Game developer Valve's second of three major announcements this week has hit the Internet, and its hardware strategy is not quite what the Internet was expecting. Rather than releasing its own Steam boxes, Valve has elected to let third parties build a wide range of SteamOS systems — a strategy that could prove both beneficial and confusing.
In case you missed the first announcement, Valve revealed SteamOS on Monday: a brand-new Linux-based operating system that exists, more or less, just to play Steam games. The system will also sport some streaming-video services (which ones have yet to be determined), to put it on a more level playing field with traditional gaming consoles, like an Xbox 360 or a PS3.
Although gamers will be able to install SteamOS for free on any system of their choice, fans theorized that Valve's next announcement would be a specialized console from Valve that would run SteamOS and hook up to a TV as easily as an Xbox 360 or a PS3.
The speculations were partially right: SteamOS consoles are, indeed, on their way, but not from Valve. Furthermore, there won't be just one Steam box to suit all users' needs; rather, a number of companies will produce SteamOS systems to cater to a variety of gaming habits and price ranges.
In fact, the only system to come from Valve will be a prototype SteamOS console. The company will make about 300 units and give them away to lucky beta testers. If you want to get your hands on one, you'll need to do a little work to enter yourself into a lottery, including hooking your PC up to a TV and using a controller to try Steam's "Big Picture" mode for living-room gaming.
If you'd rather hold out to see what Steam's collaborators have to offer, you'll have at least a few options, although Valve has yet to reveal exactly what those options will be. "Entertainment is not a one-size-fits-all world," the Steam announcement website states. "There will ultimately be several boxes to choose from, with an array of specifications, price and performance."
Given Steam's diverse user base and enormous library (which includes more than 2,000 games), offering multiple systems might not be a bad idea. After all, a gamer who's chomping at the bit to play graphical powerhouses "BioShock Infinite" and "Saints Row IV" is going to have very different needs and expectations than an indie connoisseur who's primary there for graphically lightweight titles like "To the Moon" and "Hotline Miami."
That said, hardcore Steam gamers might be more inclined to build their own Steam boxes (SteamOS is free), or just hook up a PC or Mac to a TV as-is. If Valve is targeting everyday consumers with its Steam machines, releasing a wide variety of them could have some drawbacks.
Part of the appeal of a traditional, living-room-based console is its universality. Someone who wanders into a Best Buy looking to walk out with a console can probably tell the difference between a 250GB PS3 and a 500GB one. In spite of the varying specs, consumers know that they're both from Sony and play the exact same games with the exact same graphical fidelity.
Imagine, instead, having four or five different manufacturers selling systems so diverse that the low-end ones may not even be able to support every game on Steam. Imagine also trying to explain that the Steam machine you buy today may not be sufficient to run demanding games that come out in two or three years.
This is to say nothing of the fact that Valve's announcement suggests that SteamOS, as a Linux system, will only be able to run Linux-compatible games without streaming them through a Windows PC or a Mac. Very few people want to hear that they need to already own a gaming-quality PC, ready to stream via Wi-Fi, if they want to access a good chunk of Steam's content.
Given that Steam was designed with PCs — inherently upgradable and in possession of a tech-savvy user base — in mind, targeting a user base that's more comfortable buying static machines could be a difficult proposition. SteamOS and the various Steam boxes might be a gamer's dream come true, but gamers already love Steam. The question is whether the general public will, too.