Valve’s newly announced Steam Deck is the first gadget I’ve coveted since the launch of the first smartphones. This is a unique moment when the business stars align, the designers do the damn thing, and the culture is primed and hungry for this product category.
If you’re living under a rock, Valve’s Steam Deck is a handheld gaming PC that runs the company’s SteamOS, a unique Linux distro that prioritizes compatibility with the many Windows games for sale on Steam. Although we’ve seen handheld gaming PCs in the past, this is the first device that seems to sport a consumer-friendly interface, hit the right price point, and offer enough power to actually realize its pie-in-the-sky goals as an open platform.
In hindsight, I feel very silly for not realizing it would be Valve who’d step in and revolutionize the gaming industry (again) but it must be noted that it’s only able to seize this moment thanks to the recent changes to, and colossal neglect from, nearly every other tech giant. The necessary pieces — a capable hardware design team, a library of games and a store to distribute them on, a consumer-friendly OS, and some existing relationships with third-party publishers — are abundantly present at Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, and Samsung. But it took Valve, with its open-platform ethos and lack of conflicting interests, to pull the pieces together.
It took Valve ... to pull the pieces together.
Fortunately for Valve, Microsoft is busy trying to convince people to play cloud games on their phones. Meanwhile, Sony seems unable to focus on more than one platform at a time (as evidenced by how thoroughly it botched the before-its-time PS Vita). Apple has its head in the sand, still desperately trying to convince anyone who will listen that Apple Arcade on its existing devices will save the App Store from drowning in tap-a-thon, free-to-play crap. And Samsung and Google can’t even create a usable tablet between them, much less a game console. Last, but not least, is Nintendo who, thanks to decades of family-friendly, bargain-basement hardware saved by clever gimmicks, just fumbled what should have been its touchdown by missing the window in which to release a Switch Pro, opting instead to slap a new screen on a device announced way back in 2016.
So the dream belongs to Valve.
For years now, consumers have shown an abundance of enthusiasm for dedicated handheld gaming devices. Anyone from high-flying Nintendo to unknown Chinese hardware manufacturers with half-baked emulation offerings, have shifted a significant amount product in recent years. Devices from Anbernic and Powkiddy are flying off digital shelves and it was only a matter of time until someone came along and created an affordable, open alternative to the Switch.
Nintendo’s locked-down environment is famously allergic to emulation (except when it’s not) and doesn’t offer so much as a Netflix app, let alone an open platform through which you can stream games from competitors or run any software you like. While you’re free to void your warranty and install Android on a hacked Switch, that is too complicated and intimidating for most users.
So here comes the Steam Deck to pull the pieces together and finally kill the console. Through a Steam Deck you get all the benefits of PC gaming: You’ll be able to run new, triple AAA titles thanks to Steam’s world-class store, install any third party OS you like, emulate any console up through the Wii U and PS3 (theoretically), or stream current Stadia, Xbox, or PlayStation games through the cloud. With development of Yuzu coming along at such a fast pace, there’s a good chance you’ll even be able to emulate Nintendo Switch games on this device. Much like Sega opened the door for all the titles Nintendo wouldn’t allow on its console, Valve is opening the door for... all the titles Nintendo wouldn’t allow on its console.
But you also get all the benefits of console gaming: A dedicated gaming OS running out-of-the-box, a library of software with confirmed compatibility, and tight, polished, gaming-first hardware. Outside of local ray-tracing, this is about as no compromises as a gaming device gets.
And if you don’t like Valve’s taste in hardware? Other manufacturers are welcome to jump in and make a StreamOS device of their own — opening big-ticket revenue streams that brands like Asus, Razer, or Alienware would love to have.
Although Valve has had trouble getting Steam machines in our living rooms until now, if the enthusiasm for this round of SteamOS devices continues at this pace, there’s truly is no reason for serious gamers to own another console before picking up a Steam Deck or something like it. Much like Windows PCs in the ‘90s, SteamOS devices are just good enough for the freedom they provide to outweigh whatever brand loyalty one might have to the manufacturer of a locked-down, traditional console.
Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s easy to understand why any tech giant would be wary to enter the wild west of open gaming handhelds. Until now, a lack of consumer education, high price points, and poorly designed hardware have painted a picture that customers would turn their noses up at these products, opting instead to avoid console-style games in lieu of smartphone games or to, at most, stream cloud games to their cell phones with controller cases like the Backbone or the Razer Kishi.
Apple has always maintained its locked-down approach to software and hardware — whether or not it was beneficial to them at the time —but Microsoft and Google already know there is a market for devices that offer complete control to the consumer and they already know how to sell premium software to these kinds of users. They should have made this. The product category was inevitable. And now, instead of giving up a little control and cannibalizing themselves, they’re going to be eaten alive by the market, thereby pigeonholing themselves into simply running one of many streaming services available on other companies’ devices shipping with other companies’ operating systems.
Gaming companies are not going to stop offering cloud streaming services on which consumers can access their original titles — they’ve simply invested way too much in those ventures at this point. Similarly, third-party software developers aren’t going to stop developing for the wildly popular Steam store. Also, cross-platform play isn’t going anywhere. Consumers aren’t going to purchase a device with less power or customizability than the Steam Deck can offer at, as a reminder, just $50 more than the Nintendo Switch (OLED Model). This is the future. The console’s days are numbered.
The genie (or steam) is out of this bottle. Unless some competition throws together a good design and works some supply-chain magic, the future is Valve’s.