Are Steam Machines a Failure After Only 7 Months?

Valve’s first foray into home computing hardware, the Steam Machine collaborations with various computer makers, have sold fewer than 500,000 units since they were released last November. A figure estimated by Ars Technica via the number of Steam Controllers sold which includes Steam Machines as a portion of that total:

Half a million might not sound like a bad sales number for a brand new hardware platform, but it starts to look pretty tepid in the context of the wider gaming market. Both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One sold over a million consoles in their first day on the market in 2013. After just over seven months on store shelves, Microsoft was up to about 5.5 million Xbox One sales and the PS4 had racked up 10.2 million worldwide sales. That’s what a successful gaming hardware launch looks like these days.

Valve is often guilty of starting something and then just giving up on it without iterating to find success. Their cousins at Microsoft would have had the same issue if they gave up on the original Xbox which sold only 24 million consoles over its first 7 years and was another system frequently referred to as a failure.

Sales figures of hardware over the course of a few months aren’t necessarily going to make or break a company, but I believe that Valve still needs SteamOS.

Quantum Break, the remastered Gears of War: Ultimate EditionForza Motorsport 6: Apex, the upcoming games Halo Wars 2 and ReCore are all exclusive to Windows 10’s built-in app store. SteamOS and Steam Machines continue to be a hedge against Microsoft’s built-in Windows app store restrictions that Valve will need to remain competitive in the event of even more anti-competitive changes to Windows.

Liam Dawe of Gaming on Linux is right on about the lack of advertising hurting sales of the nascent Steam Machines and SteamOS/Linux games:

We are facing real issues, like a lack of bigger platform-pushing titles and performance. Valve do need to up their own advertising a bit too, not just of Steam Machines, but of new Linux releases. They give big homepage banners to plenty of new Windows releases, but only a few SteamOS releases have been graced with such advertising. Valve haven’t even managed to get their own VR device with HTC on Linux yet, they need to up their own game.

Steam Machines, Controller, Link up for Order

In addition to refunds, we have pre-orders available for the first three pieces of Valve’s Steam-appointed hardware.

Steam Machines. They’re from third parties like Alienware, they run Valve’s SteamOS variant of Linux and play games on Linux via Steam or can stream games from a Windows desktop in another part of your home. If you pre-order you can get one a month early on October 16th The machines available for pre-order today a range of prices from $450 to $1,419. Everyone else can get them when they’re released November 10th.

It’s still ridiculously awesome to see hardware manufacturers shipping a Linux-based gaming computer. After buying boxed games over a decade ago for Linux, watching it all burn down only to be resurrected through downloadable ports via Valve and the Humble Bundle. Not since the days of Civilization: Call to Power have Linux gamers had this much reason to be hopeful for the future. The Linux-based computers are almost as strange as the fact that some of the pre-orders are being handled through GameStop.

The second item in the pre-order lineup isn’t as hopeful. For those that want to spend far less and just want to stream from another gaming computer in their home to their TV there is the Steam Link. At the moment though, people who order the Link won’t be running any version of SteamOS’ Linux and won’t be downloading Linux games. Maybe in the future it’ll seem like a better option to get a Steam Link and stream games from a more powerful Linux machine. The Link is $50. Just like with the Steam Machine, the Steam Link can be pre-ordered for arrival on the 16th of October. Everyone else has to wait for the tenth of November.

Finally we have the controller. I’ve had the prototype model along with the Gigabyte Brix Steam Machine for over a year. This controller design looks incredibly different from the prototype and I don’t know what to expect at all in terms of usefulness. The prototype ended up being fun to try for a while but was only a stepping stone to this final design. The Steam Controller is $50 and has the same mid-October availability for pre-orders and November for not-pre-orders.

Sensing the potential for maximum confusion at the Steam Controller’s presence in a world dominated by 360, Xbox One and Playstation 4 controllers, Valve has created a trailer for potential controller purchasers to make up their minds. I don’t recall ever watching a trailer with this much production expense having gone into it just for a controller. Unless they were up for crowd funding. Almost more ridiculous than Valve’s foray into the living room involving Linux is that these cross-platform supporters still require Adobe Flash plugin in Apple’s Safari web browser to watch videos or you get this unplayable mess:

Steam controller flash failure

Steam Machines Aren’t Here to Challenge Consoles

Valve recently put up an early list of Steam Machines coming this November from various gaming computer makers. Paul Tassi of Forbes is here predicting doom and gloom in an article comparing the chances for Valve’s success against traditional gaming consoles:

