Posts Tagged ‘Steam’

Steam Box, Part Two – Price Point

April 7, 2013

One aspect of the Steam Box I didn’t talk about was price point. I figured it would be obvious. It would have to be priced similar to traditional consoles and Valve knows that.

I was reading about the Xi3 Piston and its cost struck me dumb. A thousand dollars? Sure, it’s a cool little mini PC, but my similarly specced media center rig cost half that. My main rig, which is far more capable, cost the same amount. Now, it’s not the Steam Box, and I’m thankful for that. Because if the Steam Box cost that much, there’s no way it can compete. Not against traditional consoles like the recently announced PS4 and Xbox 720/8/Next, and certainly not against the dirt-cheap Ouya class of devices.

It needs to come in at four or five hundred dollars, max, and it’s gotta have decent (not killer, but decent) specs for that price. It has to cost about the same as the PS4 or the Xbox 720/8/Next or nobody will buy it. Console gamers won’t make the switch, because they’re not willing to spend the extra cash for a machine they know little about, and PC enthusiasts will just build their own for the same price or maybe a little less. And this is an area where Valve is naturally disadvantaged versus the console giants.

When it was first released, the Playstation 3 was sold at a (quite significant) loss, and if I remember correctly, the Xbox 360 was also initially sold at a loss, tapering off to a slight loss or slim profit later in its lifecycle. The consoles are subsidized by game sales, a portion of which goes back to the console maker, and things like Live and overpriced accessories. If Valve tries to subsidize the Steam Box with game sales, the userbase will crucify them. They can’t charge for online, and nobody will buy the overpriced accessories. The Steam Box cannot be sold at a loss. Period.

It’s also likely to cost more. Console manufacturers use proprietary, specialized hardware, design for cost efficiency, and build millions of units. There’s a definite economy of scale here. Contrast the Steam Box, which is built with commodity PC hardware (although the next gen is pretty damn close), designed for flexibility and openness (we hope), and unless Valve is insane, will not be built by the millions, at least not initially.

Of course, they also have to provide something that works and works well. The obvious choice to power the device would be one of AMD’s Trinity chips, twin module (I refuse to call it a quad core) and all the shaders unlocked. That’s not a cheap part, even if they work out some kind of deal. It’s gotta have at least 4GB of memory, preferably 8GB, and enthusiasts will hate it if it’s soldered on so it better be a SODIMM or conventional DIMM. Trinity likes fast memory for it’s graphics- you really need dual channel DDR3-1866 to feed it, and that isn’t exactly cheap, though it’s not really expensive either. You can pretty much forget SSDs unless you only have one game, but a hybrid setup with an SSD boot or SSD cache might be the ticket. This is not a cheap computer. This is definitely at least a $500 machine, and it’s the minimum for today.

As you can see, Valve is trapped between a rock and a hard place. If this is going to work, they have to provide good hardware at a low price, and they can’t use the same tricks console makers use. And at the end of the day, most gamers will not part with a thousand dollars of their hard-earned money, no matter how flexible, open, and awesome the platform is.

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Steam Box – Five Things Valve Needs To Succeed

February 16, 2013

The Steam Box has me excited. It’s a completely different approach to console gaming. For those that don’t know what it is, have you been living under a rock? I’ve seen similar initiatives before, but Valve might actually be able to pull it off. To me at least, the fight is not going to be XBOX 3/720/8/Next vs PS4. The really interesting contest is going to be between the cheap and cheerful Android consoles like the Ouya and the much more powerful x86 Steam Box.

That is, if they don’t fuck it up royally. Here’s five things, in my opinion, that Valve needs to get right for the Steam Box to have any hope of succeeding.

5. Plug-and-Play Simplicity
One of the reasons people buy consoles is because you can buy it, plug it in, turn it on, and play. It’s become a little more complicated since the era of the 64 and the Playstation, but not enormously so. You might have to make an account, and install an update, and yeah, it’s a little more complicated than it used to be. But there aren’t long install processes (except when there are) and you don’t have to screw around with patches or driver incompatibility or odd issues. Steam has already come a long way in simplifying our gaming experience- integrating buying games, installing and patching games, playing games and talking to our gaming buddies.

