen, that's what we're going to do.
Take mods. It was weird, but in the late '90s you just put all your code out and people made a bunch of games on top of your game. For a big portion of the gaming industry at the time, that was weird. "It's our game. We own that." But I think that modding and being open about the things you're doing with your customers and building it as a service — it's an analog to the PC versus a closed system. Getting somebody to buy something that we made is hard enough. We're not going to then say, "You can't do this with the thing you just bought from us."
Building a one-off spec and saying, "This is going to be THE Steam Box" — that would be a lot easier to approach it that way. For us, it would be this stable platform. We could target it in really specific ways. But the trade-off you're making is a poor one. Maybe it's a good one short-term, but long-term we think it's poor. You can't anticipate the product that gets built one or two or three or four or five years from now that needs something on the PC to enable that to happen.
It's not like we set out in 1996 and said, "This is the path we'll take." We're looking at the tools available to us to create value for our customers. If you look at closed systems, you aren't getting those.
While this is yet another element where I'm not sure how it will play with a mass audience, I find Valve's focus on an open system fascinating and commendable. The idea that you might need to buy incremental upgrades for your Steam Machine to keep it viable could chafe for some, but is that any worse than needing to buy a full console replacement once every five or six years? In some ways, perhaps it's even better.
At the core of Valve's philosophy rests the same argument between PC and consoles that's been raging since I was in high school. But I find it so interesting that Valve is taking this debate into the living room for the first time. And I think Johnson is absolutely right about one thing: Some Steam Machine users are going to find ways to do cool shit with the hardware that Valve never envisioned, and it's going to make it better for everyone. That's awesome, and it's something that's certainly not encouraged if even possible with regular, closed-platform consoles.
Having an open platform is a central component of all things Steam (if you ignore all of that DRM), so it makes sense that the hardware platform that Valve is pushing would also be open-platform — maybe even too open-platform.
Being able to use any Linux-based PC, essentially, as a Steam Machine is great. It means that owners won't be forced into the same expensive cycle of buying and rebuying consoles like they're cars. You can build your own system or buy a pre-built system and then upgrade it as you'd like, seemingly forever.
This system also allows for pre-built systems that at least appear to function like a console, or DVR, or microwave: You plug them in and you start playing. When they stop working because they're too old, you go buy a new one.
It seems like an excellent way to straddle the line between the plug-and-play world of console ownership and the do-it-yourself world of computer gaming. The biggest challenge Steam Machines face in this regard is the mixed messaging. What exactly is a Steam Machine? Why isn't mine as good as my friends? What's the difference between this Falcon Northwest system and that Alienware system? On the flipside, die-hard PC gamers might wonder why they'd pay Alienware to build what they can for half the price.
Steam Machines are absolutely fighting for an important space in an open-platform middle ground, but whether that ends up being a strength or its Achilles' heel remains to be seen.
I think the Steam controller is something you have to have in your hands to try to decide what you like. Like everything we're doing with the Steam Machine, it would look goofy if we were trying to say this was a new closed-platform console launch. What we're doing doesn't make sense in those terms. To us and our customers, though, it makes a bunch of sense.
We had this specific problem with the Steam Machine that was interesting. We have a "console launch" with over 1,500 titles. That's a huge library. Many of those were not designed with a controller in mind. There's an entire spectrum of all possibilities, in terms of games that have full controller support to games that have literally none to games that just involve typing. The problem we were trying to solve was how to build a controller that will work on all of those. But also: How do you build a controller that will work on all of those, but at the same time doesn't require someone to spend an hour with it before they understand what they're doing.
We spent a bunch of time figuring out whether you could pick up the controller and look at it and understand roughly how it all works. How much time does that take? We also want to be future-proof enough so that the moment the PC next evolves or comes up with something awesome, it's not like, "Well, throw out that controller, we need a whole new one." We're trying to find that line between flexibility, versatility and familiarity.
A good example of that at work is in the D-pad. The D-pad is this thing where we tried all kinds of stuff. We tried controllers without d-pads altogether, for example. What we kept finding was that there are a bunch of games that expect D-pads. If we gave you something that didn't look like a D-pad but could function like one, then customers still couldn't find it when a game said, "Use the D-pad." If we put a D-pad there, it sucked, because the D-pad has prime real estate on a controller. It's right under your thumb, and it's just four buttons. That's not flexible enough for what we need to be able to do going forward or even going into the past.
