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The Steam Machine Deception

Updated Tue, Dec 24, 2013 by Xerin

Gabe Newell

Welcome to my three part series on why Gabe Newell will have you think the Steam Machine / Steam Box is the next great thing in gaming and why he is not only wrong but the entire movement is redundant and borderline harmful to the gaming community. There is a lot of misinformation out there and this article is here to clear it up. We’ll also be featuring a way to build your own Steam Machine with the vastly superior operating system “Windows 8” on it and also list in brief the top 10 reasons why you shouldn’t buy into the hype, a quick and easy pocket guide to share with your friends.

First, let’s talk about what the Steam Machine is. It’s an HTPC (home theater PC) with Debian 7.1 (Linux) running on it. Essentially, it’s just a PC with a neat controller and Steam built into it. There is a lot wrong with this picture. I mean drastically large sums of wrong with this picture. First, the Steam OS can only play Linux games which means that it can only play the small handful of games ported to Linux.

Gabe Newell, blessed be his name, has promised us AAA titles to be ported to the SteamOS, which is odd and we will touch on this in a little bit. For those titles that aren’t ported to Linux, you’ll need to run a Windows PC and stream the game to the Steam Machine. This in turn would let you play Steam games on your television. But wait! There’s more. But wait! There isn’t.

That’s it. There is talk and discussion of opening it up into a more standard Linux desktop like environment but being completely honest you are better installing Debian and then Steam. You’ll have essentially the same setup, except you’ll also be able to run an honest to goodness HTPC at the same time and install all the Linux apps you want and run whatever version of Linux you want. That is the beauty of using Linux.

Gabe Newell

You could even go crazier, purchase an HTPC (which we will be following up with on more information how to build and make one) and then install Windows, followed by Steam, for the same experience. Even crazier, you can get a Bluetooth extender and wireless HDMI transmitter and then control your computer on your TV up to 100 feet away.

Hidden Agendas

The real question with the Steam Machine is what is the agenda here. Why? Why is Steam trying to make itself into a console? What’s the point? Increase sales? Is that even possible? The Steam Machine is going to cost as much as a gaming PC at retail and people who usually buy Steam products buy them for their PC anyway.

If you don’t have a gaming PC and are looking for something to play games on, the Steam Machine can’t be a solution. Here is why: video cards cost X amount, components cost Z amount, the cost of assembly is Y amount, X + Y + Z = a set amount. To obtain a specific amount of performance, you will have to pay that set amount for that performance. So buying a sweet Steam Machine to run the latest and best games will cost the same as buying the latest and greatest gaming PC.

The Steam Machines shipped so far have over $1,300 in parts within them. This is the current cost for an entry level high end gaming PC. Except it runs Linux with Steam’s propriety software and drivers! How does this even make sense in this world? The promotion aspect “Oh this thing runs wonderfully!” because it’s essentially an entry level high end PC and the ones that will come out in the future can’t compete with that price and still sell?

So Valve essentially paid $390,000 (we're going to assume they got the parts at a discount but still had to buy the wooden crates, shipping, manufacturing, etc.) to promote their Steam OS and give the Steam Machines to 300 people. We still have to ponder, why?

Gabe Newell

AAA titles are said to come to Steam but how much is Gabe Newell, our king and divine diviner of sales, paying companies to make their games on Linux and for what insane reason?

Oh, the streaming. I forgot! You can stream. I’m just going to insert a laugh track into that because I’m sure it’ll work perfectly with no lag.

The motive is still curious to me. Why? As I listed above, it can’t be to push Steam to new users. That’s impossible unless they can produce a $99 Steam Box that has the specs of a $1,999 gaming PC. Consoles produce the results they have because they are based on their own unique architecture in which they don’t need to do XYZ so, as a result, they have increased performance because they only need to do A. Likewise, and they are generally sold at or near a loss to promote games.

Promote Linux games maybe? Do you know how many Linux vs. PC games there are?

Steam Game Mini-Infographic

PC games hold 73% of the market (assuming each version of the game is its own unique game). Mac holds 19% and Linux holds just 8%.

The games on Steam are gonna sale. So is it to push Linux? If you noticed, Steam has a Linux tab. The games there are pretty eh, but it’s there, in the spotlight. Is it to get people to switch to Linux? Where is the profit in that?

Gabe Newell

Did Microsoft want too much to put Windows on their Steam Machines? If I had to put money down, I think that it’s a push to improve the Indie games which development costs on Linux are far lower. In addition, Linux has a lower operating overhead than Windows and they can get more out of less. Although, we will see when streaming comes in.

My point is that the entire thing is not worth the hype. It’s not a revolution. People though Ouya was a revolution and I still can’t buy a PS4 but I can buy all the Ouyas I want.

Dogecoin

Another theory is the licensing. SteamOS is free for me and you but let’s say that you’re a captain of industry and realizing your Dogecoins are not earning you the millions decide to assemble HTPCs with SteamOS. Well, you have to pay a fee to Valve. So maybe they’re hoping to dip into the market of captains of industry who throw good money after bad?

