Valve’s Steam Machines: Who Exactly Are They For?

Steam Machines, Steam

Source: Steam

So far I’ve very loosely paid attention to the latest generation of console releases as a bystander. I have a Playstation 2 at home, still hooked up for some reason. I also have a Wii which sits unused, and a Netflix machine, aka the XBox 360. You see, I’m a fan of tech. More than anything, I just like giving new and revolutionary tech a try.

However, I’m far from a fanboy of any of the systems. For what I paid for them, except for the 360, they’re all collecting dust as my PC gets all the attention. This past round of new system releases was far from exciting. A new Playstation that plays new games. Okay. A new XBox with an upgraded Kinect that… does pretty much the same things as it’s predecessor. Cool, I guess. There’s really nothing new here. In both instances, to reach the same graphics capacity in my PC, all I’ll need is a small video card upgrade. The whole “next-gen” fight was nonsense, since the systems felt like a generation behind at release (although I really do like Ctrl+Alt+Del’s take on the console wars). 

Then there is Valve’s new Steam Machines. Now these I’ve been paying some attention to. I’m not necessarily going to purchase one in the first round, but they have piqued my curiosity. For all intents and purposes, a Steam Machine looks like nothing more than a PC you can connect to your TV. I’ve done this before. Back when Comcast was playing a lot nicer, I hooked up a custom PC with a few tuner cards to my TV, used Windows Media Center, and had a system you could watch TV, record shows, play movies, check your email, etc. It worked well until one of the components in the box gave out, as happens to PC’s.

So this product looks like it’s aimed right at me. Someone who uses Steam like it’s going out of style, enjoys knowing what is under the hood, tinkering with the tech he has, and sees the benefits of having a full-blown PC as an entertainment center. But am I the right audience? Is this aimed at me? And if so, why am I only half interested? Deep down, I don’t think I’m the right target market, but I’m having a hard time figuring out who is. 

Alienware, Steam Machine

Source: Engadget

The Console Crowd

Those who are solidly in the Sony or Microsoft console camps are already there, and they aren’t really moving. They have their systems, defend their purchases, and generally are already happy. What they want, it seems, more than anything else, is access to the games they are the most interested in. Some console buyers will buy every console just to play those few games that are exclusive that they must play. To them, what are Steam machines bringing? Steam is bringing a lot of new games to play, sure, but these games are far from exclusive and have already been out for a long time. If anything they’ll get to play the games that are only released on PC, which may include a lot of indie games, which Sony and Microsoft have been pursuing as well. Although I’ve heard a lot of PC users complain about console exclusives that only come to PC as a lame port much later, rarely do I hear about the opposite, of console gamers complaining about PC gamers getting everything.

The Power PC Users

So if it’s not really for the console owners, is it for current PC power-owners who want to move into the living room? Maybe. On this surface this seems like the most viable. If they use Steam, they already have a collection of games for the new system. They are more comfortable with the overall workings of PC units, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, and would enjoy playing some of their more action-style games on their much larger TV screen. But these individuals already have PCs that play all of these games. So, is the pricetag, which is looking on-par or significantly greater than consoles, worth the price of just moving from your desk to your couch? I don’t really think it is. I didn’t exactly jump to fix the home theater PC I had set up before. The cost/value calculations weren’t pushing me to do so. I just wasn’t getting enough out of it to seriously justify the price, and the Steam Machine is no exception.

The PC Future

No, I believe the Steam Machine will be for those that really want to get away from the desk and move into the living room for good. They’ll already be living a very mobile lifestyle. Using their laptop or tablet, but wanting something with a little more power, the Steam Machine will be their PC replacement. It’ll have the power to play the latest games, but the versatility so that they won’t have to bust out their laptop if they want a web browser. They won’t be the most tech savvy, but they won’t be computer illiterate, either. They also may own a console, too, and plan to use the Steam Machine to make up for the consoles limitations.