So the solution we found is this: Our left-hand pad is technically identical to the right-hand pad. We did a slight indentation so that visually it reads like a D-pad and feels like a D-pad and people recognize it as a D-pad. In any game that wants a D-pad, it acts like a D-pad. Anywhere where we want to get more out of it than a D-pad, we can.
What surprised me most about the Steam controller — what I wasn't expecting to have such an impact — was the haptic feedback. Far from being a glorified controller rumble upgrade, this feature was huge in my time with the controller. It even pops up in little ways, like when you roll across a letter on the virtual keyboard, and the control gives you a certain amount of force to simulate the feeling of moving across letters on a real, physical keyboard.
I was also impressed by just how much thought Valve has put into letting players remap controller support onto everything. This is built in at the operating system level, so even if a game is too old to support the controller, or if a game inexplicably doesn't allow remapping in its options, you'll be able to do what you want, to make it control how you want.
Valve says it's working with existing developers to allow them to upload Steam controller binding schemes that will automatically be selected for people downloading a game that wasn't built with the Steam controller in mind. Valve has come up with an even more clever system for older games that aren't likely to receive this kind of attention, though. Community members can upload their own schemes which can then be voted on, like a hero build in Dota 2. When one binding scheme has received a majority of the love, it will be implemented automatically for anyone downloading the game in question.
That's all really cool, forward-thinking stuff, but of course there's one major question with the controller: How do those weird pads feel, particularly with shooters and strategy games? Valve has said it was focused on creating a controller that works with genres that don't typically offer controller support, but based off my small amount of time with it in hand, I'm not convinced yet.
Playing a couple of different shooters, I quickly got used to the Steam controller's fine aiming ability. It's not something that clicks instantly if you're used to playing shooters with analog sticks (or even with a mouse and keyboard), but I think it will grow on people. However, I was only shown slow-moving and turn-based strategy games. The controller's pad worked well enough to emulate mouse movement in these, but can it do the same with faster, more complex and more precise strategy games? Can I play Dota 2 or Age of Empires with the Steam controller? I'm not sure yet, but I'm skeptical.
I still haven't decided whether I love or hate the Steam controller. To be specific, I haven't figured out yet whether I will be able to properly play first-person shooters with the controller.
Love it or hate it (and I think those may be your only choices with this bit of technology), the Steam controller is a cleverly designed interface packed into an odd-looking chunk of plastic. Early on, when picking the controller up without looking, I almost flipped it over, thinking I was holding it upside down. That's because of those oversized, twin concave pads that can serve as directional pad, touchpad, mouse, buttons and virtual thumbsticks.
As odd as those surfaces feel and look initially, it didn't take me long to fall in love with them. I spent way too much time in Steam's menus just tooling the pointer around with the right thumbpad, feeling it rumble under my thumb like a drumroll. There's something very satisfying about controlling a mouse pointer with the pad. Maybe it's the feedback, maybe it's the sense of reinvention — that somehow Valve has figured out a way to build a better mouse — but I couldn't get enough of it.
I noticed that if I slide my thumb sideways across the pad, the pointer can pick up a little speed. Then I noticed that if I did it quickly enough and let go, it continued to rumble, as if I had just passed my hand quickly across an old-school controller ball in an arcade game like Marble Madness or Tempest. I sat on my couch for a bit, popping my thumb across the surface, first one way, then the other, feeling the controller roll along without me.
As much as I love how it feels, though, I can't seem to perfect its use in the most precise of games: the first-person shooter. And that annoys the hell out of me. The problem seems to be in my thumb's ability to deliver fine, precision movement. The thumbstick, I believe, takes slightly bigger movements and translates them, at the end of that stick, into those tiny motions. The settings I tried with the thumbpad didn't seem to do that, at least not in the same way. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive felt like it was being too persnickety with my movements, making it hard for me even to hold the aim steady. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel felt like it wasn't sensitive enough. The good news is that there is a vast array of programmable functionality built into SteamOS and the controller which allows you to adjust just about anything. You can save these control schemes and even share them. And Valve itself is working to create some solid templates as well.
More good news: The controller is pretty good at replicating mouse movement in a game. I set up the controller to work on Nuclear Throne, which isn't specifically designed for a controller, and it worked mostly flawlessly. Had I spent more time with the setup, it would have been a gem.
Ultimately, this is the sort of controller that takes some getting used to and, perhaps, could offer an edge once you do. I'm delighted it comes with Alienware's Steam Machines and even more delighted that I could just use a keyboard and mouse or standard controller if I felt like it.
