Steam Machine (hardware platform)
Video game console
|Controller input||Steam Controller|
Steam Machine is a line of pre-built gaming computers that began being manufactured and distributed in the beginning of 2014 by a number of vendors using a range of different design specifications outlined by Valve Corporation. Steam Machines will run SteamOS, an open source Linux-based operating system developed for Linux-compatible Steam games as well as other entertainment. Some Steam Machines will also come with Microsoft Windows installed. Most pre-built Steam Machines will be upgradeable and modular to varying extents, much like traditional PCs. SteamOS will also be available for anybody to install on their own personal computer at no cost. The line of pre-built Steam Machines will have a range of different hardware options ranging in performance, size and price. Valve is also developing a touchpad-based haptic Steam Controller intended to provide players with a level of accuracy similar to the mouse-and-keyboard setup used for many PC games, as well as to provide the functionality of a typical console controller.
Steam, a large digital store-front supporting many third-party developers and publishers, was developed by Valve Corporation primarily for Microsoft Windows and accounts for an estimated 75% of digitally purchased games on that platform. Valve has indicated displeasure with the approaches that both Microsoft and Apple are taking with their respective operating systems, limiting what applications could be run, and upon the release of Windows 8 in 2012, Valve's CEO Gabe Newell called it "a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space", and discussed the possibility of promoting the open-source operating system Linux that would maintain "the openness of the platform". Newell recognized that games would need to be a significant part of the push for Linux. An official Linux client for Steam was released in July 2012, along with developer tools to help port games to the platform. Valve has since worked to assure that users' game libraries would be portable, including offering Steam Play whereby purchase of a title for one platform automatically allows that user to play the title on other supported platforms, and cross-platform multiplayer features.
Prior to Valve's official announcement of Steam Machines, rumors of Valve's plan to get into the hardware market had developed in the industry throughout 2012, based on aspects such as the emphasis on the Linux operating system and the introduction of features like the 10-foot user interface "Big Picture Mode" for Steam which would be a necessary feature for video game console. Valve formally announced that it was considering developing a video game console near the end of 2012. Industry journalists tentatively called the hardware a "Steam Box". It would function as a dedicated unit running Steam to allow players to launch games, media, and other functions that the client already provides. The unit's hardware was expected to be tightly controlled in a similar manner to other video game consoles. The software side was expected to remain open; for example, the unit is expected to ship with a Linux operating system, but the user will be able to install Microsoft Windows if they want to.
Gabe Newell explained that Valve's strategy is to develop a single hardware unit themselves as the default model, internally named "Bigfoot", and work with other computer manufacturers who want to offer the same user experience but with different hardware configurations not offered by Valve's model; for example, Valve does not expect to include an optical drive due to size and cost, but this can be a feature offered by a manufacturing partner. He also envisions the software to enable screencast capabilities, allowing the single box to work with any monitor or television within the home. Newell stated that they would also likely develop controllers for the unit that integrate biometrics data from the player and options for gaze tracking, citing that the involuntary responses from the player are more useful than other forms of player input such as motion control. Newell also explained that Valve is also considering the mobile device market in addition to the home console market, specifically considering laptops and tablets with their own hardware nicknamed "Littlefoot". During the Steam Dev Days in January 2014, Valve further explained that the initial target market for Steam Machines is the living room and build a demand for support for Linux versions of games such that they can continue to work away from Windows and OS X operating systems for the future.
At the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, modular computer hardware company Xi3 Corporation introduced a prototype modular PC codenamed "Piston". This unit is one of several possible designs that Valve is looking as the default hardware model for the Steam Box, and is specifically designed to run Steam on Linux and support Big Picture mode. The unit is based on Xi3's "performance level" X7A model and is slightly larger than a human hand, containing various I/O ports to connect to power, video, and data signals. Xi3 began taking pre-orders for the Piston Console at the 2013 South by Southwest Festival in March 2013, anticipating high levels of interest in the hardware with plans to release the unit for general purchase by the end of 2013. Valve has clarified that although they conducted some initial exploratory work with Xi3, they have had no direct involvement with the Piston's specifications, and it is not necessarily representative of the final design for the Steam Box.
Valve officially revealed Steam Machines including the related SteamOS and Steam Controller during the last week of September 2013, with a tentative release date in mid-2014. On December 13, 2013, three hundred beta units of the Steam Machine were shipped to selected beta testers for initial testing. An additional 2000 units were provided to developers attending the Steam Dev Days event in January 2014. Valve also released an early restricted download link for their SteamOS for "Linux hackers" to try out.
Unlike other gaming consoles, the Steam Machine does not have a specific configuration of hardware, but a minimum specification of computer hardware components that would be needed to support the SteamOS operating system and games developed for it. Valve plans to have several different retail versions of the Steam Machine through various hardware manufacturers, but will also allow users to create their own units from components and or modify retail products with off-the-shelf parts as desired. The units are expected to arrive in 2014, with Valve expecting to announce its partners for this first line at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in early January.
