Editorial: Steam Machines are nonsense and Valve is cool with that

At 9:30 on the first morning of CES in Las Vegas, Tuan Nguyen walked into the Engadget media trailer carrying two cardboard boxes, each large enough to hold an adult cat. He placed the boxes on a table in a back room and asked me for something to cut through the tape holding them closed. He eventually used his keys. Nguyen unloaded one package, pulling grey foam from the edges of a white rectangle with the Steam logo imprinted on its top, a console just smaller than an Xbox One.

Nguyen started talking about the box – iBuyPower's SBX, a Steam Machine slated to hit retail this year for $500. He told stories about designing the box as a console, working with Valve and how hard it was to keep the budget down. He said iBuyPower was planning to announce a second Steam Machine paired with Oculus Rift that night, but to be honest, the Oculus team was a little behind schedule and the VR headset wasn't ready for console integration. He probably said too much.

At 11 that morning, I had an appointment to see Digital Storm's Steam Machine, the Bolt 2, a Windows-SteamOS hybrid that started at $1,900. The meeting was in Trump Tower, in a room on the 48th floor. The Trump lobby shone gold and dripped fake diamonds from the ceiling, and the doors leading into Digital Storm's room were French – behind them, a trio of spokesmen welcomed me, leading us past a table of branded swag to the ottoman by the window that held the Bolt 2. That spot provided the best possible lighting for photos, Chief Brand Officer Harjit Chana said.

The Digital Storm team was friendly and hit their talking points well, describing the Bolt 2 as a high-end PC and its customers as high-end people. This wasn't a Steam Machine for a wide market – it had a specific, dedicated audience. They knew that, I knew I wasn't in that audience (or that tax bracket), and that was all right. It was an impressive piece of hardware.

Both of the scenarios that I encountered were valid, and each carried their own charm, but they were undeniably the efforts of two disparate companies with vastly different business senses, branded together under one name: Steam Machines. What I learned that day wasn't how Valve would change living room gaming forever – I learned that the term "Steam Machines" was straight-up nonsense.

Saying "I want a Steam Machine" can mean you want an SBX or a Bolt 2, or the $6,000 Falcon Northwest Tiki, or the $600 Zotac model, or any of the 13 systems so far in Valve's playbook. Putting "Steam Machine" on your birthday list is like writing "a new car" or "a dog." The range contained in these items is vast, and you might end up with an English Bulldog instead of the German Shepard you actually wanted.

Valve did this on purpose – it wants to open up the PC space, allowing manufacturers to take its OS and its vision of couch gaming, and put this inside of whatever box they choose. "Steam Machine" is pointedly undefined, attempting to wedge in next to "PC" and "console" as new terms in gaming vocabulary. But not every Steam Machine occupies the nebulous space between PC and console: Some Steam Machines are PCs, while others are consoles. These are things we already have, terms and all.

A Steam Machine is defined by two things: It runs SteamOS and ships with the Steam Controller. That's it, Valve spokesperson Anna Sweet tells me at the company's CES press conference. By this standard, I already own a potential Steam Machine in my gaming PC: The Steam Controller will be sold separately and works with any version of Steam, and SteamOS is free to download at any time. In theory, I've owned a Steam Machine for years, since I moved my PC into the living room.

Steam Machines aren't made for me, Sweet says – they're designed for people who don't have Steam in the living room yet, and who want all of their friends and games on the big screen, in one place.

"There are already people like you who already have a PC in their living room, and a lot of those people might run Windows and might just run Steam in Big Picture Mode, and that's a great option," she says. "A lot of people want something that's more of a direct-boot experience, so they might take the PC they already have and install SteamOS on it; that's a great option. And a lot of people want to buy a new, dedicated living room machine that's sort of a nicer form factor for putting on a shelf in your living room. We kind of want to give customers those choices and let them experience Steam the way they want to in their living room. And the controller is a big part of it."

Yes, a lot of people are moving their computers into the living room, and plenty of people want new consoles – and millions of those customers just bought Xbox Ones and PlayStation 4s. Players that want PCs in their living rooms can buy pretty, powerful systems for prices in the low-to-mid Steam Machine range, and then turn those into Steam Machines themselves, without losing the benefits of a built-in, standardized OS.

When someone asks whether they should buy a gaming PC or hold out for a Steam Machine, I struggle to find a reason to wait. It's certainly not in the price or the power. Maybe it's in the design, but that's a small market to attempt to capture, considering the competition in the PC space. It's not so much that I'm confused what a Steam Machine is – that's been clearly, yet oddly, defined – it's more that I'm unsure where Valve's market lies.

And there's the rub: It's not Valve's market. Valve has SteamOS and the Steam Controller, things that will exist regardless of the actual Steam Machines, and they'll probably be worth the effort. They have clear uses and markets. Valve has not made a Steam Machine of its own, and so it has nothing to lose in this first-year gamble. Valve licenses use of the Steam logo and the name, meaning it's already bringing in cash from other companies' Steam Machines. The risk belongs to the hardware manufacturers – iBuyPowers and Digital Storms alike – while Valve can collect the data and see if hardware really is a good investment. It's genius.

Nguyen brought up the impending customer question of "Why should I buy a Steam Box?" when he met with Valve last year. He drew out the current PC landscape: Valve and Steam in the middle, and system integrators and PC manufacturers surrounding them. Next to that, he drew Valve's new vision, which was exactly the same, plus a Steam Controller in the middle.

"The consumer's going to look at this landscape and ask, 'What's the difference?' and, 'Why? Why should I even buy a Steam Box?'" Nguyen said.

He offered an answer, suggesting Valve pick or make one box to be the ultimate Steam Machine, the epitome of what a Steam Machine should be, and market it as such. Give the customer an easy, obvious choice. It's exactly what Google did with the Nexus phone to clarify the overcrowded Android market.

"They just totally disagreed with that," Nguyen said. "They very much disagreed."

Valve envisions a future of openness – open living rooms and open PCs and open code – and that's a beautiful idea. Or it's a junk pile. I'm sure Valve believes in what the Steam Machines can be, but the fact that it hasn't thrown its own hardware into the ring to me demonstrates a lack of confidence in the idea, or at the least a lack of clarity.

But maybe Valve will reveal an Official Steam Machine this year. Maybe millions more people will happily buy Steam machines. Maybe I've said too much too soon – I'll blame that on Nguyen's influence.