How is Valve's SteamBox not just a Windows PC?

There was quite a flurry of speculative posts over the weekend after The Verge posted a rumor-filled article suggesting that Valve Software, owners of the Steam digital distribution service, is getting into the hardware game. Everyone in the technology and gaming blog circles had to share their thoughts; now it's my turn.

According to The Verge's anonymous sources, Valve probably wouldn't manufacture the hardware but instead would publish an open spec that PC manufacturers could then follow in order to produce a SteamBox (that's not an official name).

I actually had to glance at the calendar to assure myself we were still in the beginning on March and that it wasn't in fact April 1st, because what The Verge describes is a Windows PC. You may have heard of those?

The specs listed are an i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM and an Nvidia GPU and that it'll support "a wide variety of USB devices." Which exactly describes the Alienware X51 that I just purchased, and in fact The Verge suggests that the X51 is based on "an early spec" of the system. Of course it also describes many, many variations of reasonably new Windows PCs.

So the way I'm reading this, Valve is going to publish a spec that says something like "In order to be considered a SteamBox your hardware has to have an i7 chip, at least 8 GB of RAM and an Nvidia GPU with HDMI out." And then they're going to turn around and tell game publishers "Your game has to run on an i7 chip, 8 GB of RAM, and an Nvidia GPU running at 1920x1080 to be SteamBox Certified." (1920x1080 is the resolution of a 1080P TV.)

I think I just did Valve's work for them; hope they cut me a check.

There's a bit more to the article: Steam is also rumored to be developing a controller, which is no big deal in my opinion, and there's some vague talk about them adding a biometric bracelet that would monitor how stressed you are while playing (and presumably a game that supported biometrics could then adjust itself to keep you at the optimum excitement level). These may both be interesting add-ons but they seem to be just that: PC add-ons.

To be sure, it'd be interesting to have some kind of 'standard PC spec' for developers to code for. One of the biggest downsides of PC gaming is having games that refuse to work properly on your hardware, which can lead to hours of tracking down new drivers, tweaking configuration files and who knows what else.

But the biggest upside of PC gaming is that the player is in control of how much they want to spend on hardware and what they want to spend it on. Maybe you want to invest in a solid-state drive to speed up load times but I want to drop half a grand on the latest, greatest video card to squeeze out maximum FPS in my games. Meanwhile someone else might be content holding back a generation or so in order to maintain maximum compatibility. It's all about choice.

The success of the SteamBox would be predicated on the idea that PC gamers value compatibility over freedom. I'm not sure that's true. I think gamers who get tired of tweaking their systems in order to run the latest games just move over to consoles. Now in theory a SteamBox might tempt console gamers back over to the dark side of PC gaming, but in order for that to happen there'd have to be some serious economies of scale at work to drive the price of the hardware down. My X51 cost a bit over $1,000. An Xbox 360 costs an average of $200-$300. How do you convince a console gamer to spend 3-5 times as much on a SteamBox?

So here's what I think is really happening. Valve is in fact developing a standard, and they're going to code something into the Steam client that can check your PC and declare it "Steam Certified" (or tell you what you need to upgrade/change to get it up to spec). Then they're going to work with developers to get them to test their games against this spec, at which point their game also becomes Steam Certified. In theory then, any Steam Certified game will run, 'out of the box' so to speak, on Steam Certifed hardware. Manufacturers, of course, will be free to produce gaming PCs that are Steam Certified and plaster a new Steam Certified sticker on the case next to that Intel Inside sticker that you can never seem to peel off cleanly. And my gut tells me that's all there is to this whole SteamBox rumor.

The Verge says we might learn more about the SteamBox at GDC this week, or in June at E3. We'll have to wait and see if my gut is right this time.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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