An interesting rumor bubbled up to the surface over the weekend which suggested that the game developer Valve, makers of hit games such as Half-Life 2 and Portal 2, could be in the process of developing a 'Steam Box' console, with the idea of bringing the Steam gaming platform into the living room.
Steam is, without a doubt, the most successful online distribution service for games and coupling that to a TV could open it out to a completely new audience.
Let's look at the three elements that kicked off this rumor:
Rumored specs for the Steam Box which include a Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and NVIDIA graphics.
A patent by Valve for a new game controller that has interchangeable parts.
The first 'but' is the biggest. Steam games run on PC, and this system sounds like it's a PC. What differentiates it from a PC other than being packages so that it can easily be connected to a TV (think media center)?
Then there is the fact that consoles are an extremely cut-throat business, with Microsoft, Sony, and to a less extent Nintendo locked in a three-way battle for people's money. It's hard to see room for a fourth player in the market, even if that player is Steam.
Price isn't so much the issue here either. While you can pick up an Xbox 360 for $150 and a PS3 for $250 if you shop around, wait until the new models make an appearance and watch the price shoot up. Branding is more important than price.
An important side note relating to price is that console makers usually lose money on the console in order to make it up later on the games. Does Valve have the money to go up against behemoths such as Microsoft in this way?
Consoles have a long shelf life. Just look how old the PS3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii are. The Xbox 360 was released in November 2005, and both the PS3 and Wii in November 2006.
Gaming PCs on the other hand don't stay cutting edge for long before you need to slap in a new CPU or GPU. How long could a ‘Steam Box' remain relevant before it needed upgrading? Not as long as the current generation of consoles have lasted, that's for sure.
Are a customizable controller, a Valve logo on the case, and being able to sit on a couch to play a game really enough to differentiate the 'Steam Box' from a PC? Right now, I just don't see enough to make this idea fly.
Personally, I think what Valve needs to do is not make a games console but instead work to bring games to more screens, especially those screens on mobile platforms. In fact, a better idea than a games console would be a portable games console (and even that might not be such superb idea either given that it puts it head-to-head against Apple and iOS devices).
Personally, I'm skeptical regarding this console rumor. At best, this is taking two plus two and getting five. At worst, it is building a house of cards on a foundation made of cards. After all, patents and rumors make for poor sources.