I’m not saying I want to give up flexibility for simplicity, though. If a more advanced user wants to play with a mouse and keyboard, install LibreOffice, or screw around in the terminal, let them do so. But the casual gamer should be able to plug it in, buy a game, grab the controller and play.

4. UniversalityThis is similar to the point about simplicity, above. When you buy a PS3, you’re getting a PS3- well, mostly. There is a little more variety in models than their used to be, but having everyone making Steam Boxes is going to confuse console gamers who would otherwise make the jump. You don’t have to worry about hardware requirements or incompatibility or getting something that half works. There’s no confusion over what to buy- you run out and buy a PS3. Again, it’s not as simple as it used to be, but there are still only a few models with no fundamental differences.

It’s already clear that there isn’t going to be one Steam Box, and I don’t blame Valve for taking this approach. It’s one I support- just not one that’s necessarily going to work. But I think if they take a page out of Google’s book, it won’t be a problem. There are a plethora of Androids in all shapes and sizes out there. There’s the prestigious Galaxy S3, the cheap and not-so-cheerful Optimus One (yes, you can still buy those), the luxurious Transformer Pad Infinity, the middle-of-the-road Galaxy Tab- you get the picture. Standing out in that haze are the “Pure Google” devices- the Nexus 4, 7, and 10. If you buy one of those, you’re getting the pure Android experience- no skins, no mods. They’re the reference platforms. If there’s a Valve-branded “Pure Steam” console that stands out, that’s going to be the one people are going to buy. And it will make it easier on the customer and developers.

3. Integrated Functionality
Today’s game consoles are not just game consoles, and Valve’s Linux-based PC/console doubly so. It’s not enough for a device to just play games. If it doesn’t have any other tricks up its sleeve, then it’s a waste of $300 (or $400, or $500, or $600, or whatnot). For what the Steam Box will likely cost, and given its extensive hardware capabilities (AMD Fusion?), we’d better get something that does at least as much as a Smart TV.

The Steam Box needs to be able to browse the Internet and play your media, at the very minimum. This is out of the box, plug-and-play, not after you’ve rooted it and installed mplayer and Chromium. Simple installation of third-party apps might also be an interesting element to bring to the table, though it may confuse some. A rudimentary file manager would be nice, as would support for network shares, but only an easy way to move content on to the device and play it is necessary. It would also be a boon to a lot of people if there was support for Netflix and other, similar services, though I believe most have web-based services. I’ve played with Steam Big Picture, and it’s nowhere close.

2. A Solid PushYou can have the best idea in the world, but if you don’t market the hell out of it, it’s never going to take off. To use my least favorite company (apart from EA) as an example, this is what Apple did- what Steve Jobs did. He would take an idea, make it his own, and launch it and push it when the time was right. The iPhone is the culmination of years worth of technological development, and so is the iPod and the iPad. Samsung’s Galaxy Player should have been force competition for the iPod Touch, with a growing acceptance of Android and the pedigree of the Galaxy name. But the unit was not marketed in the United States until six months after its Korean launch, and was never brought to Canada.

Gamers know Steam. That’s a starting point. But (internet) word of mouth only goes so far. The majority of people following Valve and the Steam Box are PC gamers, most of which already own a competent PC. Console gamers and non-gamers are going to be the big growth area. And it’s a complex market- not only are you going up against the next-gen consoles, but also phones and tablets. Valve needs to make themselves known. Advertising- on TV, on the Internet, in magazines (do people still read those?) is key. Although an online solution worked for the Nexus devices, Valve might even want to consider a retail presence. Having a Steam Box display next to the Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft ones selling Steam Boxen and game cards, preferably with a demo model, will bring a lot of people in. And take note of the game cards- maybe vouchers for games or maybe like iTunes cards. Most teenagers don’t have credit cards.

