Steam Box and Piston Won’t Revolutionize Gaming

by Pat B on January 16, 2013

Piston

It’s all fun and games until you can’t play Battlefield 5 without upgrading the video card.

I have never been big into PC gaming, strictly due to the costs to buy a decent system, and then the costs to maintain/update the hardware to keep current with what developers come out with. When you buy a console like an Xbox or PlayStation you just know that the games that come out for it will simply “work” when you put them in. In America at least, consoles are the ultimate consumer device for gamers because it’s an instant-gratification with minimal initial investment. PCs take a bit more knowledge to get going. Do you have the right hardware? Are your drivers up-to-date? For me, the games I’d really want to play on PC would require a high-end system and so it immediately becomes a dream instead of a reality.

Put yourself into the shoes of a game developer. You’re investing millions of dollars into a project with the end result of making a profit and getting recognition from the gaming community so that there’s demand for you to produce a sequel. Developing for a console allows the developer and know exactly how their game will run and be played, but you have distribution challenges. Developing for PC requires a separate team of people working to ensure it’s compatible with different operating systems, graphics cards, RAM quantities, Direct X versions, etc, but you have more flexibility with distribution methods such as Valve’s very popular, “Steam” service. The challenge with PC gaming is the more requirements a consumer has to meet to play a game, the smaller your overall market penetration becomes. This is why console versions of games, like Call of Duty, have historically sold better against their PC counterparts.

Now we’re on the dawn of Valve’s supposed “Steam Box” and recently announced Xi3’s “Piston”. They’re gaming PC’s, but are designed to be a TV companion in your living room, allow you to utilize services like Steam, and make it easier to upgrade the components later. Sounds awesome, right? Well, the problem with Piston, for example, is that the price of the unit is as much, if not more, than a top-end gaming PC can be built for ($999 for base model). You’re paying for convenience and small form-factor, but is this the concept that is going to close the gap of Console vs. PC?? Probably not at those prices.

Who is the audience with Piston and Steam Box? It can’t be hardcore PC-gamers, because they already have the hardware. Is it the console and casual gamer crowd? The only way I can see it working is if 1.) The prices are extremely competitive to Xbox, PlayStation, and WiiU, and 2.) There is no requirement to upgrade the hardware later to play games.

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Ugh.

Let’s time travel back to 1998. Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation are battling for video game supremacy. Each system has their strengths and weaknesses, but the Nintendo 64 had an idea that was pretty bold for the time. It was called “The Expansion Pack” and it confused and upset a lot of consumers. The idea was interesting; have a piece of the hardware that was easily upgradable at a later-date to support higher-end games. It was bridging the gap between traditional consoles and PCs in a very simple manner. The Expansion Pack doubled the RAM of the Nintendo 64 by adding a whopping 4mb. Yes, you read that right, 4 megabits. The problem was that to play some of the newest, hottest games, you were required to buy and install the Expansion Pack.

Here are a couple examples of how market-penetration shrinks when you require hardware upgrades, regardless of how big a game is. Remember “Goldeneye” for Nintendo 64? Well it sold 8 million copies and created unbelievable demand for another game like it from the developer, Rare. Fast forward a few years later to the release of “Perfect Dark”, the unofficial sequel to Goldeneye, and by all standards, a much better game with everything from graphics to multiplayer improved. Perfect Dark sold 2.5 million copies. Remember Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? That game sold 7.6 million copies. Again, a console-defining game that created unbelievable demand for a sequel. Fast forward a few years to Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask which ended up selling 3.6 million copies. Something both had in common? They required the Expansion Pack to play part, or all of the game. The more requirements you make the consumer meet, the faster your market shrinks. Oh and by the way, do you think Perfect Dark and Majora’s Mask cost more or less to develop? Food for thought…

Now I know what you’re saying. “That was over a decade ago!” and that is exactly my point. A decade ago, consumers were spending money on gaming much differently than they are today, and with less competition. There are too many other options in 2013 for consumers to buy and play than spending $999 on a tiny-PC. Look at how much kids want iPads over a Nintendo 3DS or PlayStation Vita. Times are changing, and consumers are becoming pickier with their spending because there are so many choices.

Baby's love iPads

Kids love the iPad

Xbox-World-720-MockupI am excited to see how close the next-gen Xbox and PlayStation will be to current high-end PCs, and what their strategies are for staying relevant over the next 5-8 years in a much faster-changing technology-driven world. I highly doubt that Microsoft will announce that the new Xbox will have upgradable components like these new living room-PCs. As a consumer, I’d rather spend my money on something I don’t have to worry about upgrading, or paying a thousand dollars initially for, just to play video games on, even if the technology becomes outdated faster than a PC-centric system would. BUT, I bet we will see revamped marketplaces from Sony and Microsoft to compete with services like Steam. That’s where the money and innovation will be, and allow indie developers to have success.

