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Will 2014 bring the next big thing to console gaming?

Will 2014 bring the next big thing to console gaming?

With the impending release of the new PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s XBox One following up a week later, the entire console gaming world is holding its breath. Early adopters are waiting to get their hands on their chosen brand’s new hardware (or both), and all gamers are anxious to see what will transpire where the rubber meets the road, when the hype becomes reality. When the two console leviathans collide, the gaming world will never be the same as console fans are awed by the real-world performance of the two powerful devices.

But is there a shark swimming in deeper water, just out of sight?

steam2

PC gamers will recognize the platform moniker of a humble little software developer called Valve Corporation. Valve, the developers of a number of highly successful FPS titles including the Half-Life franchise (called the best FPS games ever made by some), the popular co-op Left4Dead series, and perhaps less well-known but equally loved by its fans, Counter Strike source and the recent follow-up, Counter Strike: Global Offensive has also created a platform that has steadily gained popularity and market share until it has come to dominate the realm of PC game digital distribution. Steam is Valve’s online platform, and it incorporates digital distribution, DRM, a powerful network of multiplayer servers and communication. As of last month, the Steam library comprises over 3,000 games spanning every imaginable genre (and some that are impossible to classify). There are over 65 million Steam accounts in existence. By comparison, there are roughly 40 million XBox Live subscribers, but over 90 million accounts registered on the Playstation network. At the beginning of 2013, Steam recorded a staggering 6.6 million players online at once. While this pales in comparison to the most popular MMO on Earth, Riot Games’ League of Legends, it still represents an impressive number.

But maybe the most convincing statistic, and one that affirms Valve’s dominance in digital distribution, is this: As of last month, 75% of all digital games purchased online were bought through Steam. That makes Steam the de facto Microsoft Windows of PC gaming.

Soon, that analogy will be more apt.

As the company that has defined the method for doing online distribution and DRM very well, Steam has now moved to expand its footprint, developing hardware and software to draw console gamers into the PC gaming fold. And they’ve done it using a flexible and innovative approach that would never happen at MS or Sony. Valve has a longstanding tradition of allowing users to play freely in the sandbox. The Steam community has evolved a dedicated and skilled community of modders, players who take that next step and create new skins for familiar models, new models for weapons and items, new levels and character classes for existing games and even entirely new games (originally mods but now fully-devloped standalone titles) based on the Source engine, Valve’s malleable game development environment. This kind of freedom is unheard of in the world of console gaming but Valve has encouraged it all along, and now it’s paying dividends.

Valve is putting all the pieces in place for a major gaming coup. Let’s talk about the hardware first.

controller_small

As noted by our very own Nerd Bacon brigadier, The Cubist, Steam has announced plans to offer among other things a uniquely designed controller with many of the features familiar to console gamers, but re-imagined and promising a level of control, flexibility and tactile sensation never before felt in the gaming world. The controller uses two track pads rather than the familiar sticks, as well as the more conventional button and trigger configurations seen on modern console controllers. It also includes a tiny touch screen, allowing input that can’t be conveyed by buttons, pads or sticks. Additionally, and I quote their website, “The Steam Controller is built around a new generation of super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators. These small, strong, weighted electro-magnets are attached to each of the dual track pads. They are capable of delivering a wide range of force and vibration, allowing precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement. This haptic capability provides a vital channel of information to the player – delivering in-game information about speed, boundaries, thresholds, textures, action confirmations, or any other events about which game designers want players to be aware. It is a higher-bandwidth haptic information channel than exists in any other consumer product that we know of. As a parlour trick they can even play audio waveforms and function as speakers.” Whether the product will fulfill the promise has yet to be seen, but if it falls short, it won’t be for lack of user input. Following its model of free and open participation, it’s sending prototype hardware to a select group of Steam community gurus to let them evaluate, tune and suggest changes and improvements. According to Steam, “The Steam Controller was designed from the ground up to be hackable. Just as the Steam Community and Workshop contributors currently deliver tremendous value via additions to software products on Steam, we believe that they will meaningfully contribute to the design of the Steam Controller. We plan to make tools available that will enable users to participate in all aspects of the experience, from industrial design to electrical engineering. We can’t wait to see what you come up with.”