1. Launch TitlesBlu-ray didn’t win the format war because it was technically superior to HD DVD, nor did it win because certain hardware companies integrated it into their products. Blu-ray won because during the season that it came out, the most desired titles were from studios that backed Blu-ray and came out on that format. People will buy the platform that supports the content they want. The Steam Box runs Linux. There are some Linux-compatible titles on Steam, mostly Valve and indie games. As much as I like those, nobody’s going to buy a console so they can play DEFCON or Team Fortress 2. You need big-name publishers backing you and strong franchises available on the platform. You need to launch with a good lineup of games people want, people are willing to upgrade for.

EA Games is already out, because they insist on ramming Origin down our throats. And those who are prideful and refuse to bow down… are probably torrenting cracked versions. That’s a pretty big hit, considering they publish games for every other platform. Battlefield, Command and Conquer, Mass Effect, Need For Speed, NxL 20xx, anything with Sims in the title. Up next is Activision Blizzard. Call of Duty sells by the millions, so if you can get Infinity Ward and Treyarch’s latest masterpieces (and I use that term in a completely non-ironic manner), you’ve got two top end launch titles right there. Get Starcraft and you’ve cornered the Korean market. I jest, but it is a decent launch title. World of Warcraft might be bad for your reputation, but it’ll get people buying. Ubisoft has Assassin’s Creed, Tom Clancy’s (yes, they actually a degree of rights to his name), and a whole host of others. Rainbow Six Patriots might make a good launch game (or it might suck). There’s also Rockstar (GTA), ZeniMax Media (iD, Bethesda), Namco Bandai (Ace Combat, Soulcalibur), Konami (MGS), and a host of others I can’t keep track of.

Indie developers are good and all, and Valve can punch out games in their own right, but they need the support of major developers and publishers (ones that will likely be skeptical of their open model) to be successful. Maybe Valve will finally learn to count to three? Now THAT would be a launch title.

Matchmaking (and other gaming pet peeves)

July 25, 2010

I love my dedicated servers. Sometimes they have a mod I like, the people are my skill level, I like the map, or maybe it’s just less laggy. I usually only play on a few; finding servers I like. I was totally unimpressed with MW2 because of the lack of servers. Matchmaking just sucks. It may be fine in the console world where people are used to having no control over anything, but it just doesn’t fly with PC gamers like me. It’s not as bad with Alien Swarm, since you can pick your map and it’s only four players, so it wouldn’t really work with servers. Red Alert 3 is nice in that it has both options, but very few people seem to bother with servers.

I’ve seen a lot of good and bad console ports. Am I the only one who thinks “rotate the left analog stick” on a PC game sounds incredibly stupid? Especially ones with crap control layouts that you can’t change. Features taken for granted in the PC world but nonexistant in the console world are missing. Like the ability to change resolution, for example. And the controls, since they are so awful. I guess bad ports are less stable and don’t perform well, but I haven’t really noticed it. Sometimes it’s just minor flaws, though, like over-large text sized for a TV, or controls the opposite of the predecessor (I’m looking at you, Mass Effect 2).

Finally, I’m seeing games mostly on DVD. For a while, it was insane. Some games needed four CDs! At that point, we were well into the sixth generation era where consoles were DVD based and almost every new PC was sold with a combo drive (CD-writer and DVD reader) at the least. I buy most of my games through Steam now, so it doesn’t matter as much for me.

Another archaic practice that seems to be going the way of the dinosaur is having to insert the disc to play. It’s a huge pain in the ass if you have as many games as I do, and pretty much unnecessary. I fail to see how it would do anything about piracy. You still need a disc, copied or legit. Sadly, we get SecuRom instead now.

This is m0re a wish than a complaint, but I wish network play was possible without purchasing two copies of a game. Remember how the old Command and Conquer games came with two discs, both of which could be used to play the game? Something like that. It wouldn’t work with digital distribution, though.

What’s with OnLive? Playing a game on a server? First, laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaag. Second, HD video takes up a lot more bandwidth than playing online normally. Third, you have no control over your game files, which means your save could disappear and you can’t play mods. Lastly, I paid for this quad core and Radeon HD 4670, I’m damn well going to use them!