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Could Valve's Steam OS be Just What The Console Industry Needs?

This week, Valve made three extremely exciting announcements: The Steam OS, The Steam Machine, and The Steam Controller. We're going to be focusing on the first two, in regards to how they might shape (or rather, re-shape) the console industry. First things first, a bit of backstory for those of you who haven't been following things:

For the past year or so (likely more), Valve's been working on creating The Steam Box; a video game console that uses the distribution platform as a backend. We first became aware of the push about a year or so ago, after a report by The Verge exposed potential plans by the studio to create its own console through co-operation with several hardware partners. For a time, those rumors bore little fruit - the only device we really saw that could be termed the Steambox was the Xi3 Piston; a $1,000 PC from which Valve quickly distanced itself.  They were, they assured us, still working on a Steam Box; we were given no further details and left to wonder what that might entail.

Then earlier this week, we were hit with a bombshell. Valve wasn't just designing a living room PC; they were developing an entirely new operating system. The Linux-based Steam OS features a number of software-level performance improvements, and is designed to work independently of hardware. That's not the best part, either: it's free.

Valve also announced in the same week that it intends to manufacture an official Steam controller as well as a device known as the Steam Machine; a Steam console. We'll focus on the controller in another piece; the Steam Machine is largely irrelevant to what we're discussing here save noting that it'll serve as a test run for Steam OS.  

The OS, in truth, is what we should all be excited about here. Those using the it will have access to everything they would using the platform on the PC, including their games library, friends list, the Steam Cloud and, most importantly, the Steam Workshop.  That means user-generated content - previously the primary domain of the PC - could very easily make its way into the console field; the fact that the OS can be freely licensed by any manufacturer with the desire could result in a veritable flood of new consoles into a market which has typically been dominated by Microsoft and Sony (Nintendo kind of just does its own thing off in the corner; it doesn't really need to compete with the other two).

In this way, Valve's new OS has the potential to profoundly impact the console industry, bringing PC-like customization and openness to the living room. If the OS is open source as well (it is built on Linux), that'll only sweeten the deal. Now, as I'd prefer not to make blanket statements about the OS (or gush and fanboy about it for an entire piece), I'm instead going to explore three possible scenarios that could accompany the launch of Valve's new initiative.

Oh, there's also a chance - albeit an extremely small one (so small it's almost not worth mentioning, really) - that the launch of the Steam OS could flood the console market and lead to another video game crash similar to what we experienced back in 1983. 

1. Revolution

I'm going to draw a comparison with the mobile industry here; though it's only tangentially related to the Steam Box. Back when Android first launched(and for much of its early life), Apple had pretty much unquestioned dominance of the smartphone industry. No one had ever seen anything like the iPhone, and none of Apple's competitors were really able to keep up. Now, just a few years later, Android holds over 80% of the global smartphone industry. 

How? 

Openness and freedom of choice. Whereas the iPhone was a completely closed ecosystem tied to a single product line, Android's variety and open-source nature made it immensely attractive to consumers (it also helps that most Android phones are considerably more affordable than their competitors). The Steam OS could well have the same effect on the console industry.

See, people like being able to customize their experience; the ability to easily create and share mods (and perhaps even modify the base operating system) on a Steam device could make it immensely more attractive than any of its competitors. Assuming at least a few of the devices retail at a lower cost than the competition, we might just see the same thing happen with Steam that we did with Android. 

Obviously, this analogy can only extend so far. The waters here are muddied by things like console exclusives which ensure some users are going to buy a particular device no matter what. Further, we don't actually know what sorts of games are actually going to be available on the Steam Machine (or any other Steam device, for that matter), nor do we know anything about the technical specifications. Until we know that, we can't say for certain whether or not it'll succeed. 

If it does, though - if the Steam Machine sells - it could serve as proof of concept for a whole host of other studios thinking of getting into the console market. Microsoft and Sony could actually see some viable competition for the first time in years. 

2. Failure

A lot of people are unimpressed by the Steam Machine, and with good reason. Given that the Steam Controller can be used with a PC, what possible reason could anyone have for wanting to purchase a console for it? What's more, most television sets now are set up so that they can be used as monitors for a PC; bringing Steam to the living room is thus simple as changing where you've got your rig set up. 

Are gamers likely to purchase what effectively amounts to a second high performance PC? 

Not only that, the fact that Steam OS is built on Linux could severely limit the scope of its games library.  Thing is, most games on Steam are built to be run in a Windows environment. Toss them into a different operating system, and there's a good chance they might not work. Now, admittedly, the Steam OS's ability to stream games from PC to console could potentially address this problem, but then we're back at square one: why bother buying a console to play games you can already play on your PC?

Not only that, some people in the core console crowd either don't have a gaming rig or can't afford one. If they're to buy a Steam console, what games will be available to them? Who's to say they wouldn't be better off going with a PS4 or Xbox One? 

If Valve doesn't play its cards right here, we could well see the Steam Machine (and consequently, the Steam OS) fail spectacularly, and get shunted into the vault of good ideas that didn't quite work out. 

3. The Status Quo

Last but not least, there's a chance that the Steam OS might launch to great acclaim, but still fail to bring about any meaningful change in the games industry. Oh sure, people will buy Steam Machines; some development studios might try making a Steambox of their own, but the results will be nowhere near as game-changing as what Android did to the smartphone market. 

Sony and Microsoft won't really change their tune, Nintendo will still do what Nintendo does, the OUYA will still be objectively awful, and the world will move forward as it always has. In truth, this is probably the most likely of the three; the others represent theoretical extremes. 

Closing Thoughts

Valve's long been held up as the darling of PC gaming, and many of the changes they've brought to the development space have been inarguably positive.What a lot of people seem to forget, however, is that it's an organization run by human beings; hence, it's still fallible. While there's a good chance the Steam OS and the Steam Machine could bring a revolutionary change to the console market, it's not set in stone. At this stage, it's simply too early to know for certain what's going to happen.

All that can really be said is that this OS has the potential to rock the very foundations of gaming. Par for the course for Valve, really.

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Nicholas Greene
Nick's Games Haven
InventorSpot.com
Follow me on Twitter @OmniscientSpork