Pretty cool alternative to the traditional corporate focus group, huh?

machines_livingroom_cropped

In addition to the controllers, Steam beta-testers will be getting prototypes of Steam Machines to tinker with. Details on the new devices are scant to say the least. All we know now is that Steam will offer not one, but an undisclosed number of different models to appeal to a variety of budgets and meet different performance expectations. That’s pretty standard, and something we’re used to seeing from console manufacturers. Given Valve’s tradition of flexibility and open development, however, I expect the Steam Machines will leverage their PC heritage and shock console gamers who are used to a relatively small number of accessories and closed hardware architecture. Sure, Microsoft and Sony are learning. The PS4 will apparently feature a user-replaceable hard drive, and the XBox One will support additional storage via USB. But what if you can get a Steam Machine with a solid state drive and update graphics at will? What if they feature user-upgradeable storage and memory options? What if instead of buying a new, fixed console every five years you could buy one Steam Machine and keep it forever, making it better when and how YOU want and not having to accept the manufacturer’s idea of what’s good enough.

On the Steam OS webpage, Valve makes this claim. “Users can alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want.” And since the Machines are aimed at the console gaming market, I think the upgrade options will key on simplicity, offering gamers who don’t need or care to know exactly what’s in the box a way to pump up their rigs in a user-friendly way.

There are possibilities here that go far beyond the rigid console designs of the Big Two. Microsoft and Sony wisely took advantage of AMD’s graphically excellent Trinity chips, but how will they fare against devices that might offer users the chance to swap hardware and shame their performance before PS4 and XBox One celebrate their first birthday?

Steam opens the gates to console gamers

While Valve has been working on hardware, they’ve also been putting software in place to welcome console players to the wider world of PC gaming. In December 2012, Steam launched Big Picture, an add-on designed to optimize Steam for use on the TV with a game controller or keyboard/mouse. Big Picture allows Steam users to browse, chat, stream and of course, game from a single platform, all while ensconced in the comfort of their favorite gaming chair and in front of their TV. Not earth shattering, but the best is yet to come.

 

steamos_page_bg_cropped

On September 23, 2013 Valve announced SteamOS, the first PC-based operating system built specifically for gaming.  Based on the venerable, open-source Linux OS, SteamOS has “achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we’re now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level. Game developers are already taking advantage of these gains as they target SteamOS for their new releases.”  Steam has promised 100% forward and backward compatibility, and I believe them.  The core of Linux is over 20 years old.  As the free, open-source OS has been tweaked and improved by users around the world, it has proven to be an exceptionally adaptable and competent operating system.  Compare that to the new development environments that come with each new console and you can understand why with every console release, all, some or none of your games might work on your new PlayStation or XBox.  In addition to Linux’ nimble nature, it’s frugal with system processing power and memory, so more of what you own will be thrown right into the game.

Yeah, great, but what about the games???

Steam Update

 

Let’s get the obvious arguments out of way first.

Selection

When Steam launches their machines next year, owners will have access to over 3,000 games with new games being released every week, if not every day.  I counted 51 confirmed titles for XBox One and 81 for PS4 slated to be released between the end of 2013 and sometime in 2014.  Of course, owners of current-gen consoles will be able to play some of the games they own now.

Currently, Steam offers about 80 absolutely free-to-play games and another 100 demos.  How cool would it be if your console showed up with 80 free games already installed?  Even the most jaded gamer could find some level of fun in that selection.

Right now, over half of Steam’s library of games can be bought for under $10. As I write this, they have NBA 2K14 on sale for $29.99.  It’s $50 for current-gen consoles.

StSp

Online Play

Both PS4 and XBox One will require players to pay for online access/gaming.  With Steam, it’s all done over the internet, no cost to access the network or play online.  And, Steam is no newcomer to the arena.   They’ve been hosting online gamers for years.  I can say honestly that I’ve never been plagued with lag while on their network. Every issue I’ve had has either been related to my hardware, or local network traffic.

Quality and Price

Now, a lot of people will be saying that these must be crummy titles, not worth even the paltry cash Steam wants for purchase, so I thought I would assemble a little list from games that are already confirmed for one or both of the new consoles.  I think everybody will agree that when a game comes out for one of these systems it’ll retail around $50. I could be wrong, but I think that’s being fair.

When possible, I’ll match up titles already on Steam.  If I can’t, I’ll provide a list of Steam games that are similar.  In all cases, I’ll show the current Steam price; anybody who uses Steam knows the sales are phenomenal and frequent and prices change all the time, so don’t blame me or Steam if you check later and the price is different.  If you search pc vs. console on Youtube almost  everyone who has an opinion mentions that the games for PC are just cheaper across the board.  If you wait a month or two after a new AAA title is released you can usually save 25-50% on Steam.

