Should a Steam Machine be your system of choice for gaming?

Of all the press conferences at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Valve Corp’s unveiling of third-party Steam Machines was probably the strangest (given that historically, Valve has been a software company). If you’re a PC gamer, it’s pretty likely that you’ve been following the development of these almost-mythical systems which plug straight into your living room television, allowing you to experience the magic of PC gaming in a relatively more unusual setting. And at CES 2014, Valve unveiled several systems from various hardware partners, covering a large spectrum of pricing and specifications. But which system should you get? Or should you be getting one at all? To answer these questions, we’ll need to take a few things into consideration.

Goodbye, Windows!

Every Steam Machine will run Steam OS, a free operating system based on Linux architecture developed by Valve. Gabe Newell, co-founder and Managing Director of Valve Corp., has spoken critically about Windows and Windows 8 (which he referred to as “this giant sadness”). He believes that Linux is the way forward, not only from a game development perspective, but points out that declining PC sales and poor adoption rates of Windows 8 are indicators of consumers’ disinterest in existing options. There’s no doubt that the openness of Linux will allow developers the freedom to get the most out of hardware, but will also reduce development costs in the process. If consumers, in turn, have to pay less for the software (or in this case, nothing for the operating system), then it’s clearly a win-win situation.

Developer buy-in and game catalogue

The hardware itself is the first step in the right direction. There’s no doubt that Valve will have several mountains to move over the next couple of years getting support for Steam OS and the machines themselves, but immediate developer buy-in is very important. Right now, the Steam store features only 480 Linux games (that’s less than half of their Mac catalogue!), of which a mere 75 are multiplayer games. Apart from Valve-developed games such as Left 4 Dead 2, Dota 2, and the odd exception of a third-party heavyweight like Metro: Last Light, the game catalogue isn’t attractive enough to warrant a switch to the platform. Showing off the Steam Machines is the right move to incentivise game creators of the triple-A variety and big publishers to stop and take notice. Granted, the indie game scene is at its peak right now, but big budget titles are an absolute necessity to drive the platform.

The Steam Controller

While PC gaming has always been associated with a mouse and keyboard, Valve wants you to break the mould and game from your sofa. Making this possible isn’t just any wireless gamepad, but Valve’s very own Steam Controller, an ultra-precise input device which features dual haptic trackpads and a touchscreen. Initial reports have been good (with mixed reports from a small minority), and Valve claims that it has been built with gamers used to the precision of a mouse and keyboard in mind. No word on pricing or availability, but if you’re going to be a Steam Machine early adopter, the Steam Controller should be on your ‘to buy’ list.

Pricing and flexibility of experience

The first batch of third-party Steam Machines are priced between US$499 and $6,000. Yeah, that’s a pretty wide range to say the least. But these machines are made up of mixed and matched components. It makes no sense to invest in a high-end Steam Machine right now because of the utter lack of content, particularly if it is going to be your main platform of choice for gaming. But if it’s your second system (in addition to your primary gaming PC which runs Windows), Steam OS allows streaming over your home network. While this sounds good in theory, I’m sceptical of its practical implementation.

The bottom line? I think it’s too early to jump on the Steam OS and/or Steam Machine bandwagon right now, unless you’re an eager early adopter (in which case your mind is made up already). I’d like to see some big budget games that will actually benefit from the living room environment before making that purchase decision. Besides, Valve hasn’t given us any details on their first-party Steam system yet.