The range of games is triple-A titles like Just Cause 3 that are multiplatform, all the way back to games like System Shock 2 and Half-Life. The idea that we'd be playing those games in the living room with a controller was not something we had ever considered. We had to solve all the problems there.
We talked to Avalanche Games to see if we could show Just Cause 3, which is not out yet. It already has full support for an Xbox control. We have analogs for all those things. The on-screen prompts are going to match and so on. But we felt like we could still get more out of those kinds of games than just what they were doing. We've come up with what we call high-precision gamepad mode, or high-precision aiming. Your controller works like a gamepad everywhere, except you drive your aiming with the pad instead of the thumbstick. We find you're significantly more accurate, because you're using absolute mouse positioning.
In a lot of cases, devs don't have to do any work for high-precision aiming mode. Sometimes, they made it so that the game is either listening to gamepad or keyboard and mouse. We have to tell it to just do both at the same time, and that usually takes less than a day for them to fix.
I was initially told that Steam Machines would launch with 5,000 playable games, but I think that number included stuff that can be played via streaming from another Steam-capable PC (which we'll discuss below). More recently, we were told that there would be 1,500 games that can run directly on Steam's operating system.
Whatever the case, that's an impressive number, and the list of games is indeed wide-ranging, from really old stuff to really new stuff. Technically anything released on Steam that runs on Linux should work on Steam Machines. Of course, while the number of games that run on Linux has sharply increased in recent years, that is still a limiting factor.
According to Steam's own search, there are just under 3,000 products on the service that run on SteamOS and Linux. By comparison, there are over 14,000 products on the service altogether, almost all of which will run on Windows and 5,000 of which will run on Mac hardware.
This is all to say that if you're buying a Steam Machine expecting the full Steam experience — that is, access to every game on the service — be wary. If there are specific games you want to be able to play, make sure to go to Steam's website and check that those products run in Linux first.
There are a lot of games you can play on this system right out of the box. A lot a lot. But how you play them and what you're willing to put up with can greatly impact that. If you're looking to only play games installed on the Steam Machine, then you're looking at about 1,500 right now. A big number, but one missing a lot of huge franchises. If you're looking for a game that installs and natively supports the controller, you're looking at even less: about 900. But if you're willing to stream your games from another Windows PC in your home, then you can play anything in the library.
That's good news for current PC gamers, but I'm not entirely convinced that they are the market Valve is after. If you own a PC already, you're either going to set it up in the room where you want to play or use the much less expensive Steam Link to stream to your TV of choice.
If you don't own a computer and this is it, then your launch game options are heavily weighted with indie games. That's not a bad thing, but it may be a hard sell for those on the fence.
Hopefully, things will change and the few big AAA titles already supported on Linux and SteamOS (like Borderlands The Pre-Sequel) will be joined by many more. Until then, I think Steam might struggle to find the right, broad market.
Along the way of figuring out how to solve all these problems for the Steam Machine, we built the Steam Link. This is basically like taking a feature out of the full Steam Machine and making a dedicated box for it. Streaming on Steam Machines or via Steam Link is for people that already have a high-end PC.
That streaming feature exists in Steam Machines also. In fact, it exists on any PC running Steam. We think that's a good option for all of our users now.
Here's the solution for people who want to play anything, even Windows-only products, on their Steam Machine. I didn't actually get a chance to test this much, so I can't speak to the quality and fidelity of streaming games from a PC to your Steam Machine or from your Steam Machine to another computer.
What I will say is that I'm not certain this is an option that actually adds much to the hardware. It's cool that it's there as a possibility, but I have to assume that most people who are throwing down hundreds of dollars for a Steam Machine don't already own a fully functional gaming PC on the side. There will be exceptions to that, of course — I'm one of them! — but this seems like a small bonus at best.
Steam streaming has always been something that feels genuinely miraculous when you use it. Streaming to a television, even more so. That said, it does run into issues on occasion, marring the Steam Machine experience.
When connecting the Steam Machine to my desktop PC in my office worked, I was able to play games nearly hiccup-free. But on occasion my desktop PC machine would run into an issue and pop up an error message, which I couldn't see from my living room and which had to be resolved before I could stream anything. This resulted it me trudging downstairs, turning on my monitor, figuring out the issue and then walking back upstairs to try again. It can be an exasperating exercise and one that I had hoped Valve would have figured out a solution for by now.
If you don't run into those issues — and they're not that common in my experience — streaming is a viable solution to playing your entire Steam library on your television of choice.
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