As Grand Theft Auto tops the charts and smashes entertainment records, PlayStation and Xbox executives at Sony and Microsoft are probably high-fiving themselves on how the console market has bounced back against many pundits expectations. In recent years the console market has been battered by the young upstarts of mobile, casual and social and many have been predicting the death-knell of such devices. For what it is worth, I don't think they are doomed, far from it, but there are a number of new kids on the block vying for our game-time and one of them just pulled off a master stroke. That company is Valve and the triumph comes in the form of the 'Steam Machine'.
I should note before I go on that I don't work for Steam. We've just put our first game out on their Steam distribution system (above), but I've been an admirer of their innovation for some time now.
When I started in gaming some 15 years ago (I know, I know - PS1 people!) the PC was starting to be seen as a fading prospect. The cost of development was on the rise because you had to account for a huge range of variations in operating system, motherboards, RAM, sound and graphics cards plus the ongoing piracy problem. Even as you were making a game (which tended to take over a year) the ongoing evolution of hardware meant more and more demands on what set-ups you'd be able to support at release. By contrast, consoles offered a fixed development platform, you knew what the hardware was going to be and the operators demanded high standards of software compliance so the bulk of crashes and bugs had to be resolved before release. They also made piracy a bit harder to achieve. Against that backdrop I'd have had no idea that a decade or so later PC games would be the most vibrant, experimental and exciting place in gaming. There is one main answer why this is the case: Valve's Steam System.
I should note before I go into a Valve fawning type-fest that it is not the only reason PC games are in renaissance currently. Easier and easier access to development tools and the fact that the PC is a relatively open platform to install and distribute for, plus its sheer ubiquity across the globe are also key variables. But Valve via their PC game distribution platform Steam have built a central hub that has created a thriving ecosystem of gamers, developers, modders and more. Some 200 million gamers (me included) connect to Steam - most do so each time they turn on their PC. Steam have built such a user-friendly system via which to buy games but also one that handles saves, updates, user created content, community forums, news, chat, messaging, competitions, multiplayer, demos and much more, making it a much better experience to have a game within Steam than outside of it. Far from their system being 'another thing' you need to install, a bit like visiting the Tate Modern, it is the housing for the games (art) that is as interesting as the games themselves.
However Valve are also canny enough, unlike Nokia, to see well in advance that the writing is on the wall for the PC platform. So while the PC is not currently a burning platform, it is smouldering and action needs to be taken before the flames catch hold. For those of us Valve watchers we've seen their boss, Gabe Newell (below) take swipes at Microsoft as they seemed to lock-down distribution on Windows 8, knowing that for such a clever company there must have been more than just angry words going on. Then a couple of weeks ago phase one of the grand plan was unveiled as Valve played their move that it would become apparent, was a potential master stroke. (Interestingly in a conversation about this Si Lumb, another games developer, suggested to me the phase two must be mobile.)
The console market is notoriously tough. It costs serious money to be a player and its hard on the losers. Ask Sega who went from sitting on the gaming throne with the MegaDrive (or Genesis to US readers) to being cashed out of the game all together with the Dreamcast (which was a great games machine, sad face.) Even stalwarts such as Sony and Nintendo have racked up their fair share of misses for each hit (N64 or PSPgo anyone?). Crowd funding has opened up this closed game somewhat giving us the Ouya and Gamestick but it still remains a tough, tough arena.
Valve's master stoke for the gaming throne is to attack on two fronts - they are making a console but also an operating system to allow others to make consoles too. It's what Google have done with Android to make it eclipse Apple in just a couple of years. It means that as a software company they can focus on what they are good at while ensuring the hardware definitely will be. It means that we'll be able to buy a Steam Machine on day one that has lots of games ready for it, but the hardware will also be evolved by others with much more experience in the making and selling of physical devices.
As a software company the chances of them getting the hardware right first time are not great. Microsoft learned this via missteps with Xbox as they struggled to get the hardware right (red ring of death anyone?) but as they were the only people making Xboxes, the pace of innovation and change was slow. In the 12 years since the debut of Xbox we're about to see the 3rd main iteration of the hardware in the oddly named Xbox One. By letting others also make consoles, I expect we'll pass the same level of iteration for Steam Machines within a year. We've certainly seen that pace of technology evolution from the same method applied to Android.
It's an exciting time to be making games. Tough for developers as there's so much competition with so many games being released each day, but exciting in so many ways - especially as a gamer.