Steam OS is another curious thing. People have been installing it and playing around with it and it’s pretty ok. It’s essentially a barebones copy of Linux with Steam permanently in Big Picture Mode. I’ve read some insane glowing reviews, written by hyper tech geeks who have been waiting since 1992 for Linux to overthrow Windows as the primary operating system and it won’t happen.

Even better! Most major tech sites I’ve skimmed (and this is likely to change) haven’t bothered to review it, other than making comments like “Oh it’s really pricey to setup…” 500gb of storage space means that even I, the great Xerin, can not even test it for you guys. However, I went and turned Steam to Big Picture Mode and that was pretty cool.

Gabe Newell

Some say it's all about DRM that SteamOS will make it tougher to pirate games on. However, heh, that's a joke and it's funny unless they bring AAA titles to SteamOS only which will of course cause the Internet to go nuts. Because people would just pirate the game on Windows still and if you lock it to SteamOS well - it is based on Debian, which Linux is pretty easy to do things with and work with, so...

Others say that it is aimed at the console market to open the world of PC gaming to console players without them having to build a gaming machine themselves. I find the idea to be hilarious because honestly, you can buy a gaming PC from any major computer retailer if you want, preloaded with Windows and sometimes Steam already. If you don't want to build a gaming PC, there are tons of options available for you.

SteamOS will relegate itself to the new "free" option when people want to install their own copy of Windows from major gaming PC retailers, like when you have a student copy of Windows and it's cheaper to take off the $129 or whatever from the build and install your cheaper version on the PC.

The Elephant in the Room

Have you, serious question, ever used a keyboard and mouse on the couch? It doesn't work. There is no way to make it work. The controller is wonderful and I do enjoy the design, however, and this is critical, it only works for a set number of "Big Picture Ready" games and even then - many of those titles unless they are console ports are awkward to use. Creating a console for PC games is like creating the idea that your big screen would make an awesome new monitor, up and until you realize that unless it’s an FPS or sidescroller or console port, the controller just doesn’t work.

Putting the keyboard and mouse in your lap isn’t that comfortable either. Now, I mention this because that effectively cuts out one of the coolest Linux games you can play: DoTA 2, from really working on a Steam Machine. There is also the fact that even the Big Picture designed games all don’t play well with a controller.

Speaking of Big Picture mode, Valve has been making a push to get onto televisions for a while. This is just yet another phase of their push for “big TV money” but seriously. I honestly feel this isn’t the way to do it because it’s deceptive. It’s pushing the agenda of Linux and an OS that is crippled by itself onto the masses.

Back to the point of Windows < Linux for the devout, I use Linux a lot. I run a personal file storage server at home that uses Linux because I have so many devices and so many files to share that it just makes sense to use an older computer that way. However, with the Cloud taking everything and putting it online (music, documents, etc.) it’s starting to become more and more of a backup server. I also use it on a web server for testing and development of certain things.

I like Linux. When I was a kid I wanted a copy of Red Hat to install on my PC so that I could have a Linux desktop. So that I could feel cool. But as I grew up I realized that Linux as a desktop is awkward, more awkward than using a Mac. Those dreams are long gone and I’ve completely forgot about it. I use Linux as a server environment, which I feel it is perfect for.

Of course, much like Bitcoin destroying the evil fiat currency or the Ouya taking down consoles as we know them or Chromebooks and ChromeOS actually doing something in the market, we’ve seen these things come and go and let me just say this: the hype is hilariously not worth it.

Gabe Newell

Praise be onto Gabe Newell for bringing us a console that is not only not a console but awkward to use and serves as nothing more than a future disappointment. Perhaps the Cult of Steam will be so broke from the Winter Sale that when these go on sale, they won’t actually sell, and people will stick to using Steam OS as a novelty.

I would like to clarify that I believe Steam is an amazing way to get PC games and so far it has done wonders to keep PC gaming a viable resource. Steam is great, but SteamOS and Steam Machines and Steam Boxes to me are not going to help the PC gaming industry. They're going to confuse people who think they're something that they're not and consume money and provide disappointment. We all like to think good ideas are truly great and we put our trust into companies like Valve, but when they present apples and hand us oranges, we must really take a second to truly think about it.

If you are really interested in why Valve is investing in Linux, Newell lays it out pretty clearly in a Youtube video of his talk at LinuxCon 2013. I tried to include the link but I got dinged for spam :(

The idea that I get is that he sees platform holders like Microsoft and Apple moving towards an App Store model even on their desktop operating systems where, in exchange for some legitimate security and convenience gains, software developers end up giving up a lot of freedom and flexibly around how they distribute their software. It makes a lot of sense for Valve to develop their own OS as a hedge against that direction, especially while they still are able to offer their services on Windows and Mac. They really have nothing to lose and if Microsoft locks everything behind an App Store (like they've already done with Windows RT), Valve will be positioned to keep offering Steam in some form.

Also, aren't they offering Steam OS without licensing fees? Not 100% on that but I know the current version is available for free download today.

gabe.jpg
The Steam Machine is in the hands of the masses and David "Xerin" Piner takes a look at why they are not necessarily exciting, revolutionary, or realistically noteworthy.
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