I lost a bet with myself at CES 2013. In the gaming preview we published ahead of this week's big show, I wrote, "As per usual, the games industry and CES are acquaintances at best -- at least from what we've heard thus far. Perhaps this will be the year that bucks the years-long trend, but we're not betting on it." Wrong. Wrong. But hey, this is one of those, "glad to be wrong" situations. NVIDIA shocked everyone with its first Tegra 4 device, Project Shield, which is essentially NVIDIA's first in-house dedicated gaming handheld. Not only does it play Android games, but more importantly, it streams full retail games from your NVIDIA GPU-based PC, all on its high-res 5-inch screen. Heck, it even has Steam's Big Picture Mode built right in, allowing you to explore Steam and purchase games, as well as push them directly to your television (employing Shield as your controller).
And then Valve's internal hardware prototypes popped up, confirming what we've heard murmurs of for months: the company's head down on creating a PC for your living room. Not exactly shocking, but certainly exciting; the plans are still nebulous, but Valve's confirmed we'll see hardware in 2013. We even saw some third-parties stepping up with their own versions of Valve's initiative. Xi3's Piston is the first such creation revealed, though the company's staying tight-lipped about specs -- we do know that Xi3's working directly with Valve on its tiny, modular PC. It's barely 2013, and already Valve's Steambox initiative is dominating gaming news. Let's call it right here -- this is the year that Valve attacks.
Eyes-on with Valve's Steam Box prototypesSee all photos
In 2013, we'll assuredly see the big incumbents -- Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo -- push back. After all, Nintendo's Wii U just launched less than two months ago, and both Microsoft and Sony's aging consoles are sorely due for updating. Which is to say nothing of the ongoing rumors regarding Microsoft's "Durango" and Sony's "Orbis" (the purported internal names for each company's next-gen hardware); specs, features, and services have all started popping up, albeit from the ever-dubious "anonymous sources." E3 2012 featured several games that looked far too graphically impressive for modern consoles (we're looking at you, Star Wars 1313), and each was revealed with company reps clamming up about where those games would end up, platform-wise. Suspect indeed.
The open approach that Valve decided on years ago is paying off big when it comes to the living room -- if only five percent of that installed base jump in on Steambox in 2013 (what we'd call a highly conservative guess), that's 2.5 million users.
Pushing back -- and hard -- is what all three will need to do. Valve's Steambox initiative won't require the same hurdle jumping that the other guys face; Steam's got 50 million users and growing, regardless of platform. The open approach that Valve decided on years ago is paying off big when it comes to the living room -- if only five percent of that installed base jump in on Steambox in 2013 (what we'd call a highly conservative guess), that's 2.5 million users. Or to put it another way, more than double the Wii U's installed base since launching mid-holiday 2012.
Is Valve taking a risk by moving into hardware production? For sure, but an incredibly calculated one. Even if the Steambox initiative fizzles, there's always the massive ongoing success of Steam's digital storefront to fall back on. 2013 may be the year that Valve attacks, but it's not just the company's internal hardware projects that are up for the challenge. Support from third-party hardware manufacturers is already lined up, from the likes of Xi3, Alienware, Digital Storm, and more. Heck, you can already buy Alienware's X51 and drop it in your living room, where it blends in seamlessly with the likes of Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U.
If Nintendo's Wii U doesn't get snapped up by consumers, Nintendo risks taking a massive financial hit. The same applies to Microsoft and Sony; admittedly, each of those two have other divisions to back up potential whiffs in gaming, but neither is in any financial position to cede substantial ground to Valve's more flexible approach to the living room. From where things stand now, though, Valve's sent a considerable volley at the biggies.
Brace for impact.