Steam Machines, if nothing else, look to be attempting to really bridge the gap between the computer desk and the living room and attempt to really start the slide of the end of the PC-era. Computer PC sales have been on the decline for a long time. The advent of tablets and better smartphones has only sped it up. I’ve always said the day the PC is dead is the day that a more portable device finally shows the same power and versatility. Valve, then, appears to be placing themselves in a position to ring the deathknell of the desktop PC. With companies like Alienware and Gigabyte in the mix of partners, and the smooth business savvy that Valve has displayed, they may be on to track to do so.

Just as Apple revolutionized the smartphone and music, Valve has already revolutionized video game sales and is looking to push the PC revolution forward even more.

// Ocho

P.S. – And boy do some of them look pretty, too.

A Personal Argument Against the Always-On Trend

So last Sunday I was all set up to write a post about crafting in The Secret World, how there is no real guide for it, and essentially make a guide for those not really knowing what to do with the random runes and dust they pick up. However, my Comcast internet would have none of it. Trying to play the game for research was an abysmal failure. Every mob I fought would straight-up slaughter me during a lag spike. My once strong download speeds without packet losses, lag, latency, or jitter, great for gaming and watching streaming video has, over the past week, degraded to the point that my primary hobby is fully out of commission.

Now, I’m relatively tech savvy. I built my own gaming rig, I know a thing or two about the multitude of OS options out there, and I’m asked frequently by friends, family, and strangers for tech advice. So, when I encounter network problems, I generally know how to approach them. After going through all the checks and rechecks, the problem is not my router, it is not my cable modem, nor is it my computer. The problem lies outside of the tech that I can affect, and now I must rely on Comcast to come and attempt to fix the problem, which could take weeks (or as a friend lovingly told me about dealing with Comcast, possibly months). Lovely.

Gaming wise, though, I have been stuck on The Secret World. Trying to play it now is utterly futile. Any MMO I would play is futile. Without a stable and reliable internet connection, there is no point in even trying.

But ANY game needing a full-time internet connection is out, for possibly weeks. With the current trend in gaming this would also means games like Diablo 3, SimCity, and if I had the next generation XBox, literally any game I would own for that console. These aren’t just MMOs, games where always being connected gives you the benefit of community, these are single-player games with unnecessary multi-player extras tacked on. But yet, if I owned them, I would now be completely unable to play them.

So, tell me, honestly, who hasn’t this happened to? Who hasn’t, at some point, lost usable service? Apparently,  if you have Comcast as your service provider, which in my area Comcast is the ONLY choice for wired internet and holds a monopoly, service drops are frequent and the norm. Getting lines repaired could cost me more out-of-pocket expenses (on top of my monthly fee) and take weeks or months to fix. I’m sure it’s not just Comcast, though.

If there is any physical component, and hardware involved in your network, that hardware is capable of failing. Sometimes there is nothing you can do about it, either. It’s not a question of how or why, but when.

So who is this shift in the always-on trend really supposed to be benefiting? With Microsoft telling us to just #DealWithIt, EA being named the worst company in America due to gamer backlash from it, and Blizzard straight-up not caring, it is certainly not the gamers. And yet, gamers will still throw money after money at these games and think nothing of it. Think nothing of the possibility of having their single-player games servers being shut off, or the possibility their hard-earned money is going  to a purchase that can instantly become as useful as a paperweight (less, even, a paperweight can still hold down papers).

I hope companies like EA and Blizzard really are getting the message that this is not acceptable. We, as intelligent people making intelligent purchases, should not give them a single dime for any product that demands these always-on connections. We’re simply paying them for the privilege of giving them more power. Power that they, frankly, don’t deserve. Give us real reasons as to why an always-on connection is beneficial, or options to use it or not, put the power back into the consumers hands.

Until then, I’m voting with my wallet, as it seems the only language these companies understand.

// Ocho

Shroud of the Avatar, DRM, and Why the Gaming Industry Should Take Notice [SOTA]

Blizzard, EA, and apparently now Microsoft, too, have thrown their companies full-ahead into the age of Always-On DRM. In other words, you must always have a stable Internet connection and be communicating with their servers at all times in order to play their games in an effort to crack down on piracy. The issue of always-on DRM is one that has been long in coming with the industry having finally taken the leap and now making the worst fears of gamers a reality. So far we have seen massive server problems, delays, and stoppages preventing players who have purchased games like SimCity and Diablo 3 with their own hard-earned money from accessing these games. Games that could have easily been played without the need to be connected at all!

