The Console/PC Paradox

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Video-games are a multi-billion dollar industry, excluding mobile phone games and tablets, video-game revenues reached a staggering $57.2 billion in 2012 and an estimated $58 million in 2013 worldwide.  As it stands, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 has sold 80 million units (as of October 17, 2013) with the PlayStation 3 matching its competitor.  The launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is expected to exceed their predecessors but whether or not they’ll be able to exceed or match the success of the PlayStation 2 (150 million units sold worldwide) remains to be seen.  Nintendo’s Wii U trails behind with an estimated 25 million unit throughput for the console’s entire lifetime, even though the Wii U has an established game library as well as backwards compatibility with its predecessor.

Needless to say, other manufacturers are tempted to jump the console train and ride it all the way to the bank, but in a market dominated by industry giants Sony and Microsoft (Nintendo is like that younger child always wanting to play with the bigger kids but somehow never managing to make it up the tree-house) where does that leave their prospective rivals?

Cue the Steam MachineValve Corporation have seemingly seen a gap in the market for a unique (and I say that sparingly) console experience and intend on bringing their Steam platform into the living room with a modular console running an open source Linux-based operating system aptly named SteamOS.

So from a consumer standpoint, what does this mean for us, and why choose the Steam Machine over its formidable and well established competitors? Firstly, in case you didn’t know, Valve Corporation made a very controversial leap with the advent of their digital distribution platform Steam back in 2003.  I say controversial due to the DRM (Digital Rights Management) fiasco they faced back then when online authentication and mandatory internet connectivity (in order to play the games) was a fresh and unpopular concept.  Steam was developed primarily for the Microsoft Windows platform, of which it accounts for an estimated 75% of all digitally purchased games.  However, with the growing popularity of open source software, as of 2012, Steam was made available for Linux users along with developer tools in order to help port games to the platform and has a growing library of titles.  So why use Linux and not Windows for SteamOS?  Well, while the outline for SteamOS certainly doesn’t indicate that it will be a viable option for formatting your Windows machine, an open source platform will allow much more freedom for the consumer and as I stated before, the Steam Machine will be modular, so not only will you be able to tinker around with the operating system, users can upgrade the consoles in order to suit their needs.  Looks like a PC, sounds like a PC, and with the first Valve prototype being priced around the same as an Xbox One, it pretty much is a PC.

As an old hand at the PC gaming arena, Valve might just have a winner with the Steam Machine as it’s worth noting that not only does Steam have over 3000 available titles, it’s also responsible for 75% of all digitally purchased games so it stands to reason that they could make a considerable dent in the console wars as the new kid on the block if Valve play to their strengths (which I’ll come back to shortly).

SteamOS will also be made available for download, meaning that one can install the software on their PC and have their games streamed to their televisions, essentially bridging the gap between console and PC.  So what’s the point of it all you might ask, especially when you consider that both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are using off the shelf PC components (for the most part).  Well, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will be optimized for playing games, meaning that a user never has to worry about expensive upgrades in order to play the latest games at their optimal level.  The Steam Machine will come in a multitude of different preconfigured models designed to fit the consumers need, as well as affording you the option of upgrading your unit, which all seems a little pointless when you consider that Valve is giving you the option of installing the console’s OS on your PC and given the estimated retail price of a Steam box, you’d be hard-pressed to justify splashing out cash on it when you could just as easily buy a PC.

However, if you eliminate the PC aspect of the Steam Machine and compare it to its competition, it certainly has the upper hand as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 only have limited upgrade potential (swapping out the hard drives).  While Sony and Microsoft’s gaming beasts will certainly perform magnificently and offer consumers plenty longevity, one needs to bear in mind that as the consoles age, so will their performance (in terms of keeping up with contemporary gaming visuals when compared to PC) so a fully upgradable ‘console’ (the strength I mentioned earlier) might just be the right thing needed to give the glorious PC gaming master race a much needed kick in the teeth.  Of course there is another option altogether, take your PC (or in my case, a laptop) and hook it up to your television via HDMI cable, throw in a couple game-pads (Xbox 360 controllers work particularly well as a lot of the games are ported to PC) and you have yet another reason to question the viability of the Steam Machine.

In conclusion, I think that consoles should remain as they are, in other words, they shouldn’t be upgradable to the point where they’re no longer recognizable as it negates their very existence and when you consider the fact that the latest generation of console has abandoned PowerPC and cell architecture (aspects that made consoles unique) in favour of traditional x86 architecture (as used in most PC’s today), the lines between console and PC have definitely (and unnecessarily) blurred into one another.  So sure, there is definitely a market for this hybrid gaming machine, however the real question remains, will the vast majority of die-hard PC and console enthusiasts accept Valve’s hybrid love child?

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