So if Steam Machines aren’t for console players, will existing PC gamers bite? I really don’t see a reason for them to do so. PC gamers like their mouse and keyboard, their ability to sit close to their monitor, and the probably multi-thousand-dollar rig they already have. The avid PC gamers I’ve seen look at Steam Machines as “good for people who want to check out PC gaming,” but almost none of them seem to be considering it for themselves. And why would they? It’s just a pre-built gaming rig that hooks up to their TV and runs Steam Big Picture, something all the do-it-yourself-ers out there could have made themselves for years now if they really wanted to. With the release of the new store, many veterans of the scene are looking over some of the machines and laughing about the price, knowing they could get the exact same level of performance for much, much cheaper if they did it on their own. Other than the ability to express their endless love and devotion for Valve’s Gabe Newell, patron saint of PC gaming, I don’t know what PC gamers get out of Steam Machines.

This is but one of the many arguments Paul Tassi has that they won’t find their market.

It’s a bit early to predict the death of Steam Machines, eight months before they ship. Among Paul Tassi’s other arguments is this one:

Why? Before I flood your screen with a deluge of reasons, first and foremost what the new store page shows is a huge range of prices, ranging from slightly above asking price for the PS4 and One ($460 for iBuyPower’s box) to typically absurd gaming PC levels (as high as $5,000 for top-of-the-line units from Falcon Northwest and Origin). Across the fifteen(!) different machines on the page, only two are around the $500 mark, while the rest probably average between $700-$900, if I’m being generous.

There is definitely a large selection and I can see how it might steer some people away and back to their consoles. It makes sense to have a small selection of products that people can choose from. A good machine, a better machine, a best machine.

That is the one valid criticism in Paul Tassi’s article. The others are ridiculous. PC gamers aren’t going to buy these? If some weren’t already buying pre-built gaming machines these companies wouldn’t be in business to now sell Steam Machines.

There are other, more valid, criticisms that Paul Tassi misses.

These machines run Steam OS, and although you could replace that and install Windows at your own expense there will be a more limited selection of games available for the default Linux-based operating system.

Though he does point out that they’re more expensive than consoles, the reason why is extremely important. Consoles are subsidized and initially sold at a loss to be later offset by software sales with a cut going back to the manufacturer. Valve isn’t selling these directly and can’t do that. Subsidies are the one way that Valve could really improve the initial turnout on Steam Machines but then they would have to produce their own and be competing with these third parties.

The advantage to Valve in the current Steam Machine situation is that they lose almost nothing if Steam Machines fail to find users.

The one thing Valve loses if Steam Machines fail is their edge against Microsoft. Steam Machines (and SteamOS) exist as a hedge against the possibility of a strong Windows App Store in future versions of Windows where customers won’t or can’t choose Valve’s Steam marketplace.

The computer manufactures have something to lose too. With Steam Machines they don’t have to deal with Microsoft and pay for copies of Windows. As far as we know, Valve charges them nothing to include SteamOS.

This is the reason why Steam Machines aren’t really here to challenge consoles. They’re here to take on Windows.

Valve’s SteamVR and Steam Controller Hands On

Ben Kuchera got a chance to try Valve’s Steam VR headset system using the just announced Vive hardware from HTC as well as an updated version of the controller for Steam Machines.

On the VR System:

The hardware is clearly a work in progress, and the fit and finish needs to be improved substantially before launch. The two controllers, one held in each hand, feature buttons on the grips; they feature triggers too, and a touchpad on the front that also works as a button. It’s an intense amount of hardware. We were told that to run the demos we were playing, you’d need a high-end video card and a very competitive gaming PC. Nothing about this sounds like a mass media product.

So that’s the bad news. The good news is that the hardware is incredibly fucking cool.

Read the rest of his article, his experience there sounds fantastic. Mark “Gaming Jesus” MacDonald also described the Steam VR experience Valve was demonstrating last year on this week’s Giant Bombcast.

On the controller:

The Steam controller is a big part of what makes a Steam Machine a Steam Machine; we were told that running SteamOS and being packaged with the controller were two of the main things that need to be included to use that branding. The controller itself has gone through a number of revisions, but we were able to use what Valve is calling the final version during GDC.

The old Steam Controller given out at dev days was obviously a stepping stone to get somewhere else, I haven’t used it in months, and I can’t wait to try this new one. It’s particularly interesting how this newer iteration has the exact same X/Y/A/B button layout down to the color as the Xbox One controller. It’ll be $50 when it’s released this November. No price on theVive yet.