Valve is traditionally a company that doesn’t like to do much. Valve is a small company, after all, so many of their decisions and solutions are based on the idea of generally having a hands-off approach. If there is an opportunity for the community to self-govern, it will take it. We have seen it in Steam with Green Light, Reviews, Workshop, Curators; the list goes on and on. In many of those features, Valve would start taking a laissez-faire approach, but after a feature’s short existence it would find itself in a position that would require Valve to take a more active role. This cycle would repeat itself and continue with practically every new feature added to Steam but has largely avoided Valve itself. Valve was simply above it, resting on its past laurels and market superiority to remain in the position it is in today.
But times have changed; other competitors have entered the market, and even companies not seen traditionally as competitors have become one. It has come time for Valve to act, and thankfully, they seem to be in an acting mood. Unfortunately, their past efforts haven’t had the most success.
At a presentation on Artifact, Valve’s upcoming card game, Gabe Newell stated,
“Artifact is the first of several games that are going to be coming from us. So that’s sort of good news. Hooray! Valve’s going to start shipping games again.”
But the information didn’t stop there; Valve gave further hints as to its upcoming plans.
“…but sort of the big thing, the new arrow we have in our quiver, really, is our ability to develop hardware and software simultaneously…We’ve always been a little bit jealous of companies like Nintendo….When Miyamoto is sitting down and thinking about the next version of Zelda or Mario, he’s thinking what is the controller going to look like, what sort of graphics and other capabilities. He can introduce new capabilities like motion input because he controls both of those things. And he can make the hardware look as good as possible because he’s designing the software at the same time that’s really going to take advantage of it. So that is something we’ve been jealous of, and that’s something that you’ll see us taking advantage of subsequently.”
These are all positive signs coming from Valve. From the sounds of it, it looks like we have multiple titles to be excited about and potential hardware to be released that will complement those releases. However, we have been down this road before with Valve. We have seen a renewed interest in hardware and software that excited everyone initially, but would quickly fall flat in the months following those products’ releases. Steam Boxes and Steam OS coupled with additional peripherals were an exciting prospect when they were initially announced.
Steam Boxes were a great push for Valve to enter the mainstream market, an effort to make PC gaming accessible to the more casual and mainstream audience. An audience that has always seen PC gaming as something niche or too complicated to be bothered with. When Steam Boxes finally launched, we would see very little interest in not only companies creating their own individual boxes, but also consumers in their interest in the product. This is not surprising as the concept was targeting a very niche market, those interested in PC gaming but not willing to purchase a traditional desktop, but also willing to buy a gaming-focused computer. Additionally, not every game on Steam would be available on Steam Boxes, as Steam OS (the operating system on Steam Boxes) was a form of Linux and didn’t support DirectX, an extremely popular API used in many PC games but exclusive to Windows. Steam OS at the very least would have the benefit not restricted to Steam Boxes, enabling enthusiasts to create their own Steam Boxes that ran on Steam OS, but would still be restricted by the operating system’s own limitations.
Not too long after, we would see the prospect of playing PC games on your TV become a realm for only enthusiasts. Only the Steam Controller, and to a lesser extent, the Steam Link would be the most successful efforts from Valve to enter the physical market.
This isn’t to say Valve is incapable of doing what it hopes, but rather, its past failures point to very specific lessons that need to be learned before Valve makes another attempt.
Valve needs to accept what the PC gaming market really is and needs to create hardware and software around those truths.
PC Gaming Market
First, the PC gaming market is messy. It’s a complex web of confusion when it comes to defining who or what the PC gaming market exactly is. On one hand, you have a group of individuals who identify with the enthusiast aspect of PC gaming. The goal of building the best computer and creating the best machine, trying to get every ounce of power possible from their computer and using that power to play games the best they can be played. In a different aspect of the PC gaming market, you have a group who are more casually oriented. To them, PC gaming isn’t seen as an entire hobby, but rather a means to an end; to play games they enjoy in a format they enjoy.
Between these groups and even outside of them, there are dozens if not hundreds of various groups that all attach themselves to PC gaming; but they all do so in their own, very different way. Each has different concerns, interests, cares, and other feelings to the prospect of PC gaming that simply doesn’t exist to the same extent as it does in the traditional console market. This is simply because PC’s are more than just gaming devices; they have other purposes and other functions that don’t relate to gaming, and because of this, there is a large difference in thought regarding what people want and don’t when it comes to gaming on them. Some want to spend, some don’t, or some just want to spend a little. Some want convenience, some want more power, some want something in-between. The desires and wants are as varied as any other gamer but is on a platform that can allow and not allow any and all of these depending on the situation (unlike a traditional console).
Trying to create any sort of product or products for this varied group must be aware of this varied market. As it is the same market that has made so many genres and different types of games so successful on the platform, it is also the same group that can sink them as well. If a new piece of hardware is going to be made, and games designed for it, it also needs to target the correct groups. Gabe’s fondness for the Nintendo Switch is a perfect example of why this is important. For the Nintendo Switch, everyone is playing on the same product with the same features. Everyone has the same base, and anything created can be directly built with that base in mind, either using it exclusively or adding on to it. The barrier to entry for Nintendo Labo is just a Nintendo Switch. The barrier to entry for games developed for the Vive is making sure you have a computer fast enough to support it and the Vive itself. The first costing around $360, and the other costing upwards of $1200; quite the tall order in comparison. Not everyone in the in the PC gaming market will be interested in games designed for new pieces of hardware, especially if not everyone in the market will be capable of easily playing them.
Which generally speaks to the problem Valve faces, and why it’s so concerning. If Valve is going to take after the Nintendo Switch in terms of hardware, they need a base to work from. Currently, no such things exist in the PC gaming market, and while products like the Vive can certainly be used as a launching off point for new titles, it’s still an extremely high barrier to entry. Titles, hardware, and titles dependent on hardware needs to be created in such a way that everyone can easily have access or at the very least, created so they many of the groups that make us PC gaming can take advantage of different ones. It’s only through this pillar approach that Valve can ever hope to find success in building off of its games with the idea of certain hardware in mind.
Otherwise, we are just going to have another Steam Box debacle all over again.