Steam Machines  screenshot

Steam Machines

The company that changed PC Gaming

Videogame industry met the quiet calm of being almost inaccessible lately for hardware companies. For that reason we barely find brave developers that want to launch their own machines to the market. Video game consoles’ last participant was Microsoft with its Xbox that now meets its own third generation with Xbox One, competence of Sony PlayStation 4 and Nintendo WiiU. This situation has been normal for the last two generations since SEGA left hardware’s manufacturing with the fondly remembered Dreamcast. Now the market has changed and Valve tries to take its share thanks to the successful Steam store by providing a hybrid between PC and console for the living-room.

Valve has been pretty busy these last weeks. The announcement of their Linux-based Operating System, SteamOS, was unexpected years ago, but not now. The Steam Controller brings something new to the scene, haptic control with no physical digital pads or thumbsticks. Finally the Steam Machine, which will gather all of these last elements and turn them into the new way of gaming with a high-end device. Time will say whether the revolution is real or just a dream of the visionary Valve Company.

SteamOS, freedom made software

As a whim of fate OS works for Operating System and Open-Source. Valve’s way of thinking made them to design an open software platform for sharing and developing new content, not only games, but also all kind of applications, as long as they are accepted on Steam. The digital store has been always successful; as an online publishing tool it saves loads of money to developers. This way, independent companies can develop not so usual games with great success and little investment.

This new Operating System is not only designed for gaming, which will be its main function, but it is also conceived as a multimedia center for your living-room. If you already have a powerful Windows or Mac computer, you can have them as the main source for games and transfer the image to the Steam Machine placed in the seamlessly via in-home streaming. With this you will be able to comfortably play your Steam games in your TV just configuring an easy home network for sharing the signal.

The last news we have regarding novelties on the Steam system is that, soon enough, an online service of music and video will be included in the digital distribution application. This is a great bet for creating a family system instead of the classic computers turned into multimedia centers. Besides that, it will be fully compatible with the main multi-platform games published.

By not depending on DirectX, games will have better performances according to the last tests on Linux-based computers. OpenGL API is working really well with ported Windows games, showing better results on Ubuntu Operating Systems. With shorter specs you can run the same games with better outcomes. That is the way Valve is aiming to with these off-the-shelf machines tested in the real-world by actual beta testers.

Steam Controller, brand new gamepad

One of the most common arguments about PC vs Console is the type of controlling games. PC gamers claim that it is not comfortable to play First-person Shooting games with gamepads due to its lack of precision for quick camera movements, and that the combination of keyboard + mouse is more intuitive. Valve’s solution is to bring a controller based on trackpads for controlling both character and camera movements in a similar way to the PC combination.

The design may look a bit robust, with big touchpads, one for each hand, two buttons around each one, big handgrips with back buttons for additional actions, and a customizable touchpad in the middle of the controller. For what we know, the Steam Controller enhances the control for FPS and Strategy games, providing quick movements that cannot be reachable with usual console pads.

The main novelty compared to other controllers is the haptic function of its trackpads. This function makes players feel the game, not only by the usual vibrations, but retrieving actual information about game events. For example, the pad may change when you get hit during a game, can display different form buttons or even move like water waves on the surface of a lake. The technology is really impressive, but is it really useful for multiplayer competitive gaming? Let’s wait to new ways of implementing these functions and remember that this gamepad is not obligatory for playing with the so-called Steam Machines.

This Steam device improves the performance for playing game genres that are mainly designed for PC gaming. At first, the feeling may be weird since you may not be used to this kind of controls, but with practice you will be able to move pretty well. This may mean the introduction for new game genres, but that is something that we will see in the future.

In order to take advantage of the controller, Valve has made clear that it will work for previous titles launched on Steam. So don’t worry, you will be able to play the first versions of Half-life with this new input. It is also designed for being fully hackeable, so you can use it for your own projects or to work with it the way you want due to its open policy.

Steam Machines, computers made console

Valve’s information about these machines is pretty clear: you can do whatever you want with them. These machines will run natively SteamOS and there won’t be any difference from actual computers except for its main purpose, which will be gaming. The prototypes for the testers are optimized mainly for playing videogames, but probably in the future we will see boxes with different objectives depending on the target they look forward: small prices for low-end machines, high-performance or just multimedia usage.

The specifications may differ depending on the manufacturer. There won’t be just one Steam Machines maker, but since the design is open, any kind of third-party company can join the market using their own box model. Due to this, we will be able to see powerful machines with 16gb RAM memory DDR3-1600, great SSHD for enhanced performance and great GPUs brought by NVidia or AMD such as Titan, GeForce GTX760 or GTX780 among other models. Processors also join the game by Intel with hardware such as i7-4470 or i5-4570, all of this with 450w power supply and great quietness.

We must have in mind that the correct working will depend on the available drivers for each component. For solving this issue, Valve is really working together with the main developers in order to create the best way for taking advantage of the most powerful hardware elements. In 2014 we will see the first machines commercially on the market, but now we know what we can expect.

Actually, hardware companies are working on these machines and we are discovering new prototypes as weeks pass. iBuyPower has shown some details of its prototype such as its price, around 499 dollars, and some of its specs like a built-in AMD processor and a Radeon R9 270 as its main GPU. We need to be patient for more details about this concrete machine, but the first impressions are quite good.

Is this the future of gaming?

As we learn more about this Steam Machines, we can tell that the participation in the project is really something that other consoles haven’t. The compatibility with other wearable devices such as Oculus Rift may involve a new way of understanding the videogame industry, with great graphics through virtual reality and avoiding complicated configuring processes for non-advanced PC users.

Gabe Newell, co-founder of Valve, makes their philosophy suitable for this console-like machine. There will be new contributions from different developers and giant electronics companies that will collaborate to optimize new devices for this new gaming platform, so it is foreseeable that Valve is all-in in the future of videogames.