The Ouya might’ve been crowdfunded, but Valve’s first stab at a video game console could just redefine everyone’s idea of the populist game console.
As the owner of Steam, the biggest player out there in digital-download gaming, Valve doesn’t need to ask anyone for seed funding. But now that it’s publicly moving forward with the long-rumored Steam-focused hardware, it does want some pointers on how exactly to make it. To that end, Valve will ship 300 prototype Steam Machines to Steam users by the end of the year. Reports sent back by those 300 lucky recipients — 30 of which will be hand-selected, the rest chosen at random — will directly affect the hardware’s design and development.
It’s user feedback, focus testing, and market research all rolled into one. But the end result is this: Steam’s community will decide what the Steam Machines will be.
“Entertainment is not a one-size-fits-all world,” according to the press release on Steam’s website. “We want you to be able to choose the hardware that makes sense for you, so we are working with multiple partners to bring a variety of Steam gaming machines to market.”
The Machines will run the previously announced Linux-based SteamOS. If that wasn’t open source enough, Steam plans to allow, if not outright encourage, its focus testers to crack into their test boxes, modify them to their heart’s content, and share the entire experience with the world, good or bad.
Rarely does a high-profile piece of consumer electronics go out into the world without extensive, highly confidential consumer research, but that usually happens after the basics are set. Valve is being deliberately vague on details because it’s leaving the details to its community. It wants to know what kind of machine its most devoted users want. This process will tell Valve what kind of hardware its customers will spend money on when they’ve already got a perfectly good PC rig playing their entire Steam collections.
And once that picture comes into focus, Steam will build that exact box.
Or, more likely, boxes. It sounds very much like multiple Steam Machines will be on offer, catering to specific wants and needs. “The specific machine we’re testing is designed for users who want the most control possible over their hardware,” continues the press release. “Other boxes will optimize for size, price, quietness, or other factors.”
Putting this entire process in the public eye also falls right in line with Valve’s crowdsourcing instincts. Founder Gabe Newell is fond of pointing out how the Steam community can output ten times the amount of content Valve can on its own, and Newell’s team have become experts in leveraging that enthusiasm. He’s just taking it out of the DLC space and into a far bigger arena.
Plus, this finally bumps Steam into the living room, right alongside the Xboxes and PlayStations of the world.
And at the end of the process, Valve will know it has a viable product. Its own paying customers will have helped build it. The community will already be invested. And if Steam Machines help to bridge the market gap between PC gamers and console gamers, that community might just win the console war for Valve.