Valve’s New Gaming Console is Building Steam

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It seems a familiar name is throwing its hat into the heated console wars between Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo.

Valve—the company behind the Half-Life series of games—has released new details surrounding its high end gaming console (or consoles, as the case may be), set to drop sometime next year. Included in the announcement were details about the early prototype’s customizable specifications, the OS it will be running, as well as images of a crazy touchpad controller that promises to bring unprecedented functionality to gamers.

Ambitious? Sure. But with a pedigree including Steam, the digital distribution service Valve pioneered, this project looks like it can deliver what it promises, blurring the lines between PC and console gaming like never before.
 
 

Right off the top, the fact that their Steam Machines—consoles designed for the living room, not the desktop—will be customizable is unprecedented for gamers used to being tied down to one set of specifications for five or more years at a time. Following the recent trend of small form factor gaming PCs, Valve promised the versatile machine will feature swappable graphics cards, hard drives, processors and even motherboards to guarantee that games will run at their maximum potential.

Valve will also release several different models of the console under the overarching Steam Machine umbrella so that gamers can choose the form factor and performance they want right out of the box.

Every system will be powered by Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS, built around the existing Steam platform so it’s easy to access made-for-PC games from the couch. On top of that, games can be streamed to any other SteamOS-enabled devices (both computers and television consoles) in the home, and accounts can be shared by family members.

The real show-stopper, however, is Valve’s recently-unveiled Steam Controller. Looking like a bit of a hybrid between a chunky Xbox controller, a trackpad mouse and an iPhone, Valve hopes it will change how gamers, well, game. The prototypical controller’s form factor replaces traditional thumbsticks with touchpads, which Valve says will have a resolution similar to a desktop mouse (translation: easier headshots in Modern Warfare, tighter player controls in NBA 2K).
 
 

Even more interestingly, the trackpads will have high-fidelity haptic feedback—technical speak for letting you feel not only rumbles and vibrations, but various degrees of force over different areas. You can even feel certain textures, if a game designer wants you to, or play sounds like an old-fashioned set of speakers. A touchscreen will provide further input in the centre of the controller.

So, will it catch on? Probably like wildfire: its entire design is set to remove the competition.

With SteamOS freely licensed, hardware manufacturers will be tripping over themselves to create cheaper—and thus more accessible and higher-quality—machines, so that gamers who have missed out on the high-powered world of computer gaming so far can finally play with the big boys from the comfort of their living rooms.

The release will considerably undermine the console monopolies Sony and Microsoft spent decades creating, where they not only manufacture their own consoles, but control what software gets on their machines (collecting a hefty amount of licensing fees along the way). The Steam Machine’s ability to basically run any PC game will also remove the onus from game studios to port multiple versions of the same game for different console architectures, making game releases from large and independent studios plentiful (ensuring that Steam Machine doesn’t go the way of now-defunct consoles like the Ouya that couldn’t garner enough backing from game creators).

Valve has sent out 300 prototypes to some users of its Steam service, and SteamOS will soon be available for free download to computer users who want to get ahead of the game. Consoles are expected to ship sometime in 2014, but Valve hasn’t released any final product images or specifications yet.

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