Valve's Steam Machine lineup poses massive threat to gaming status quo

Consoles beware: with huge players like Alienware and Falcon Northwest onboard, the diverse and low-cost Steam Machines unveiled at CES 2014 put Valve in place to pull off its revolution.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
4 min read
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Watch this: Valve introduces third party Steam machines

LAS VEGAS -- Valve isn't known to push promises or boast bold claims, yet all eyes are on CEO Gabe Newell's empire in anticipation of its all-in moment. Because instead of loudly laying a roadmap, Valve has silently amassed influence -- Steam now has 65 million active users -- and built free open-source tools, like SteamOS, that can now be used on any gaming rig, even one you design yourself. Those calculations have all led here, the launch of the Steam Machine as the first credible gaming alternative to the console juggernauts.

At CES 2014, we're watching Valve, once an indie developer and now a formidable digital entertainment nexus, begin this systematic shake-up of the game industry. With its slew of well-known partners, announced Monday at a press conference here, that can bring PC gaming to the mainstream, Valve is poised to lead its assault on the living room.

The movement could very well sweep up every sector of the gaming audience, from the diehard PC fans to living room junkies with a large flat-screen and money that may find its self going toward a Steam Machine, not a next-gen console.

Valve's long-awaited partners in this pursuit include PC gaming juggernauts Alienware, Falcon Northwest, and Gigabyte. The more obscure names rounding out the lineup are iBuyPower, CyberPowerPC, Origin PC, Materiel.net, Webhallen, Alternate, Next, Zotac, and Scan Computers. Early reports indicate that prices range from as low as $499 to as high as $6,000.

But what's important there, and integral to Valve's strategy for the adoption of Steam Machines, is that there are officially 14 different units coming to market later this year, including Valve's very own design.

That's a lot of choices. And that diverse a price range puts the console market's slim selection of options in an uncomfortable corner. Newell has stressed that the point of the open-source philosophy behind Steam is not only to be as consumer- and community-friendly as possible, but also to build out the ecosystem as quickly and aggressively as possible.

In that vein, Valve announced Monday that it will also be letting third-party manufacturers of Steam Machines design their own controllers.

An Alienware Steam Machine controller utilizing Valve's innovative dual-trackpad design. Sarah Tew/CNET

More choices means more reasons to give PC gaming a chance
The logic goes like this: PC gaming, long reserved for those with the knowledge and hobbyist interest to build their own machines, is an expensive pursuit but one that offers complete freedom. But it takes time and effort, something that your average console gamer would rather forgo if it means he or she can still more or less play the biggest and best titles.

All one has to do is swap out a monitor for a television and a gaming tower for an Xbox or PlayStation. Additionally, consoles have been smaller, easier to transport, and contain all those nifty entertainment features that blend television with a stripped-down desktop OS, achieved by sacrificing the upgradability and functionality of a computer for the benefits of having something that plays well with the living room.

Steam Machines invade CES (pictures)

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Now enter SteamOS. With an open-source, free-to-use Linux-based operating system, anyone can make a Steam Machine, put it anywhere in their house, and use it as they see fit. That means a Steam Machine can be anything to anyone, a decked out gaming rig that still sits plugged into a huge monitor or a stripped down cube that stays plugged into the living room television.

And not only can it be messed with and configured to meet the needs of even the most hardcore of Linux veterans and PC gaming aficionados, but its also a full blown operating system more in line with what you'd get on a computer, not the kind being touted by Sony and Microsoft in the PS4 or Xbox One.

Here's the best part: while members of the hardcore community are content with layering SteamOS over something they build themselves, those who would have traditionally opted for a console can now explore not just one or two, but 14 different options from experienced gaming PC companies.

What we don't know yet is exactly what these different devices' price points will net consumers, where the tradeoffs are, and how each stacks up in a point-by-point comparison with consoles. We also have no idea how well the Linux-based SteamOS platform will play with big name developers.

Because while a Steam Machine may look like a viable replacement for one's less powerful living room console, it won't matter to the console devotees who still want the option to play their favorite franchises. SteamOS at the moment only has 250 titles onboard, a library that pales in comparison with the Windows and Mac libraries. You can of course dual-boot to play titles on another OS platform, but Valve's whole philosophy behind SteamOS is that tis designed to operate better in a living setting than Windows or OS X, especially when the idea is to forgo a mouse and keyboard for a dual-trackpad controller.

Alienware's Steam Machine, unveiled at CES 2014 on Monday, Jan. 6, is just one of the diverse living room PC gaming devices that are poised to upend the industry. Sarah Tew/CNET

And despite the more-than-likely outcome that most of these Steam Machines will not be anyone near as streaming-focused as consoles, consumers will still want the barebones entertainment functionality of Netflix and the other big names that we've come to expect in even the most low-end of smart TVs and streaming boxes.

There's a lot of unanswered questions. But it would be safe to say that Valve is only getting started, and its handing a copy of the keys to manufacturers, game designers, and pretty much everyone under the gaming sun. Oh, that includes us players too.

Because the appeal of Steam's shift to the living room is not just in the hardware, but in that we all get to decide whether or not it makes sense for us.