I went to bed last night thinking about what a new Valve game built for the Steam Deck would look like. That’s almost entirely because I had just read a Gabe Newell interview in Edge magazine, where they asked him about Valve developing a first-party game to show off the portable hardware, and he said Valve thought about it but decided to put its resources elsewhere — like making Dota and Counter-Strike work better on the device.
So I was a little surprised this morning to see Valve announce Aperture Desk Job, a free game/tech demo thing set in the Portal universe. There’s enough wiggle room here that I’m not so worried about Newell’s comments being misleading — Valve refers to it as a “short” rather than a game, for one. But it got me thinking about the value of having a custom first-party release alongside the launch of new hardware.
Go back a few decades, and it was almost unthinkable not to have one. There’s no world in which the Nintendo 64 didn’t launch with Super Mario 64, or Saturn with Virtua Fighter. That started to change with PlayStation and a move away from console mascots, but most consoles still typically showed up with a custom launch game that helped show off the hardware and justify the purchase.
In recent years, though, the idea of a console has started to change — especially at Microsoft, which constantly talks about its strategy of turning consoles into access points rather than isolated boxes. When Microsoft delayed Halo Infinite and ended up launching Xbox Series X without a centerpiece first-party game, it was disappointing, but it also sort of felt like that went hand-in-hand with Microsoft’s strategy about not needing clear-cut hardware generations.
Ever since Valve announced the Steam Deck, I had put it in that same category in my head. This is a piece of hardware designed to play Steam games on portable hardware. It’s a new access point to an existing library. So it didn’t even occur to me that studios would design custom games for it. There’s nothing on there you can’t do with a standard controller, right?
Aperture Desk Job seems to be the game that will answer that question. The way Valve announced it — telling players to “lower your expectations” and giving it away for free — suggests this will be a small project, perhaps similar to its VR tech demo The Lab. Compared to something like Halo Infinite, I’d imagine the investment is something in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars less.
But there’s something nice and comforting about the people who make hardware delivering custom software to show it off.