Valve’s Steambox has been running in and out of the rumor mill for years, yet most people seem to have more questions than answers. Here in the Bonus View, we’ll attempt to drag the Steambox kicking and screaming into full view as best we can.
In the midst of CES 2013, the Steambox emerged from the speculative shadows of the internet, where it’s been clouded in contradictory information, misdirection and very few solid facts. Unfortunately, Valve hasn’t yet made any grand unveiling for it. Rather, the formerly dark discussions are now a throng of confusion between Valve and various hardware producers. What’s worse, Valve’s often loud and declarative CEO, Gabe Newall, gave interviews that deflated any hope of a concise answer to the central question, “Just what is a Steambox?”
The Steambox was long rumored to be a Valve-designed and produced set-up box for the living room, a way to bring the Steam store to non-PC gamers while tightening the grip on those who already have a Steam library. The truth, as it stands now, is that the Steambox is (and I write this with no small appreciation of the irony) smoke and mirrors.
The best analogy that I can think of to cut through the hype train stirred up by Valve and its partners comes from ‘Terminator 3’. Nailing down the Steambox is like John Connor trying to destroy the Skynet central computer, only to ultimately realize that Skynet is a decentralized AI that’s no longer confined to one box, or even one facility.
Looking at a single set-top box-style PC for the internet produced by Valve is not enough. Valve seems intent on licensing to various manufacturers, many of whom had prototypes on display at CES. So, looking at the prototypes seems like a reasonably small step, except that Gabe Newall has outlined a “Good, Better, Best” range of Steambox-style machines.
On one end, streaming tech will rely on other computers to shoulder the rendering load, the hard drive footprint, the patching, etc. Meanwhile, the other end will be sleeker (in both form factor and interface) versions of the beastly gaming rigs that are enjoyed today. Therefore, even considering the Steambox as a kind of licensed standardization of PC spec fails to account for the multi-tiered approach, which itself fails to account for the suggestion of highly mobile Steambox style devices. So, here we see that the Steambox is much more than a potential living room device from Valve, but may be an entire array of Steam capable, Valve-licensed devices. Looking even further into that concept, and considering Valve’s history, the Steambox appears to be nothing more than a continuation of the ecosystem, the digital platform introduced nine and a half years ago.
In recent years, Valve has taken Steam from a Windows-only major-title gaming platform to something far more ubiquitous. I’m not just referring to the gift options and Steam sales that have helped swell the user base. Steam is now a serious option for Macs, and is finally rolling out its official Linux presence. Steam also has ancillary edifices on the PS3, iOS and Android platforms. What’s more, Steam has not only expanded to offering non-game related software, but with its recent implementation of Steam Greenlight, has managed to catch onto the Kickstarter/independent wave that is sweeping the PC gaming industry. Finally, the introduction of the Big Picture Mode that was designed specifically to make Steam even more friendly to a living room environment has been a reminder of Steam’s rise from unfortunate necessity for ‘Half-Life 2′, to a pillar of PC gaming (and gaming in general), to an unyielding business force. Valve’s goal has been to become even more intertwined in users’ lives while maintaining a kind of gaming street-cred that Apple, Facebook and Microsoft can only dream of.
I must stress again, even though Gabe Newall has talked about an official Steambox that runs on Linux but is open for Windows, this isn’t an analogue for Apple TV. Imagine if, instead of just introducing Apple TV, Apple had introduced an Apple TV certification that allowed anyone to license their device to an iTunes standard (e.g. capable of running iTunes). How would those devices be different from a computer/laptop that can already run iTunes? At that point, Apple TV as a certification would be completely transparent, just an extension of iTunes. Even more damning here is the fact that the kind of hardware needed to run AAA games, even older Valve games like ‘Half-Life 2’, is more serious than what’s required to access iTunes.
And there you have it. The Steambox is a yet-unveiled set-top box from Valve designed to access Steam from the living room. The Steambox is a multi-tiered certification for third party device manufactures to create Steam-capable devices for consumers. The Steambox is a concept that demonstrates what Valve has already done to become an ecosystem vying for the precious entertainment space in your living room, your pockets (cell phone pocket, wallet, purse, whatever) and in your life.