I am a very bad pc gamer. One of the largest and most influential companies in PC gaming history, Valve shipped the long-rumored handheld Steam Deck for a lower price than expected and with all sorts of promises about what you can do with it. And the crowd is raging!
But me. When I saw the Steam Deck reveal video, the initial reaction was obvious: Wow, they really like their switches in Seattle. Then a slight feeling that I had seen all of this before. Obviously, that’s not literally true, but it was impossible to shake off the feeling that Steam Deck is hardware that fits in the same line as Playstation Move and Kinect. Yes, they were controllers, not platforms, but what they all have in common is that they follow Nintendo’s trail without ever really understanding why the Kyoto magicians did this in the first place.
Nintendo is grossly underrated as a hardware design company, mostly because it doesn’t care what hardware high-end interests are. The guiding philosophy has always been that of the late Gumpei Yokoi, best known for the Game Boy, who described it as “thinking outside the box with withered technology”. That said, when everyone around you is looking at the cutting edge of technology, Nintendo is (by and large) thinking about the unexplored potential of older hardware. Fun fact: Wii motion detection technology was originally considered for Gamecube, which is believed to be the last “traditional” console from Nintendo.
That’s not to say that Nintendo always gets it right, but even when it does go wrong, the reasons behind it are interesting. Wii U was a failure, but the concept behind it was understandable: Nintendo suspected that living rooms would soon become multi-screen spaces, and that a console that could switch between TV and couch would fit into that ecosystem. In the case of the Wii U, the idea makes sense, but the hardware was too spoiled: the rapid improvement in tablets after the iPad made the Wii U gamepad look like a Tonka toy.
So to Switch and why Switch works. It’s easy to say that this hardware would always be a hit, but Nintendo has the farm bet the farm on it: for the first time in its history it is integrating its design and software team for portable and home consoles. In the slim home console years, Nintendo’s portable devices had kept the ship afloat, but with the Wii U and the advent of mobile gaming, the company correctly realized that the only way forward was to make Switch the best of the two.
Switch succeeds because it’s not like everything else out there. Playstation and Xbox repeatedly emphasize the performance of their hardware and their extensive multimedia offering, while the PC is the ultimate gaming platform, but also the most expensive and requires a certain amount of attention and optimization: You have to be a little committed. Switch does all of that and instead offers superbly tactile hardware good enough to run brilliant games, inspired docking gimmick, and a masterclass in usability.
Steam Deck is more powerful than Switch: I had to laugh at Hard Drive’s headline, ‘Valve Announces Switch Pro’. It’s also heavier than a basic switch, bigger than a switch, and has a more functional design bordering on ugly design. I’ve seen a lot of people compare the aesthetics to the Game Gear, Sega’s color portable, but honestly I think the Game Gear looked a bit better. Either way, the thing is clunky.
I suppose the pitch is really as simple as a handheld PC with the best elements of Switch design, with the expectation that the platform can even help standardize the target specs via Steam (if that thing sells like hotcakes , it becomes the standard minimum specification for computer games).
I wonder if this is really a niche. Who has this particular void in their life? If you have a decent PC, why should you have a lower spec handheld? If you’re looking for a new PC, why choose a desktop? Beyond a GPU defect, maybe. I mean, PCs aren’t just for gaming. I’m not even sure if they’re PC-obsessed with money to burn or the mainstream: with Switch Lite selling at half price, the latter seems like an optimistic target.
For me, the Move and Kinect energy around the Steam Deck comes from the fact that, like these devices, it is located in a kind of intermediate station. Move copied the Wiimote but did so with improved motion sensing technology and completely missed the point. At least, unlike Kinect, it worked as advertised.
And Steam Deck is like a Switch without anything that makes Switch great. Every game on Switch is made for Switch first, while on Steam Deck you rely on trackpads to control games meant for mouse and keyboard and to squint tiny text on a screen that is too small. It has gyro controls, but it lacks the “playability” and functionality of Nintendo’s on / off Joy-Cons, the button layout is terrible (the B button makes a Salvador Dali off that edge), and it’s just too big.
Valve’s hardware always seems to have a great idea somewhere, but they never quite get it to the point. Steam Deck could be the exception, or the next Steam Box.
It has advantages, of course. Switch is an enclosed garden with Nintendo prizes, while Steam Deck plays almost everything and you probably already have a huge Steam library of your own. Games are going to be dirt cheap on Steam Deck, and that can’t be denied: it’s all about if you’d ever play them on the thing.
Steam Deck feels like it’s copying Switch without getting it right, so it’s something of a compromised vision. As far as it and Switch are competitors, I doubt it will take any of Nintendo’s market share as it completely lacks that form factor magic, bespoke software, and wonder gimmicks. A couple of iterations down the line, Steam Deck could be something. But Valve won’t be the first to find out that copying Nintendo isn’t as easy as it looks.