The List

(FTP = Free To Play)

(Early Access = A Steam program where you can buy the Beta version of a game, help the developer finish it by playing and making suggestions, then download the finished version for no extra charge)

Don’t Starve (PS4, title confirmed but launch date not announced) on Steam now for $14.99

Outlast (PS4, title confirmed but launch date not announced.  THIS GAME ROCKS, don’t miss it no matter what platform you choose) on Steam now for $19.99

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (Both: PS4 11/15, XBox One 11/22) on Steam 11/21 $59.99

Blacklight: Retribution (PS4, title confirmed but launch date not announced) on Steam now, FTP, DLC available starting at $14.99

Mercenary Kings (PS4, title confirmed but launch date not announced) on Steam now (Early access) for $14.99

Diablo III (PS4, title confirmed but launch date not announced)

Torchlight series, on Steam now (these are excellent action RPG’s, see my review of Torchlight II for more details and screenshots), free demos of both available, Torchlight $14.99 and Torchlight II $19.99 or wait until they bundle them for $25-$30

Dead Rising 3 (XBox One, 11/22)  Holy crap, let’s go about this two ways…  If you’re willing to pay $50 or $60 for Dead Rising 3, maybe $100 doesn’t sound too bad for this…

Valve Complete Pack
$99.99
Items included in this bundle

Counter-Strike, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Counter-Strike: Source (This title features counter-terrorists vs. terrorists in online deathmatch mayhem, CS is highly esteemed and still widely played today, CS:GO is brand new)
Day of Defeat, Day of Defeat: Source (FPS Deathmatch and co-op, World War II style)
Deathmatch Classic (never played it)
Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, Half-Life 2: Episode One, Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Half-Life 2: Lost Coast, Half-Life Deathmatch: Source, Half-Life: Blue Shift, Half-Life: Opposing Force, Half-Life: Source (As noted previously in this article, these titles are serious competitors for the best-all around FPS titles ever made- engaging and compelling storline, novel weapons #GravityGunFTW, overall just a unique and very cool game experience)
Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2 (Excellent co-op “zombie” busting titles, the L4D series ranks right up there with any similar console exclusive.  Captivating campaign story, advanced and aggressive AI and a number of online modes.  You really haven’t lived until you watch an opposing team of Survivors try to dance their way out of a pool of your Spitter venom; while two of them are respectively being strangled and shredded by your buddies, all four are slowly dissolving under the acidic effects of the spit, just before the Boomer vomits bile on them and the Horde swarms in to create a macabre slapstick that’s worth a belly laugh.  Good times… Not nearly as fun if you’re the Survivor.)
Portal, Portal 2 (Originally developed by college students, these games are among the most inventive and imaginative titles in gaming.  A unique concept combines with puzzle-solving and tongue-in-cheek humor makes these games stand out)
Ricochet (never played it)
Team Fortress 2, Team Fortress Classic (Deathmatch mayhem done right)

Suffice it to say that in addition to two of the best zombie games ever made, you get a smorgasbord of other FPS goodies as well as the excellent Portal series, plus the ability to mod the games you really enjoy.

Now, if you just want zombie games…

I got L4d and L4D2 for $40, regular price if you want both is $50, but in addition, Contagion (Early Access) $14.99 or get four copies and pass ’em out to your friends for $44.99, State of Decay $19.99, No More Room In Hell FTP, Zombie Master, (this one’s cool, kinda old but you get to be either one of a group of survivors or the Zombie Master who controls the number and types of undead who spawn, create traps, etc. in an effort to prevent the humans from reaching their goal) FTP, Zombie Panic, (more traditional deathmatch style, two teams square off and take turns being humans and zombies, all the zombies are shamblers but the humans have very few weapons and scarce ammo, helping the balance a bit) FTP, Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army 1 and 2, $14.99 each, The Dead Linger, (Early Access) $19.99, How To Survive, $14.99, Dead Island, $19.99, Dead Island Riptide, $29.99, plus a bunch of DLC starting at $1.

I got tired of looking for them after that, but I probably missed a few.

I don’t want to beat the whole selection thing to death, but just go online to Steam and look around if you’re not familiar with the site.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. By the way, with the inclusion of NBA2K14 I’ve listed eight games, 10% of the total number of PS4 games that will be available in 2014.  By contrast, eight titles represents .2% of the games you can get right now online.

What about accessories?