Murphy’s Law at it’s finest.

However, Shroud of the Avatar, just 35 hours away from finishing up it’s successful Kickstarter venture (for which I am a proud backer) is bucking the new trend. Bucking it, hitting it over the head with a chair, and throwing it completely out the window. The 5th update given during the Kickstarter campaign, only 3 days after it started, came right out and said they were listening to feedback and decided to make the Kickstarter version of the game DRM free and thus could be played completely off-line.  5 days later, the 10th update kicked it into high gear and is making, what I think, one of the greatest methods of handling gameplay I’ve ever heard.

You can play SotA in 4 completely different ways. Single-player Offline (SPOff), Single-Player Online (SPO), Friends-Play Online (FPO), and Open-Play Online (OPO).

Single-Player Offline

Just like pretty much every single-player game ever made since the dawn of gaming, single-player offline is a DRM-free, completely offline version of the game. Your character is stored on your own computer, there are no micro-transactions, and the game is played entirely client-side, no internet connection needed. Any character you create will only be playable offline to prevent hacking or exploits to enter the online play, but you can still experience the full story.

Single-Player Online

Single-Player Online mode is a version of the game where once more you are the only player in the game. However, you connect to the server, receive content updates, and get to see any long term changes other gamers have made on the world. You play the game still entirely on your own, but it would be like a single-player MMO. This is like the instanced-solo dungeons that you see in games like Neverwinter, the original Guild Wars, or Star Trek Online. You see the effects of a changing game, can participate in the economy, but you don’t have to play along with anyone else.

Friends-Play Online

Friends-Play Online is the multiplayer that we see cropping up in numerous games these days. In effect, it’s the same as SPO, but you see other players that you have already tagged as friends. It works as a limited online experience and is described as “For those who prefer the quieter game with friends or maybe for those who prefer a more focused role playing experience”.

Open-Play Online

And finally there is the method of playing that is most like the MMOs we have come to know today, Open-Play Online. In OPO, you will not be seeing everybody, but when you enter an area you will see other gamers that the server thinks you should see. Based on your own style of gameplay, you will see strangers, but strangers you might have a connection with. If you enjoy role-playing, you might find yourself surrounded by players who also enjoy role-playing. Or PvP. Or grouping. I take it you would have to fill out a small survey about your gaming style ahead of time, but even the complete strangers you’ll meet in Open-Play you’ll still have some sort of connection to.

Also, not only can you play Shroud of the Avatar in these 4 different ways, but you can switch between SPO, FPO, and OPO almost at-will while playing!

I don’t use this phrase often, but this is Revolutionary. Seriously.

What are Yew looking at?

Just imagine if a game like Diablo 3 had launched with this system in mind. For those without the greatest internet connections in the world, they could enjoy the game off-line, just like they did Diablo 2. Or, they could create an online character and play the game solo with benefits like the auction house, or only seeing other friends they have played with through Battle-Net, or a version of the game that randomly grouped like-minded and skilled gamers together. Then, if the Auction-House was only available to players who played the online versions, that would be reason enough to play online for most people and DRM would’ve just been an afterthought. Under that model, I really could’ve seen Diablo 3 being named game of the decade. As it stands now, I’ll never even touch Diablo 3. See the difference, Blizzard?!

Playing on Portalarium’s servers is now a choice that is in the gamers hands. A choice that discourages piracy, not through brute-force like EA does, but by giving tangible benefits to those that don’t pirate, playing with others and seeing the game change over time.

Instead of being treated like a criminal, SotA is going to treat gamers like guests into their world. When you empower the gamer and give us a voice, it’s not surprising at all to see the pledge number edging ever closer to $1,500,000. Through this simple action, Portalarium, and Garriott himself, has shown that he wants to work with us gamers, not against us, to make the best gaming experience possible for everyone.

// Ocho