A dedicated Steam console may be a compelling solution, but it comes with its own problems, writes Rob Crossley

Thinking in new portals: Would a Valve games console help or hurt the industry?

Spare some slack for the games studios. As soon as they find their bearings in what has become an ocean storm of evolving games platforms, another tidal wave appears on the horizon.

Social networks, mobile platforms, cloud gaming, browser technologies – these are the latest groundswells that test the adaptability of industry’s elite.

And little did we know that, as the industry re-educated itself on freemium monetisation models and debated the value of unregulated open platforms, Washington studio Valve was getting busy in its previously-unmentioned “hardware labs”.

Yes. According to Valve’s newly-bearded company president, Gabe Newell, the Steam vendor is prepared to develop and sell hardware if it needs to.

No doubt such a claim will electrify some games studios and customers with unimaginable excitement. Steam had major teething problems, of course it did, but in recent years the matured Valve Software has had an aura of faultlessness that only the likes of Apple have been able to outshine.

Even John Riccitiello would admit a Valve console would be badass.

The studio has probably already experimented with game controllers that measure biometric data; that read the electrical resistance of the player’s skin, that map emotions along vector lines, that adjust difficulty spikes based on your sweat and heart-rate data, that cool your hands with internal fans and tell you to relax when you have Left 4 Dead-induced nightmares.

While everyone and their Nintendog balked when Iwata revealed the Wii Vitality sensor, Gabe Newell and co were likely paying close attention.

The company’s reputation for putting customers first before anything else is well deserved, but what about the industry at large?

What would a Valve console – presuming it would be successful – mean for the industry?

Digital domination

Obviously it would be a digital-only system, syncing up with Steam though a unified account that has now expanded from PC to Mac and smartphones.

Established developers would rejoice. No more of the tiresome game update restrictions that squeeze studios out of discussions with their customers. No more enforced charging for DLC, no more droughts in player metrics, no more extensive negotiating to introduce virtual items, no more – or at least less – exorbitant costs.

But other developers would despair. Pitch a game to Valve and a subsequent rejection email is more-or-less the word ‘no’ with an employee signature. Sony and Microsoft, it has been said, positively engage with even the smallest of studios and discuss how to get a game published on XBLA and PSN.

Game retail, meanwhile, would be in grave health. Success for Valve’s digital system would force the Big Three to follow suit (who, to be fair, should have emulated Steam on consoles years ago). In an industry so swayed by current trends, Valve has the capacity to spark a new digital-only revolution.

And pre-owned would die, likely in a way that customers could tolerate. The service model allows game prices to adapt to demand. Free-to-play weekends and extensive price discounts would replace pre-owned stickers.

But of course the enduring benefit of games retail is how it can allure the more casual audience; high-street meanderers and people dazed by Rockstar billboards. An industry where Steam dominates is one that would struggle to expand a critical mass. Consumers have come to understand iTunes and Amazon, but core gaming devices? That’d be an uphill struggle.

Perhaps the most interesting element to Valve’s hypothetical hardware is how Newell envisions system upgrades.

“We’re thinking of trying to figure out how to do the equivalent of the [Team Fortress] incremental approach in software design and try to figure out how would you get something similar to that in the hardware space as well.”

The man who coined the phrase “games as a service” is just a heartbeat away from announcing “hardware as a service”; a fascinating model of upgrading games consoles to the tastes and demands of an audience.

All Valve would have to worry about is finding a retailer that would dare sell the parts.

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