I had a split-second opportunity in Las Vegas around seven years ago to ask Gabe Newell, in front of around 60 journalists, when Half Life 3 was coming out. It was a cheap gag even back then, and I bottled it and asked something wholly forgettable about the Steam Controller instead.
I only recall that event, upon the launch of the Steam Deck, as a reminder that Valve has tried to reimagine the hardware for PC gaming before. Steam Machines were to be the console without the limitations of a console, designed to live under your TV; while Steam Controller would enable us to play games designed for keyboard and mouse from the comfort of our sofas.
Of course, none of that came to change the gaming ecosystem. Steam Machines were more expensive than consoles and as anyone who owned a gaming PC in that era, there was a certain amount of maintenance required in terms of patches and driver updates etc. The idea of having two PCs in your house wasn’t very appealing. While many struggled with the Steam Controller, and like my question to Newell, it’s largely forgotten now.
The Steam Machine looked to be a reaction to the games console, an effort to expand Steam beyond the desk your PC sat on, or under. It was a reaction driven in the main by the increasing number of console titles (with TV legible UIs) on Steam, plus Microsoft’s work to bring Xbox 360 (and then Xbox One) controllers into the PC space – arguably the single most significant piece of PC gaming hardware of the last decade.
But I digress.
The Steam Deck appears again to be a reaction. This time to the outstanding success of Switch in what was previously an indie gaming PC space, effectively becoming a ‘mobile Steam’ for many players, regardless of their interest in Nintendo’s first party offering.
Newell mentions, in his IGN interview teaser, that Steam is targeting “millions of sales” with the device, or possibly the category of devices, as he then goes on to mention that he hopes “it will establish a product category for ourselves and other PC manufacturers.” Again, much as it did with Steam Machines. Although some things have changed.
Steam now has around 120m active monthly users (Valve, Jan 2021). So there’s a big potential market there, a userbase that has been built over 18 years, and which largely has come by it being the default option – not to undermine just how much work and foresight goes into becoming that option!
To date Switch has sold around 85m units and the desire for console games on the move, or at least away from the living room TV, is an undeniable part of that appeal. There certainly looks to be space here for another player and Valve is arguably best placed, with all those users, and their libraries of games.
The Steam Deak looks to easily outperform a PS4 (at 720p), so the device should be able to run most titles for the foreseeable future, although as the console transition continues, it could feel a bit left behind in 2-3 years. That vagueness around its lifespan may make some buyers nervous.
Still, the proof of concept provided by the Switch, the relative competitive price, and the greater ease of maintaining a gaming PC these days, all makes the Steam Deck a more appealing device than Steam Machines ever were.
A new PC form factor, aimed squarely at gaming, is certainly something that the industry should be supportive of, especially as it also allows the installation of other storefronts and operating systems. Valve owns so much of the PC gaming pie that it can easily afford to let others play here too, if the ecosystem grows, it will still be the biggest winner.
So in the same way that Nintendo once brought us the d-pad and the analogue stick, it might have just brought us the handheld gaming PC. Chapeau Mario, chapeau.