Ben Parfitt, of MCV, wrote an opinion piece on how “2013 [could be] the year that everything changes” [http://bit.ly/SkUrMd]. It was written in response to the recent announcements at CES on the SteamBox(es) and Project Shield from nVidia.
“Fast forward to 2013 and the industry is barely recognisable. Xbox 360 and PS3 sales continue to drop, the Wii feels like a distant memory. The 3DS, at least, threatens to achieve success although we must all accept that it will never, ever reach the heights of the DS. Our two newest platforms, Vita and Wii U, are struggling to get off the ground.”
Where it ever thus. The PS2 hardly had a dream start: supply shortages, pre-order chaos, a lack of games and poor reliability stunted its growth for the best part of a year. The Wii U and Vita are barely hitting their stride before the media’s narrative that video game consoles are doomed starts bashing it on the head like game of whack-a-mole. In comparative terms to the 1990 and early 2000s the sales numbers for both the Wii U and Vita are consistent. Most mainstream video game consoles - including the Xbox (original), GameCube, N64 and DreamCast - have sold around 5m units per year, with the market leader - Playstation, PS2, Wii - hitting around 10m per year. The sales of the Wii U and Vita to date, given that they are in the launch year, is consistent with what has gone on before.
“If you get a Steam Box and buy a game off Steam, it will work. End of. If Valve can achieve that statement, then it has a serious shot at disrupting the entire console model.”
Valve’s proposed solution to this looks virtually the same as Microsoft’s in 1999. Take existing PC hardware, put it in a box under the TV, remove the bloat of the Windows Operating System, get Windows game developers on board, and plug in a fancy new controller. Microsoft did this in 2001 with the Xbox and the Duke. Everything that has been announced at CES by Valve or its mysterious partners is essentially the same thing. The only real differences are a change in media - disk to digital - and the fact that they are going to attempt it on the cheap by using a licensing/standards model.
“Steam offers so many advantages over consoles that’ it’s hard to know where to begin. The range of software is colossal. Triple-A hits and obscure indie titles sit happily side-by-side.”
Take a look at either the Xbox Marketplace, especially the maligned Indie Games area, or the Playstation Store, or even Wiiware. For every Assassins Creed for £40 there is a Fez, Super Create Box, Bit Trip, Limbo, Escape Vektor, etc. Hardly a desert of Indie games and plenty of AAA titles. Whilst Steam offers an easier entry point for self publishing, it hasn’t cornered the market; far from it.
“Yes, many of us already have our PCs hooked up to our TVs and play PC games on the sofa. The arrival of Big Picture mode, however, marks the beginning of a process that will make the PC’s transition from under the desk to under the TV feel wholly natural, and importantly, very user-friendly.”
“Consoles and the walled gardens that platform holder build around them look increasingly redundant in an age where people are beginning to expect to be able to consume all their media on a dwindling number of devices.”
What is the real motivation for Valve to release its own hardware at this time? If it is doing so well, why look to create the walled garden it has often suggested it opposes? On the surface it appears to be Gabe Newell’s distaste of Windows 8, but I suspect there is a lot more to it than this.
The PC is increasingly becoming marginalised in everyones lives. What used to be the “digital hub” of the home is rapidly becoming redundant. There will always be fantastic gaming enthusiasts who will build their own mega rigs to squeeze out every last framerate they can from bleeding edge technology, and there will always be a market for this group.
As increasing numbers of people play games on their PC (be it social games on Facebook or competitive MMOs on browsers) their acceptance that gaming should be reserved for that £300 box under the TV is also being weakened.
For the vast majority of people however, reading emails, surfing the web, watching youtube, and playing social or free-2-play games is not the preserve of the plastic box in the corner anymore. They can lie on their couch and do it all on their smart phone or tablet. It is these devices that have caused the disruption, and it is this trend that Valve can see, and what is forcing them into action.
A lot of the misconceptions about PC gaming are severely out of date. Anyone who uses Steam will attest to its user-friendliness. It’s a wonderful system that almost entirely eliminates the stereotypical nasty’s that plagued PC gaming for years.
It’s not about how successful or easy Steam or PC based gaming is today, but what market there will be for it in 5 to 10 years. Steam has no presence in the smartphone or tablet world today, and even less of a future. Steam's games do not serve those platforms. If anything it is not video game consoles that stand on the brink, but the humble family PC. Valve needs to find a way to keep the PC relevant in the face of the smartphone and tablet revolution.
The digital hub in the home is no longer the family PC, it is “the cloud”. Whilst the smartphone, tablet and TV are how we access and interact with that cloud hosted digital media. Don't be fooled though, this is not about Onlive-style streaming, but about services: accessed, downloaded, streamed, and run on devices in the lounge. Microsoft know this, which is why the Xbox has turned into a Sky TV/Netflix box with Smartglass support; Sony know this; even Nintendo - bless them - know this. Clearly so do Valve. However, for some bizarre reason the video game press do not get it.
Valve need to move the PC into the living room to stay relevant and in control of their destiny. They need a device that hosts their store, and runs their catalogue of games. They are creating the Xbox again for the same reasons Microsoft did over 10 years ago. This is not about “the idea of consoles falling out of favour”. Quite the opposite. It is about selling a console - the dumb little box under the TV - that can compete with the smartphone or tablet for consuming digital entertainment in the home and from the cloud - Valve's Steam cloud (with a small c).
The industry was shocked and annoyed when Sony and Microsoft ditched their plans to reveal their next machines in 2012. That came at the cost of a shocking time on the High Street and the worst Christmas for games in a long, long time. But could their delay actually come at a far larger cost – the death of consoles themselves?
All evidence points to the contrary: Ouya, GameStick and now even nVidia are rolling the dice with the Tegra enabled Project Shield device; all video game consoles. Sure, they are likely to ditch disc-based media for digital downloads, but all these devices - from the Xbox 360 and PS3 to the Wii U, Ouya, and SteamBox(es) - are essentially the same machines: competing devices for the same space...under the TV. In this respect 2013 is likely the year in which very little changes, apart from increasing numbers of platforms and further market fragmentation.