Friday July 29th 2022 was the second-most memorable day of my entire gaming life, behind only the 25th December 1997 when, at 5am, I burst into my parents’ bedroom and tore the wrapping off a PlayStation 1. July 2022 was, of course, when I first got my hands on my Steam Deck.
I’ve built, bought and owned numerous gaming machines, from handhelds to consoles to high-end gaming PCs. But none aside from that PS1 have evoked anywhere near as much anticipation as Valve’s Steam Deck.
There are a few reasons why. When announced, the Steam Deck represented the concept that PC gaming was shaking off its restrictions. At a personal level, PC gaming would no longer require shutting myself in my study — I could now take my Steam library on the train to work, or to the living room, without being limited by a laptop trackpad or the awkwardness of using a mouse away from a desk. Week-long gaming sessions needn’t be interrupted by annoyances like going on vacation either. This was an incredibly exciting concept, in theory.
There was a sense, too, that the Steam Deck heralded a broader freeing of PC gaming. Its relatively low price point versus a gaming rig could open up PC titles for people who may not have had the money for a desktop or laptop that could run them. While its high-profile launch, its portability and serious gaming capabilities had the potential to attract gamers who may previously only have used consoles.
Of course, there were other reasons. The Steam Deck was and is technically impressive — during the wait for mine, I watched countless articles and videos showing how well the little Deck could run triple-A games. It was fantastic and supremely exciting to see all of that performance shrunk into a tiny handheld.
Finally, there was the long wait for the Deck, and the amount of hype that surrounded it from its announcement all the way through to fulfilment. The wait was agonizing, driving media and consumer excitement to feverish levels.
So why now, a year after the Steam Deck’s release and 7 months after I received mine, is my Deck sitting on a TV stand in my house, unused for around a month? Why is it suffering the indignity of being picked up only so I can use its power adapter to fast-charge a phone?
Portability? Only technically
As there were numerous reasons for being so excited about the Deck, so too are there several factors that have resulted in me neglecting it, one of which is the battery. I’ve played a range of games on the Steam Deck, from graphically intensive RPGs like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order through to much smaller early-access titles like Hellish Quart. Battery life has been poor across the board, often managing under 90 minutes.
To devote any decent time to gaming in my lounge or on the train, I found I had to stay near a socket. This proved awkward and frustrating over time, especially as I’ve found the Deck to get uncomfortably hot when playing on charge.
What’s more, on car or bus journeys, or if playing out and about in a cafe for example, socket charging often isn’t possible. My solution has been to lug around a power bank (which has also doubled up as my charging solution if I’ve needed to sit in a part of my lounge without a nearby socket). Given the Steam Deck’s already bulky case, the prospect of adding the weight and size of both to my work or travel bag has often been enough for me to just leave them at home.
All of this has, in my experience at least, severely limited the Steam Deck’s efficacy as a truly portable gaming device, and as such my use of it.
While the battery may be Valve’s fault, most of my reasons for ditching the Deck are down to me, not it. During my ownership, health issues have stopped me commuting. This has meant one of the Deck’s biggest draws — playing on the train home from work — is not something I need anymore.
Similarly, while at first it was cool having an extension of my gaming rig that I could use in other parts of the house, the novelty wore off quickly, and since then I haven’t found myself using the Steam Deck much that way.
When gaming at home, I tend to want to go all-in. I’m not gaming to kill time as I would on a commute — it’s ‘me time’, which I want to dedicate to a game I love. Likewise, when I sit down to watch TV, I want to pay attention to what I’m watching.
For that reason, I’ve realized I much prefer shutting myself away for a solid 6 hours of gaming in isolation rather than casually playing for an hour while I watch TV.
The games you play
I also think the types of games you play make a big difference to how much you’ll get out of a Steam Deck. A big part of why I’ve ditched the Deck is because my gaming doesn’t really suit it.
While I had some fun playing casually on titles like Hellish Quart, Stray and GTA V, I predominantly play grand strategy games, specifically Total War: Three Kingdoms and Crusader Kings 3. Playing Total War on Steam Deck is just not an experience I was prepared to bother with. Full-fat Total War games need a mouse, keyboard and a larger screen for real time battles to be playable.
Despite not being verified for Steam Deck, Crusader Kings 3 is totally playable, as your whole time is spent on a campaign map. After a while getting used to the controls and with a few custom control maps, it’s a surprisingly easy experience.
However, due to the small screen, CK3’s UI can’t be increased without affecting certain core screen elements, limiting the time I found I could spend on the game before starting to get eye strain. What’s more, cloud syncs don’t seem to work for CK3: my PC saves weren’t visible on the Steam Deck and vice versa, requiring me to start separate campaigns on both. In the end, I just gravitated back to my PC, its larger screen and my main savegames.
To sum it up, I barely use my Steam Deck because it doesn't suit the games I spend the majority of my time playing, I’ve been commuting less than before and I’ve found it a bit of a pain to use in most situations inside and outside of the house.
Happily, however, as covered in a recent case study by Kimberly Gedeon, Editor at sibling publication Laptop Mag, most users don’t seem to feel the same way. In fact, Kimberly’s hypothesis that the hype would now have died down and people would be ditching their Decks on mass ended up being wrong — 4 out of 5 of her case studies still played their Decks as they did a year ago, which she was pleased to discover.
I’ll admit that I succumbed to the hype around the Steam Deck. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It was a hype that was totally justified and mostly fulfilled. The Steam Deck is a great piece of gaming hardware that delivers on the fundamental promises Valve made about it, and even though I don’t use it much anymore, I’m still happy I bought it if only to support Valve, the Steam Deck and what it represents for the future of PC gaming.