Valve began running a beta-testing program in late 2013, selecting 300 Steam users to test their optimized prototype hardware units and initial versions of the Steam Controllers. The initial prototypes to be sent to testers will have various configurations, and may not be representative of the final Steam Machine specifications. The configurations include:
- CPU: Intel Core i7-4770, i5-4570, and i3
- Graphics card: Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan, GTX 780, GTX 760, and GTX 660
- Graphics card RAM: 3 GB GDDR5
- Main RAM: 16 GB DDR3-1600
- Hard drive: 1 TB storage/8 GB SSD cache hybrid drive
- Power: 450 W power supply
- Measurement: 12" × 12.4" × 2.9" high (30.5 cm × 31.5 cm × 7.4 cm)
A core part of the machine configurations was the method of providing ventilation and cooling of the CPU, GPU, and power supply; Valve engineered custom compartments within these beta units so that each of these three units has separate circulation and ventilation routes.
Along with the hardware specifications for the Steam Machine, Valve has developed a new game controller named the Steam Controller. The controller is designed not only for games developed for controller users, but also for games traditionally played with keyboard and mouse controls so that they can be played through the controller. It features two high-resolution clickable trackpads (replacing the typical thumbsticks on modern control controllers), and sixteen buttons, including face, shoulder, and undergrip buttons. The trackpads include haptic feedback, which can send tactile feedback to the player in reaction to events within the game; Chris Kohler of Wired described using the controller while playing Civilization V at a press event at Valve, and noted that as he used the trackpad to move the mouse cursor, electromagnets within the controller created audio and tactile feedback as if he were using a trackball. Although the controller is designed for the Steam Machine platform, it can also be used with Steam on existing PCs.
The original design of the controller was to include a touchscreen in the center of the unit. The touchscreen would have acted like a mousepad and allow players to perform actions that typically aren't capable on controllers, operating directly with Steam or SteamOS and overlays touchscreen display onto the players' screens to allow manipulation of the game without diverting attention from the screen. However, at the January 2014 Steam Dev Days event, Valve revealed they have since dropped the touchscreen concept from the controller, rearranged existing face buttons to be more compatible with existing games.
Valve went through several iterations for a controller that would be able to mimic keyboard and mouse controls, using prototypes made with 3D printing to test ergonomics. Early versions of the controller design included a trackball embedded in the controller to simulate mouse functionality, but opted eventually for trackpads to give more customization functionality to developers, such as the ability to simulate the motion of trackball by tracking a finger's motion on the trackpad. The trackpads and controller design were made to minimize the amount of contact that a player's thumbs would have on the trackpad when holding the unit. Unlike their current plans to have third-party hardware vendors manufacture Steam Machines, Valve plans to remain the sole manufacture of the Steam Controller at the launch of Steam Machines. Valve's Greg Coomer stated that this was decisions based on achieving the best implementation of the Controller and Valve's vision for the device, noting that "we didn’t think that it was really going to be possible to outsource the design for manufacturing and the finishing of the controller in a way that would allow third parties to take from us an idea or a reference design and bring it to market soon enough". Valve did clarify that they will open up specifications for third-party controllers to be developed.
Selected manufactures showcased prototype units prior to the 2014 CES show. iBuyPower has announced a prototype model which is powered by an AMD CPU with a discrete R9-270 GPU and a 500GB hard drive with a price of $499. Digital Storm has also revealed its higher-end unit utilizing liquid-cooled parts, expected to retail from about $1,500. Other vendors with Steam Machine prototypes include Alienware, Falcon Northwest, CyberPowerPC, Origin PC, Gigabyte, Materiel.net, Webhallen, Alternate, Next, Zotac, Scan Computers, and Maingear, all whom except Maingear showcased their prototypes at the 2014 CES show. The price range of these first machines ranged from $499 to $6,000 based on vendor and specifications.
Alienware announced that they plan to start selling consumer Steam Machines in September 2014. The company currently plans to offer only fixed hardware units that cannot be modified by the user, but plan on offering new configurations on an annual basis.
Steam Machines will run SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system derived from Debian that expands the current Steam client to add additional functionality such as media sharing, media services, Steam In-Home Streaming, family sharing, and parental controls. The operating system will be freely available for any user to install on their own hardware, assuming it meets the system requirements.
Games and applications
Games will be developed to run natively on Linux and SteamOS. Linux compatibility is already a feature offered through the Steamworks application programming interface, and according to Paradox Interactive, all of their recent games that have been designed to work with Steam under Linux will also run under SteamOS without additional modifications. Valve will not make games that are exclusive to SteamOS or Steam Machines, and has cautioned third-party developers against making games exclusive to the platform. However, Valve will not stop developers from making SteamOS-exclusive games, particularly those that are best suited for playing from the living room. Players will also be able to stream games from regular PCs running Steam to Steam Machines, allowing access to games that are only available for Windows or OS X. Through SteamPlay, users can play games available on SteamOS that they already own on Windows or OS X and will not need to repurchase the title.
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