The console market is notoriously unfriendly to newcomers, but Valve's entry is among the most unusual to date.
The Seattle-based developer is an interesting company, a rare hybridization of game studio and platform holder, and their success in each market cannot be overstated. Steam dominates the PC game distribution market, but until now Valve has grown its platform without any dedicated hardware. A change is in the air with the launch of Steam Machines, a series of mostly hideous devices from a variety of manufacturers dedicated to running Valve's new proprietary SteamOS. The devices at their core are high end gaming PCs masquerading as consoles, tucked away in a more familiar form factor to win over prospective console buyers.
The proposition seems bizarre at first, but begins to make sense when considering Valve's expansion goals for their ecosystem's reach, the Steam platform's key strength. Valve is often compared to Google for choosing an Android-like approach to platform development (more on that later), but I see more similarities to Amazon. The Steam ecosystem is their bread and butter, and now that they have conquered PC, Mac, and Linux, the next obvious target is the television set. Valve hopes the Steam Machines will introduce a new audience to Steam, just like Amazon hoped the Kindle Fire would extend their ecosystem's reach to the tablet space.
I am not convinced however, that their offerings match most game consoles' fundamental strengths. Console owners buy consoles because they can play most major game releases without hassle. There is no need to buy new graphics cards, and no need to fiddle around with display settings. They just work. The Steam Machines vary greatly in cost and components, and present a plethora of awfully confusing choices to the customer. The choice to buy a console is a vote for a simple to understand experience, and though buying a Steam Machine is a far cry from building a custom gaming rig, the purchasing decision is significantly more complex than choosing between an XBOX One and PS4.
Even if we look past the purchasing options, these machines target a sub-market of a sub-market. There is a market for people who play games, which includes just about everyone who owns a recent device with a screen attached. Then, there is a sub-market for people who play console games, which is divided into two other sub-markets: family (Nintendo) and high-end (Sony and Microsoft). Valve is also gunning for the high end, but they are betting that a large portion of console owners are so intrigued by Steam and PC games that they will jump ship or buy a Steam Machine as a complimentary device. I have a hard time believing this is the case. Most people who buy consoles value the ability to easily play the latest games over minor performance increases, and those that do want superb performance probably have custom gaming rigs. Their choices have already been made.
A few have likened this early dose of Steam Machines to early Android handsets, and while it is true that Steam Machines and Android both feature hardware independent operating systems, Android had a significant advantage in availability and cost. Most early Android phones matched or undercut the iPhone in price, and were originally available on more carriers than the iPhone. The carrier concept of course does not exist in the console market, but price certainly does, and even the cheapest Steam Machine costs one hundred dollars more than the PS4.
I imagine that the Steam Machines will bring modest disruption in the console space, but not the paradigm shift we desire. I could be wrong (it is always tough to question the strength of Valve's ecosystem), but the promise of these devices simply isn't big enough.
If we are going to see a truly disruptive device in the console market, it will not be a dedicated gaming device. The surest way to expand the market size is to sell a general purpose device that can also play high end games, but until then console manufacturers will continue to shift around customers without gaining a significantly larger audience.
We have already seen this type of disruption in the portable space. Lots of people have smart phones and smart phones can play games, so unsurprisingly more people are playing games but fewer are buying dedicated gaming handhelds. No company has made a good smart TV yet, but Apple seems best positioned to do so with their strong software ecosystem and ability to produce quality hardware. Only time will tell.
Despite all of their blunders leading up to the XBOX One launch, Microsoft came closest to envisioning the future of game consoles, but they had it backwards. The XBOX One is primarily a game machine that can also access other sources of living room entertainment. The XBOX brand though, will always be identified as a video game brand. No one will buy their new machine to mainly watch Netflix and then realize there are quality games available. If you are buying a game console, you are buying it to play games.
While I am intrigued by Steam Machines, microconsoles, and the other various new boxes promising to disrupt the console industry, the best the current crop can do is battle for the remainder of its existing audience. One day a device will turn the console market on its head and grow the audience exponentially, but of this I am confident - it will not be made specifically to play games.