PC gamers are used to having a huge number of peripherals available.  From optimized gaming keyboards and mice to pads, flight sticks, wheels, whatever you can think of chances are it’s out there and plugs in with USB.  I can’t imagine that Valve would do anything but continue that tradition, allowing the vast number of accessories that are already available and guaranteeing that as new products are released, they’ll work as well. By contrast, the next-gen consoles will continue with mostly manufacturer options and relatively few aftermarket items. Because they use proprietary software, they simply won’t have the flexibility to connect as many accessories successfully.  If the Steam Machines incorporate eSATA, (easily done with modern system boards) that opens a whole new world of possibilities.  Take your external hard drive with SteamOS and all your games over to your friend’s house, plug it into a computer or Steam machine there and get into a little old-school gaming party action with real live people.  Amazing. Right now, there are 203 gaming keyboards, 185 gaming mice, 80 controllers (including wheels and flight sticks) and about 300 headset/mic variants on Newegg.  I assume you could find some combo of those that would work for you.

The Bottom Line

Without a doubt, both Microsoft and Sony are both much larger, more powerful companies than Valve.  But is that a good thing?  As the consoles have evolved, we’ve seen big franchises develop on both platforms.  But later editions of AAA titles like Call of Duty and Halo have been decried for increasingly brief campaigns, suggesting that the once great titles have become lazy cash cows, generating sales dollars from fans who keep snapping up the newest release regardless of its merit.  Is it really surprising that the games have lost a lot of their initial appeal?  As an analogy, is there anybody who wants to argue that Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan was a truly great and original horror movie?  Of course not.  It’s a steaming pile, mindless schlock to bilk a few more bucks out of a tired franchise.  I would argue that the same Hollywood mentality has crept into the gaming industry.  Big developers, like any big corporation don’t like to take chances.  And as long as gamers keep shelling out the bucks for the next installment, we’ll keep getting more of the same.  This is true across all platforms, PC included.

Another thing to consider is what I call corporate inertia.  The bigger a company gets, the more it tends to become disconnected from its customers, who are looking for the next big thing and tend to find it sometimes in unconventional places.  With the world of technology evolving so rapidly, has the tried and true model of the console gaming industry met its match in the form of a flexible box that need never be replaced?  Only time will tell.  It’s happened before.  Atari, the once colossal ruler of gaming and the folks who started the home gaming industry is now just another software company.  With the living room increasingly the physical focus of our online lives companies are jumping at the chance to bring their online services to your TV.  PC gaming might be next in a line of activities for which you don’t need a PC.  With a more savvy customer base, hardware and software companies are  making products that allow us to bring the world to us.  The question is, how big can that virtual world be, and are we willing to settle for Big Two’s “look but don’t touch” notion of hardware and software limitations?

And what about the ongoing and troubling schism between PC and console gamers?  Graphics elitists snipe at consoles and their “inferior” capabilities, while console gamers continue to perpetuate falsehoods about the cost of PC gaming and trumpet the availability of console-exclusive titles.  Of course, neither group is right but that doesn’t seem to bother them.  Will 2014 be the year when the two camps come together, or at least move toward detente?  Or will Valve’s ambitious project prove (like many other good ideas that resulted in competent systems) to be before its time?  Over the years, several companies have promised consoles that would play PC games.  Those boxes never appeared (See The Cubist’s Top Ten Consoles That Were Never Released for more details).  Now it looks like we are finally on the verge of seeing this much ballyhooed, long-standing dream come to life.  After all, what is a console but a computer dedicated to gaming?  And what is a PC if not a multipurpose box that can be optimized to play games?

As Microsoft and Sony tear at one another, struggling for market share and relevance among an increasingly sophisticated player base, a shark is circling.  It’s big, deceptively so since it’s been keeping itself hidden in the shadowy depths  While it eyes the two larger, slower beasts above it, it’s preparing to move.  If the attack connects, if gamers “get” what Steam is offering the result is going to hit the gaming world like a freight train.  There will be blood in the water.

-Malefico

Please see useful and informative links below.  Under the links I’ve added a bit of speculation about Steam Machine hardware…

Thanks for reading.  Please comment, like, and join us to get your own tasty serving of the Bacon.

History of Linux

PS4 Release Schedule 2014

XBox One Release Schedule 2014

The Steam Machines… What will they be like?

I did a little window shopping and came up with a device that could work as an entry-level Steam Machine.

Steam Console Fake

Intel Core i3-3240 Ivy Bridge 3.4GHz LGA 1155 55W Dual-Core Processor $119.99 ($99.99)
ASRock H77M-ITX LGA 1155 Intel H77 Mini ITX Intel Motherboard $89.99
Patriot Viper 3 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800) $65.99
VisionTek 900648 Radeon R7 240 2GB 128-bit DDR3 PCI Express Video Card $79.99
Seagate Barracuda ST1000DM003 1TB 7200 RPM Internal Hard Drive $69.99
Cooler Master Elite 120 Advanced – Mini-ITX Computer Case $49.99
Antec Basiq BP350 350W ATX12V v2.01 Power Supply $29.99

elite120-back raw 2

PC builder disclaimer:  I know the PSU is not great… Traditionally when a manufacturer puts together a box they skimp on the PSU, and I don’t know if even Valve will swim against that current.  Also, an argument could be made for the Nvidia GT 630 or older Radeon 6570/6670 cards, it’s really personal preference, any of them would work for an entry-level device.

