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Steam Machines metareview

I take a look at how Steam Machine reviewers look at the hybrid PC and console, and what they miss in the bigger picture.

Depending on who you are, a Steam Machine offers some benefits which other review sites have not talked about

What surprises me about reviews of Steam Machines is just how disconnected from the real world these reviews are when it comes to the value proposition of the Steam Machine. Ars' review claims it is worse than a Steam box with Windows on it:

If you’ve never had a gaming PC and are considering the new Steam Machines as a console competitor, the 1,500+ games in the SteamOS library can be seen as a pretty strong launch lineup. They can also be seen as merely a form of warmed-over, limited backward compatibility with a much larger Windows-based PC gaming library. This leads directly to the biggest problem with the SteamOS ecosystem as a whole: it doesn’t offer much of anything over the existing Windows-based gaming world.

However, Engadget look at it the opposite way:

Truth be told, I didn’t expect a lot from the Alienware Steam Machine when I first turned it on. To me, it was just a collection of things I’d seen before. SteamOS' TV-friendly interface has existed for years as the desktop app’s “Big Picture” mode. Almost every version of the Steam Controller I touched over the years felt like an awkward prototype. Not even the hardware was new to me — the Alpha came close to mimicking the feel of a game console, but the illusion was incomplete. I couldn’t imagine it all coming together into one cohesive whole, but it does. I almost can’t believe it.

Having read that, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Ars found the Steam Machine wanting because it had a smaller collection of games than a Windows PC with Steam Big Picture mode, and Engadget found it wanting because it was more expensive than a console, but not more performant (yet).

What I don’t understand is, why is it so hard to see both of these worlds at the same time? I actually think the value of a Steam Machine is at this junction between the PC and the console, and you have to magic-eye both these worlds to see where the possibilities lie for gamers. Ironically, I think regular gamers can see the value far more clearly, though perhaps only tacitly.

Depending on who you are, a Steam Machine offers some benefits which other review sites have not talked about (to wit: Playing a large library of games on a new “console”, having a console-like experience on PC games, not having to pay again for games you already own, and streaming from a PC to the living room). This is going to involve three personas: People who play consoles but don’t touch PCs, people who want to play games but don’t want to pay top dollar for them, and people who want to play with their friends.

The first group: people who want to play consoles but don’t touch PCs, were probably best represented in Engadget’s review. That’s why, despite the criticism, I actually found it a fair review, because it was clearly coming from a persona which made sense. Even the downside makes sense to that persona: That AAA games did not perform better than their console counterparts, and the Steam Machine is substantially more expensive than those consoles.

To them I would say: this is absolutely true, but as Steam Machines succeed (and I don’t think this is an “if”) developers will put more effort into PC releases. This will improve their performance relative to consoles. In addition, unlike consoles which do not have any backwards compatibility, Steam Machines by their very nature are going to be backwards compatible. As newer Steam machines are released, gamers can keep playing their old library. Console gamers have games for consoles that are too old. They have complex TV connectors for out of date consoles so they can enjoy those old games, they have a ton of consoles which are not backwards compatible. With a Steam Machine, they are not paying for the Steam Machine, they’re paying for an insurance policy for their old games.

Second, consider Valve’s strategy of a “Steam Exclusive”. Valve have gone on the record to state that they will not make any “SteamOS exclusive games”, and I think that’s true, but think about that for a moment. Right now, an indie game is already sort-of a timed exclusive for PC — making a game for XBox or Playstation is expensive, and all of these experiments come to PC first. However, the first thing an Indie dev does when it becomes successful is release on XBox and Playstation. This is because they know this is where a chunk of the gamers are. It’s not money they can pass up. However, as Steam Machines become successful enough to cater to Console gamers, Indie devs might just not bother. Why go through the expense of re-writing games for a whole other platform?

I believe this is something console manufacturers are aware of, which is why the latest round of consoles (PS4, XBOne) have a very similar architecture to a PC. They want porting to be simple, not for AAA devs, but for knock-it-out-of-the-park indie devs. This is an attempt to bring the PC to the console gamers. Steam Machines are a way to get console gamers to the PC.

Second, consider “gamers”: people with PCs but also a number of consoles. The Ars review claims that the Steam Machine is inferior to a Windows machine running big picture. In reality, gamers probably have a living room setup without a keyboard and mouse attached. The kind of constant fiddling that comes with a Windows PC with Steam Big Picture kind of takes away from the experience. If you have a bunch of consoles and a PC, gamers tend to think of the consoles as a bit of quick fun and the PC as a time investment. Being able to “fiddle” and play a Windows PC on your TV isn’t really all that great. Being able to play games (even a limited library) that are available on your PC without the time investment is a game changer. Even your saves are carried over.

Third, consider Free To Play. The new generation of consoles have apparently “embraced” F2P, not that you can really tell. PC and F2P is like milk and... something that goes with milk. There are a ton of F2P games on Steam, and if you buy a Steam Machine, whether or not you’re a console gamer, whether or not you have a big library of pre-existing Steam games, you will be able to play F2P games. From your living room.

I’m going to say this again in the big blinking lights because I have no idea how no reviews of the Steam Machine have made this connection yet: You can play Dota2 from your sofa. You can watch Dota2 replays from your Sofa. You can watch your friends' livestreams of Dota2 from your sofa. How many people just said "SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY?"

Finally, consider the systemic reason: many people have consoles because their gaming group has friends who simply will not get a PC.

Let me go off on a tangent for a second: People often get quizzical when gamers defend their console choice violently. This is often justified with a psychological phenomenon which says “humans try and justify their choices”. However, there’s a much much stronger reason: Cultural capital.

See, to a rich person who can afford all the consoles, the “console war” is a waste of time. But imagine you can only afford one. You don’t want to be the poor sod who got a Wii U when all your friends got an XBOne. Even if the games weren’t all multi-player nowadays, just the fact that all your friends are talking about an XBox game which you cannot play means you cannot add to the conversation, which means you are instantly ostracised from the group. It is extremely important that all of your friends get the same console, hence the console wars.

If you have a diverse group of gaming friends, you also have a diverse bunch of hardware. That means some or all of the consoles, and a PC. Notably though, even though some of your friends will travel between XBox and Playstation, (and some in the same position as you will transition between PC and consoles), very few of the console gamers will come to PC. They just aren’t that technically inclined. A console-like PC, one that truly makes it a no-brainer to play a PC game, is a game changer for the PC gamer, because it means a console gamer can finally play a game with them, or share a cultural experience from the PC space with them.

I think that these things are all “obvious” to gamers. I think they can feel the value of a Steam Machine, even if they cannot put it into words. The social pressures of gamers in groups, the opportunities for cross play, the ability to play a few dyed-in-the-wool PC games means that Steam Machines are actually a much better idea than the reviews let on. It’s just a pity that the world of reviewers is so far removed from the experience of players.