The first shot has been fired from the Steam Box gun, with Xi3 announcing that they are releasing the Piston at the end of the year. Reportedly, the base system – carrying decent but overall unimpressive stats – will retail for $1,000, with $100 of credit given to people who preorder early.
Already, people are qualifying this. Despite the fact that Valve invested in this, as a part of their own ideal of a PC being made to fit in the living room and play games on Steam, the Piston isn’t being called a Steam Box; instead, Xi3 is careful to note that in addition to Steam, Origin and other services can be played on it. Many commentators are stating that other devices can come out with the “Steam Box” moniker, including something put out by Valve itself.
This is largely noise, and the noise has to be cleared soon, because if this is the future of the Steam Box – a $1,000 PC with a small form factor – then the future is grim.
The Steam Box was conceived for one reason: to put PC gaming in the living room alongside – or in place of – a console like a PlayStation or a Wii. Therefore, it’s not competing just against other gaming PCs – let’s face it, I can go to Best Buy right now, buy a desktop PC, slap it onto an HDMI port, run Steam in Big Picture mode and call it a “Steam Box” – but against consoles as well. Right now, the newest console on the market, the Wii U, costs $350 for the Deluxe Set1, and even with that, analysts are calling for price cuts. The comfort zone for consoles is generally in the $250 – $350 range depending on the age of the hardware, the specs, and other ancillary factors.
With that in mind, what consumer is going to buy a thousand dollar console? I don’t care what it does; no consumer is going to purchase something for a thousand dollars that, at first glance, does less than a personal computer that’s priced even lower. “But it’s more powerful than a typical PC!” Great, now explain that to your least technically savvy friend; that’s what you’re dealing with. If they cared about typical PC specs, they would be PC gaming.
What’s more worrisome is the effect this could have on public perception of the Steam Box, whatever that concept is. If this is indeed the future of the Steam Box, then the Steam Box is dead. But if Valve and others come out with cheaper Steam Boxes, with varying price points, then you start to get into market fragmentation, much like Android’s early days. No one wants to deal with that, especially if the “real” Steam Box by Valve is running Linux and the others aren’t running the same operating system; some might even be running Windows. Once that happens, updates and other sundry issues become a legitimate problem, especially if games start to be optimized to Valve’s hardware, and not just the software.
In my eyes, the Piston is dead on arrival. When a product comes out searching for a market, that’s usually not a good thing, and a $1,000 PC for your living room definitely qualifies. Beyond that, if this continues, Valve is in trouble of letting public perception be clouded. “Open” hardware and “open” ideals are wonderful, but they don’t work commercially, and Valve needs to hit a commercial home run on this. They might be best served closing ranks, taking control of both the message and the nuts-and-bolts of the Steam Box, and leading from their position of strength, because if this is truly where the Steam Box is going, it doesn’t stand a chance in Hell.
EDIT: Looks like Steam is doing just that. In a statement to Eurogamer, Valve’s Dean Lombardi noted that “Valve began some exploratory work with Xi3 last year, but currently has no involvement in any product of theirs”. Personally, I think they should go farther to distance themselves from this device, to stay ahead of public perception.
1 – I know the Basic Set is $300, but the Basic Set is virtually useless, so I don’t count it.