Valve has a chunky little brick with the power of a full-blown gaming PC called the Steam Deck coming to consumers this year, and it's blowing people's minds. But then again, Valve's wacky hardware proposals always stir the pot. The question is, will this one do it long enough to actually sustain itself and become a success, or will the hype fizzle out and render the Steam Deck just one more forgotten Valve hardware experiment?
Without a doubt, it's great that Valve is so focused on bringing innovation to the PC ecosphere. It's cool seeing gadgets like the Steam Link or game-changing Valve Index inject fresh ideas into the world. For example, remember Steam Machines? Remember when Valve was single-handedly going to take on all gaming PC manufacturers as well as Sony's PlayStation and Microsoft's Xbox with a range of machines designed to satisfy every gaming-friendly consumer under the sun?
Therein lies the danger. Valve, much like Google, seems to get very excited by new ideas, explodes onto the scene with them, then closes up shop on day two when not enough people show up on day one.
Why Steam Deck could change the game
Let's circle back to that mention of Steam Machines to highlight what they were, what happened with them, and how they're similar to the Steam Deck. In short, Steam Machines were meant to fill a Valve-perceived void between proper gaming PCs and consoles. The devices came in a variety of configurations built for every budget and buyer, designed to attract anyone and everyone who enjoyed AAA gaming.
And yet, they failed, selling less than an estimated 500,000 units (tellingly, Valve never released official sales figures). They were criticized for failing to compete with their own sibling product, the Steam Link, and for not having a clear-cut, easily definable market. From a certain perspective, they were Valve's first crack at the Steam Deck. Steam Machines used Valve's SteamOS, the Steam controller, and were a self-contained gaming platform, much like the Steam Deck is slated to be.
Steam Machines were a bold, risky gamble, and Valve gave up on them almost instantly.
Steam Machines were a bold, risky gamble, and Valve gave up on them almost instantly. Valve also gave up on the Steam Link. Valve also stopped trying to push its Steam controllers as the future of buttoned devices. In that sense, the Valve Index VR headset is something of an outlier. It's surviving because it is one of the ultimate VR offerings virtually in a class all its own and is being bankrolled by a company that is almost singlehandedly carrying the mainstream VR movement. It's only real competition is from Facebook and Oculus, and even then, their respective headsets are for different customers.
And that's why there's a chance the Steam Deck could pay off for Valve. Much like the Index, the Deck is in a class all its own, as the only real hardcore gaming-on-the-go handheld. The Nintendo Switch is all well and good, but it's more or less restricted to Mario and Pokemon fans. Anyone who likes PlayStation games, Xbox games, PC games, or third-party support that isn't downright embarrassing has nothing to gain from buying a Switch. Xbox fans have been benefiting lately from Xbox Game Pass, a subscription service that includes access to tons of games and Xbox Cloud Streaming, which allows users to play them across devices. However, unless they want to buy into a an extra controller, they're stuck with what their phones can handle.
The Steam Deck fills that gap. It supports the main gamer camps that aren't being catered to in the mobile arena. Because PC is the ultimate platform (it has a lot of Playstation exclusives on it, a good portion of Xbox exclusives, and of course, all of its own best PC games), the Deck is essentially offering the majority of the gaming market the Switch experience they may or may not be waiting for.
Steam Deck: Calculated gamble or misguided shot in the dark?
It's clear why Valve is taking the risk it's taking with this painfully expensive device. But is this going to end up being another supremely costly, badass handheld that ends up scaring consumers away, much like the PS Vita did back when it was the handheld for people who wanted blockbuster titles on the go? Is the Steam Deck's chunky, unwieldy girth going to give average consumers Wii U flashbacks and make them tap out prematurely?
These are just a few of the many reasons Valve might pull its usual disappearing act on its latest hardware. Maybe the company will find success and carve a niche for itself, or maybe we're all about to watch another Valve passion project run out of steam.