David Zax

A View from David Zax

Is Valve Making a Console?

How Valve’s “Steam Box” could be a game-changer

  • March 7, 2012

There comes a moment in every Saturday-morning cartoon where the villain, frustrated by the uselessness of his henchmen, says, “Must I do everything myself?!”

Gabe Newell is not a villain. Indeed, some (myself among them) would say that he’s a hero. Newell is the boss at Valve, which is just about the most innovative company in gaming today, having produced both the greatest game of all time (Portal) and a revolutionary gaming distribution platform (Steam). And according to many reports (including this wonderful interactive one on the making of Portal 2), Newell runs his organization nothing like a hierarchy-obsessed villain: the place is more horizontal than the Great Plains.

Even so, new reports make Newell sound a bit like that cartoonish villain. Valve, it turns out, is considering getting into hardware–but semi-reluctantly. “We’d rather hardware people that are good at manufacturing and distributing hardware do that,” he told Penny Arcade recently. But, he added: “We think it’s important enough that if that’s what we end up having to do then that’s what we end up having to do.” Must Valve do everything itself?!

Possibly, yes. The Verge reports that Newell’s seemingly hypothetical comment to Penny Arcade is actually more concrete. “According to sources,” reports the site, “the company has been working on a hardware spec and associated software which would make up the backbone of a ‘Steam Box.’” The console could pose a threat to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and since it would be focused around the Steam platform, it would menace their online stores as well. And since Newell has a robust philosophy in support of open platforms, the Steam Box could also take aim at the walled garden represented by Apple and iOS. “On the platform side, it’s sort of ominous that the world seems to be moving away from open platforms,” Newell recently said at an event covered by The Seattle Times.

The Verge’s sources say that the putative Steam Box–a hand-built demo was apparently presented to some potential partners at CES–includes a Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA GPU. Because of Newell’s commitment to openness, even rival platforms (EA’s Origin, for instance) could be loaded on the Box.

Another hardware element in which Valve stands to innovate with or without the Steam Box is in controllers and interfaces. Newell has long expressed an interest in biometric feedback and wearable computing. “It seems like just about the time that everybody gave up on them they actually started to become interesting,” he told Penny Arcade. Valve filed an application for a patent for a video game controller with “swappable control components” last year.

1UP’s Ryan Winterhalter and Chris Pereira have an interesting dialogue on what a Steam Box might mean for the console market. They flesh out what it would mean for a more open ecosystem to flourish in the world of console gaming. We likely wouldn’t come to think of the Steam Box, but rather a Steam Box, in the way we say “He has the iPhone, but she has a Droid.” “Valve will undoubtedly partner with some other company to create the ‘first party’ ‘Steam Box’ similar to flagship Android phones, and the resulting marketplace will look a lot more like the Android phone market than the iPhone one,” sums up Winterhalter.

I can hardly wait to see what Valve actually has in store, beyond the rumors. In the meantime, I’m seriously wondering why more choreographers haven’t made Portal-inspired dance pieces like this one.

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