When Valve Corp. announced its ambitious plan last summer to use its success on the PC as a springboard into conquering the living room with PC-like Steam Machines, gamer reaction generally fell into one of two camps: excited anticipation or cynical skepticism.
Will this relative outsider, which has amassed more than 65 million members to its online games platform, shake up the stagnant, Microsoft– and Sony-dominated console market? Or would that same unfamiliarity with the mainstream cause Valve to fall flat on its figurative face?
After 20 minutes with one of the upcoming consoles and its radically different touch-pad controller at last week's Consumer Electronics Show, it's clear to me that both of those expectations are valid and warranted. Steam Machines hold a world of promise, but as they stand, Valve has a long way to go before it can make any sort of a dent in the larger mainstream market that it is aiming for. On the plus side, it could be a year or more before Steam Machines become available, so there's still lots of time to make improvements.
One huge issue that Steam Machines will face is price. At CES, 12 vendors announced their own hardware, ranging from $499 all the way up to $2,584. Valve is hoping other manufacturers come up with cheaper offerings, because those kinds of prices are certainly not going to lure too many mainstream gamers away from Sony and Microsoft.
But even if they get price right, the key to making Steam into a living room experience might be the controller, which is supposed to let players ditch the keyboard and mouse. I had some time with the prototype during demos held at Valve's CES booth, and the representatives stressed it was far from final. It resembles an Xbox 360 controller, but with several important distinctions, the most obvious of which is the lack of thumbsticks, which are instead replaced by circular thumb-pads.
I tested out Portal, Valve's space-bending first-person adventure, and had a frustrating time just moving around. The biggest issue is that the angled arms of the controller cause your thumbs to hit the touchpad at a similar angle. This isn't a problem on an Xbox or PlayStation controller since the sticks spring back toward centre, which makes it relatively easy to correct for the angle.
On the thumb-pads, there's no such physical resistance, I found myself constantly moving both forward and to the side just a little. In a game where fine movements are mission-critical (which is probably most of them, and definitely in Portal), this is a big problem. I'm not sure what the solution might be, although rotating the orientation of the thumb-pads so that the forward direction is just off the top of the centre might be one.
That's actually entirely possible, and even probable. One of the best things about the new controller is that it is fully customizable, with players able to map out controls to buttons as they see fit. Controller maps can also be saved and shared with the entire Steam community, where they can be ranked. That means there'll be pre-sets for every possible preference. If you're missing your left index finger, for example, someone will probably create a button layout just for you. Or, of course, you can make one and share it yourself.
I also tried Metro: Last Light, a first-person shooter, and had problems with the other thumb-pad – the one used for aiming.
One of the big challenges Valve is facing with its controller is in making it precise enough to satisfy the mouse-and-keyboard crowd, but quick enough to please console players. I'd qualify for that second group and found the controller, at least in its default setting, to be more geared for the first group; it was certainly precise, but at the expense of fluidity.
Again, all of this can be fine-tuned, but that itself is something of an issue. I wonder how many console players are going to want to bother with fiddling with settings on such a granular level.
My helpful Valve representative, himself an avowed console gamer, admitted to a learning curve with the new controller. He said it took him about 45 minutes to get used to it, but I have a feeling that after nearly 20 years of thumb-sticks – the first PlayStation came out in 1995 – it'll take the average person a lot longer than that.
There's the also the not-small question of which games will be available on the Steam Machines. With the operating system powering them being based on Linux, they probably won't be compatible with the large number of games being released for Windows and Mac computers. Valve has said it is porting a number of its existing titles, but it hasn't said anything about making any of its own franchises Steam-exclusive (such as a new Half-Life). It's still an open question as to whether publishers will add SteamOS to the list of platforms they already support.
So far, Steam's product is looking like a promising proposition for PC gamers who would like a more dedicated rig for the living room, which is exciting enough on its own. But as far as catering to the larger, console-oriented market, Valve and its hardware partners still have much work left to do.