I’m very curious to see how much Steam Box ends up costing because at the end of the day that will determine success to the gaming community that doesn’t already have the hardware. It’s a tough sell against the juggernauts of Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft, especially in a year that we’re expecting a new Xbox and PlayStation. Unless Valve comes out with something that hasn’t already been rumored, speculated, or discussed, I don’t think that Steam Box will revolutionize gaming in 2013, just simply offer an alternative to the community that wants mid-to-high-end gaming PC’s.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jm January 16, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Wow you are seriously uninformed. You write an article, spouting some of the most common misconceptions about gaming, and present it as fact. Let me fix it for you:

1. Costs to build a PC aren’t much more than the cost of buying an Xbox and the peripherals that come with it. You generally make up that cost in the cheaper costs of PC game themselves which are extremely cheap at times…which further decreases the overall cost. You speak of maintaining that hardware-most games played at Xbox resolution/quality can be run on a machine from years ago, so maintenance is a moot point unless you want to stay on the bleeding edge. Xbox 360 quality is a low end PC for most of it. Online play is free too which is another cost savings over the 360.

2. Games do not “just work” on any platform. Well…most do, but games have their fair share of bugs across all platforms. Skyrim, oblivion, fallout new Vegas, Arkham city, far cry, and assassins creed, not to mention sports games like FIFA or madden all have their share of issues on all platforms. Point is that when it works, it works. I haven’t had a single issue running a game from steam. Not one. Driver updates are done automatically these days, and are optional as well…and it’s not difficult to do.

3. You talk about developing, and mention different operating systems. Most games these days require Windows 7, or it’s newer version, windows 8, which is essentially win7 with a few things tacked on. Developers then test it on a few different types of hardware (or have an open beta, so users of all types can help test), and release a minimum requirement and an optimal requirement, plainly displayed on each box and website it’s sold on.

4. The Xbox (next/720/whatever) and the ps4 have had their specs announced and leaked, and are equivalent to a low end PC. Nothing special, which means that innovation and quality will again be stifled if they sell well. PC gaming pushed the boundaries of graphics and system design for many years, and brought about many changes, but have stagnated due to consoles staying in the market for so long. The point is that PC gaming is growing again, and devices like the steam box are going to enhance that growth. I’ll take quality over convenience or laziness (“I don’t want to have to learn anything” is basically one of your arguments above) any day of the week.

Oh and ill say this- I own an Xbox, a ps3, and a PC. I game on all of them, but prefer the PC because it has cost the least overall (including games), it runs flawlessly, it has free online services, mod support, keyboard and mouse support, and I can play on a monitor or my giant tv in better quality than the 360, with the same amount of fuss.

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Anthony January 17, 2013 at 10:16 am

Thank you for the feedback! Your points are valid, but I’m not disputing PC gaming being a solid way to game, I’m saying that for the average, uninformed consumer, it is far more hassle, and there are absolutely more hoops to jump through, to find adequate hardware to play a wide-range of games at a cost comparable to a console. Consoles remove those factors and allow you to simply pop-in a game and play it. There may be bugs within the games, but you’re not required to upgrade your system in order to play a single game that has come out for them in the past 8-years. My point, is that Steam Box and Piston were a ray of light to start bridging the gap for people who want the benefits of a PC, but the simplicity of a console. However, at the prices announced thus far, I don’t see it being successful. I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it.

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Kevin January 17, 2013 at 2:20 pm

There’s also the consideration of what games these are meant to be for. If they are saying they’ll.run every game at Max resolution for at least a year… its likely to be an expensive box and you’re probably better off getting a micro tower gaming rig with a stripped down OS and Steam.

On the other hand, if these are for the kinds of games you could get from an Indie dev, like a castle crashers, the walking dead, or the binding of Isaac… then who’s to say that the idea of a steam “arcade” box would be off the table.

My hopes for the next console cycle: disk less. Let me buy the content I want in the way I want. If devs are so worried about the secondary market taking all their money, I’m baffled they haven’t gone this way already.

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Anthony January 17, 2013 at 3:43 pm

I think this new generation we’ll see every new game that comes out will have a downloadable version released at the same time. Again, Microsoft and Sony need to modify their Marketplaces to be competitive. The questions is, will the price for a download-only version be low enough to entice people to take that over a disc that they can later trade-in at Gamestop.

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Kevin January 19, 2013 at 12:54 pm

For me, I’d probably say -$10 is a fine reduction. Though if it was full price I’d probably still buy it for about half the games I buy. My wife and I share an Xbox, and we’re both working through two games so we switch discs constantly. $50 seems the standard for new PC games as well.

I just don’t understand why publishers don’t push this already. Especially since they’re all doing online codes and day one dlc to interfere with resale. Any game that goes up for download either is a game I’m still playing (but bought at least a month ago on day 1) or a game I don’t own (because I have no interest in playing). Then they state download sales aren’t high enough to be worth it.

I’d love to see a huge title get a same day digital release. They could have done Halo 4, and run it like the wow releases where you can buy early and pre load. I get that they want to see sales numbers, but I’m sure Microsoft can figure out how to get sales numbers off to the guys at Microsoft.

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