Steam Machines could be the PC that time passed by. These small computers, designed for streaming games in your living room, were intended as an alternative platform for gamers during the dark years of Windows 8. But what actually happened--or rather, didn't happen--with Steam Machines makes their future uncertain.
The time for Steam Machines was ripe--over two years ago, when the dramatically altered Windows 8 threw everyone for a loop. Valve founder Gabe Newell called the new OS "a catastrophe," "this giant sadness," and "unusable." He wasn't the only one: Minecraft's Notch and Blizzard's Rob Pardo also slammed it. PC gaming companies feared Windows would eventually become a completely locked-down platform, where software could be distributed only from a central, walled-off Windows Store--like Windows RT was.
It's no surprise that Valve decided to focus its efforts on getting Steam on Linux, porting all of its games to run on the open-source operating system, encouraging other big-name game developers to support Linux, and creating Linux-based Steam Machines.
Here's the problem: Steam Machines have suffered from a long delay and have yet to materialize. In the interim, the core message of Steam Machines has fallen apart, to the point that PC makers themselves are complaining about the confusion.
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Meanwhile, Microsoft has gotten its act together and is making an effort to embrace PC gaming with Windows 10. The company's recent Windows 10 announcement featured PCs running Valve's mega-popular Steam client. Microsoft's Phil Spencer recently told Polygon that "Microsoft had met with the people at Valve to make sure they were onboard with Windows 10." DirectX 12 is looking great, and even the cheapest of dirt-cheap set-top boxes are enabling real-time streaming of PC games to your TV.
Hey: Valve's Gabe Newell did publicly call Valve's focus on Linux "a hedging strategy." Valve may still be trying to develop Steam Machine, and some expect new announcements at the Game Developer's Conference in March. But given Microsoft's recovery, it's possible that Steam Machines have missed their window of opportunity.
Game streaming is becoming commoditized
Windows 10 isn't the only thing threatening to stall Steam Machines. It's also losing the features war. A Linux-based Steam Machine in your living room might not be able to play all those Windows games, but you could supplement that by streaming your full library of Steam games from your Windows gaming PC to your Steam Machine. Or you could just get a lower-power, cheaper Steam Machine and use it exclusively for game-streaming from your PC to your living room.
But even that has become less interesting and more commoditized. Microsoft is looking at streaming PC games to an Xbox One, so at some point you may be able to buy an Xbox One for $350 and get the ability to play both Xbox One games and stream games to it from your PC. Razer's Android-based Forge TV console allows you to stream games from a PC to your TV, and it'll be available soon for only $100. It also isn't so tied to Steam, so it'll help you stream non-Steam games to your TV with less hassle. The same goes with NZXT's $100 Doko box.
Heck, even Intel's cheap "Compute Stick" HDMI dongles could be used for game-streaming. Game-streaming alone can't sell Steam Machines anymore. You don't even need new hardware to beam the power of your primary gaming PC into your living room! Pretty much any Windows, Linux, or Mac computer that can run Steam can run Steam's powerful in-home streaming feature.
One bright spot in the Steam Machine saga grew out of some interesting tidbits Origin PC CEO Kevin Wasielewski told to GameSpot recently.
According to Wasielewski, Valve is about to show off a revamped version of the Steam Controller, and it should be going into production soon. The Steam Controller has a lot of promising features that could provide a better experience when playing games designed for a mouse and keyboard on a TV.
The term "Steam Machine" doesn't look too healthy, though. As Wasielewski said, "I think that's pretty much dead. It's like 'living room PC' is now the new term. Living room PCs have been around forever. That's not anything new either. But it seems like there's a legitimate demand and push for living room PCs." Perhaps like Origin's own Omega PC.
Where does that leave the Linux-based SteamOS? Many PC gamers might expect their "living room PCs" to run all the (Windows) PC games they've purchased on Steam, after all. The Alienware Alpha living-room PC--originally supposed to be a Steam Machine--is a good example of how a Windows-based Steam-gaming living-room PC might look.
SteamOS development hasn't halted, of course. But Valve may be less committed to Linux and SteamOS, as the company's extracted key concessions from Microsoft.
This isn't the final word
Despite all we've said, there's still ample room for SteamOS to make an impact, as Alienware general manager Frank Azor told PCWorld ahead of last year's E3:
"SteamOS is obviously been designed around one single use, whereas Windows is a multi-use operating system that can be custom tailored around any one particular use--as we're doing [with Alienware Alpha's console mode]. But Valve has a lot more control developing SteamOS, ensuring it's singularly focused with one use model. That's why it's a very important initiative for us, and one we're still fully supporting as soon as it's ready. It's a more sustainable way of delivering a reliable living room experience. We can build our custom [console UI] interface over Windows, but we don't know what [the next version of Windows] is going to be. Are we going to have to redo all that work...?
That's why we feel that over the long term, SteamOS and the Steam gamepad are going to be the best solution."
We'll have to see what happens. But, for we Linux geeks who were expecting Windows to crater as Valve's SteamOS ripped PC gaming away from Windows, it's increasingly looking like Steam Machines may have missed their chance to rip PC gaming out of Microsoft's hands.