Throughout the ages of gaming, there are fewer things that stir up a good round of conversation than talk of new consoles. The console wars have been raging for as long as the introduction of consoles – be it PC versus consoles, consoles versus consoles, consoles and PC versus smartphones and tablets, “hardcore” consoles versus “casual” consoles, and so on. However, even as the last vestiges of the console war remain, it’s been a good long time since we’ve had a new player in the market. Cue Valve’s “Steam Box”. Software developer, publisher and digital distribution innovator Valve has been quite busy in the past few years. We now know that it’s been working on its own gaming hardware, and more news has pointed towards this being a next generation console. If testimonies are to be believed, it will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
Valve has always taken a different approach, scoffing the norms and pretty much running away with success as a result. If they pioneered the idea of story in first person shooters, then they also turned a simple concept like first person puzzle gaming into a successful one. They seized upon the beauty that was Counter-Strike and helped foster a community of mod-makers. They recognized the need to go digital, and then later, the opportunities that their digital platform presented for independent developers. They saw the market for PC gaming in living rooms and released Big Picture for Steam.
However, as with any form of innovation, it is bound by the laws of the console market. And the console market, since the introduction of the Xbox, the rise of the Wii and dominance of AAA blockbusters, has undergone a massive change. There’s no more room for middle of the ground developers; innovation has to be on a larger, more commercial scale; and for all that is holy, unless you work at Arkane Studios or Telltale Games, that hot new property of yours better have multiplayer – any kind of multiplayer, so long as it can be marketed to the Call of Duty crowd. Who doesn’t want that market?
Nonetheless, there are certain tenets that have been repeated. Nintendo announced it’s Wii U console much in advance – in fact, it’s been the same with every single console till. Rumblings and rumours, followed by an official announcement, then a year to ready the console’s titles and release plans, after which we usually see it 6-8 months later – this has been the norm. For example, the Playstation 2 was announced officially in March 2009 but wouldn’t be released until a year later in Japan (October 26th 2000 for North America). The Playstation 3 took even longer, with an official announcement on May 16th 2005 at E3 and an official launch of November 11th 2006 in Japan and November 17th in North America. PAL versions of the console didn’t arrive until March 2007. The Xbox 360 is perhaps the only exception, having been announced in March 2005 and releasing in November 2005. But this was done to get ahead of Sony and came with a price in the form of the Red Ring of Death. To think that Valve would both announce and release it’s console within the span of a few months is ludicrous.
If E3 2013 is the year that Microsoft and Sony ready their next big console efforts, then wouldn’t it make sense for Valve to also make some sort of announcement regarding it’s Steam Box? Let’s face it though: E3 is a mecca for rumours. Remember when Bungie split from Microsoft and signed with Activision, prompting rumours of their next game appearing at E3? How about when the former heads of Infinity Ward formed Recoil Studios? E3 was again marked as the day we’d see their creation shine. Neither of the two incidents occurred, but hey, maybe at the next big convention, right?
For that matter, let’s look at the technology. The Valve economist who first revealed details about the next generation hardware, stated that “it’s not a small deal to see a virtual but highly realistic alien stand beside a real human in the same room with you, walk around the room and wink at you. And all that without a screen, a projector or even a computer near you”. In other words, computer generated holography. And while there are plenty of hobbyists and researchers using the same, it’s a long way off from being used, much less developed, commercially and at an affordable price.
Let’s say there are still some kinks to work out. If Valve really does announce it at, say, E3 2013. Then once again, we’re looking at another year of hype, readying launch titles, optimization of engines (which Valve has stated it’s doing for the next generation), testing with Big Picture, and much more – and a year is being optimistic. If announced in E3 2013, then E3 2014 is when we see it for all it’s worth. After that, look for another few months of marketing and securing distribution. Once again, that’s a very big “if”.
Another interesting point: Though we hear plenty about Valve’s hardware, why haven’t we heard anything about other developers working on it’s console? Unless it’s simply a medium for countering the monopolization of technology by Microsoft and Apple, which could mean that will have an architecture very closely resembling the PC (also more or less known). But how about the original Xbox? It had the same kind of architecture, which made it an attractive option for PC developers. Microsoft still had to rope in outside developers to make games for its console. If a console is really what Valve is after, how come there aren’t any other developers involved in it? Valve might be capable of a lot, but in this day and age, multiplatform titles and exclusives are where it’s at, and this is only achieved via hooking up with other developers.
Maybe Valve already has a plan for this. Maybe it’s already well on the way towards roping other developers, or just finding ways to have all Steam games, present and future, optimized for the Steam Box. There’s a lot to be positive about with Valve’s console, for sure, but to say that we’ll see so much development befitting a AAA console in the next year to coincide with a release is wishful thinking.