Total (assuming reduced price for processor without integrated graphics) $485.93

That’s a lot of money, not necessarily for what the system is, but for a company trying to turn a profit in the $400-500 price point. However, it’s not the whole story.

OK, so Intel has a few “P series” processors that have had the integrated graphics turned off at the die level.  What that does is allow the processor to focus fully on computing without the protocols that force it to allocate some resources to running the integrated graphics.  Right now they don’t offer any core i3’s that way, but if a relatively large company were to approach them and buy half a million processors, they could probably be persuaded pretty easily to do this with the i3’s.  So, that would take the cost of the processor down to around $100, given that P series quad-cores are about $40 cheaper than those with the integrated graphics.  Regarding the motherboard, you’d have to have the manufacturer disable the integrated graphics on the board end and delete the external connectors so the only video ports the consumer would sees are the ones on the video card.  OK, so the prices above are obviously retail.  If you were building 500,000 units to start, it would be realistic to assume costs would be about 30% less.

Likewise the prospective board manufacturer could turn off the integrated graphics portion of board controllers and delete the video connectors on the back of the board.  Of course if they use an APU configuration that would not be the case and the video out would be from the board, not the card.

No optical drive since games would be delivered digitally, but for $50 extra Valve could offer a Blu-ray drive to take care of movies on disc and installing games/apps on DVD-ROM.

BTW, this build would absolutley outperform the consoles in every gaming benchmark there is.  And I call this one The Little Engine That Could.  I also put together one I call Freight Train because if it were to hit the next gen consoles straight on all that would be left is little bits of MS and Sony boxes.  Little Engine will just outrun and outgun them.  BTW, the size of this little box is 9.4″ wide, 8.5″ tall and about 15″ deep.

So, adjusted for volume pricing you’re looking at $340.15 (about $380 with a Blu-ray drive).  Now you have a box that could be marketed for betwen $400-500 and still allow for a little profit, or at least no loss.

Much more realistic if you’re trying to break even/make a little.  I don’t know if this is still true, but a number of years ago what the console manufacturers did was to break even, or even lose a little on the consoles knowing they would make it up on software sales.  Since Valve has a higher profit margin due to digital distribution, they could certainly follow this model.

Because it’s a PC you get all the tractability inherent in the platform.  Voila, Steam Machine.

Written by Nerd Bacon

Nerd Bacon

 
 

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4 Comments

  1. Shadow Links says:

    Great article, gives me a lot to considered considering im a console gamer that just recently entered PC games.

    Its kind of interesting with consoles now becoming more PC and media center like while this is becoming more like a game console.

    Im rather interested how this will address DRM and piracy, which seems to be more rampant on PCs than consoles. Even steam’s DRM wasn’t much of a barrier to those determined to get past it.

     
  2. Hey, I liked Friday the 13th Part 8! Easier to like bad movies than bad games I suppose.

    But seriously, you’ve pointed out A LOT of issues that I’m sure most people have never thought of, at least at one time. I found myself nodding my head in agreement as you dissected the issue of proprietary hardware vs. something more customizable. In dealing with old consoles, particularly those with CD-based media, the motors in the drive are always the first thing to go. Getting inside to replace them can range from relatively simple to almost impossible.

    I also hate the way that many of a company’s most loyal fans are rewarded with buggy first-run products that haven’t adequately been tested or designed to withstand the coming advances in game development. My “older” 360 makes such a roaring sound with its fan if more recent games are played that I have to turn the TV up substantially. Had the same issue to a smaller extent with a pre-owned Wii that I owned for a short while. It would alleviate this sort of nauseating, headache-inducing frustration if there were simple, low cost parts one could buy to fix these issues rather than purchasing the latest model of the same system or possibly appealing to the manufacturer to fix the problem, which even in the best of scenarios are going to cost the user the cost of shipping and force them to be without their machine for a number of weeks.

    You’ve certainly given people like myself who are so focused on console gaming as to virtually ignore the PC side of things MORE than enough to think about.

     
  3. I know I haven’t read every article on this site, but dude….this was awesome. I really like what you’ve written. Makes me really wonder what will come of this.

     
  4. Pingback: Is Steam Challenging Console Gaming?

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