Valve revealed last week Steam deck: a handheld PC that looks like a NIntendo switchbut offers as much performance as a decent gaming laptop. Pre-orders for the Steam Deck went live on Friday, July 16, and hordes of eager fans nearly crashed Valve’s servers. This December, PC gamers will have the opportunity to play their favorite titles in handheld format – no cloud gaming, local streaming or compromised console ports are required.
While Steam Deck sounds interesting, I took a wait and see approach to Valve’s inventive new device. One reason for this is that, in my opinion, there’s still a pretty clear line between games that are optimized for a handheld and games that are optimized for a big screen, regardless of the Nintendo Switch.
The other reason for my caution, of course, is that I’ve watched Valve’s approach to hardware over the past several years and the company stumbled as often as it was successful. Since working at Tom’s Guide, Valve has tried three major hardware initiatives: the Steam Controller, the Steam Link, and Steam Machines. The first two came and went; the last hardly came about.
Even if the road to success in the games industry, like everywhere else, is paved with failure, I still wonder if Valve will deliver a revolutionary handheld console or abandon the Steam Deck project if it isn’t perfect from the start.
Steam controller and Steam link
In context, let’s take a look at Valve’s hardware initiatives up to this point and how each has evolved.
First there was the Steam Controller, which debuted in 2015 checked the inventive peripheral device When it came out it got a mixed score:
“The Steam Controller can adequately replace a conventional controller, a mouse and a keyboard at the same time, but it does not fulfill any of the functions of these devices particularly well,” I wrote at the time. “The improvised mouse pad feels imprecise; there aren’t enough keys to replace a full-fledged keyboard, and it seems to introduce a limitation on almost every genre that wasn’t there before.”
For those who have never tried one, the Steam Controller was a great peripheral designed to work with SteamOS and work at the same time instead of a traditional controller, mouse, and keyboard. It was an ambitious idea, and like many ambitious ideas, it didn’t fully work. Even so, the amount of customizations on offer was incredible and a small but dedicated community of fans to this day laments the demise of this product.
The problem wasn’t that the Steam controller was imperfect; it was that Valve released it with medium fanfare, didn’t do much with it, and quietly let it go. A second version could have ironed out many of the problems of the first.
Steam Link, also released in 2015, was another step towards streaming PC games. By connecting this little box to their TV, gamers could stream their Steam libraries to a big screen, successfully bridging the gap between PC and living room games. The device was only $ 50 – much cheaper than buying a second gaming PC.
To be fair, the Steam Link functionality is still there as you can get it on Android phones or program it into a Raspberry Pi. But the Steam Link hardware was another perfect example of how Valve made a perfectly workable piece of technology, then seemingly lost interest in it and gave it up just when it could have been most useful. Think about how many cloud gaming headaches a full-featured Steam Link could have solved years before Google Stadia or Xbox Cloud Gaming even existed.
However, Valve’s biggest hardware glitch came in the form of Steam engines. This promising idea emerged in 2014 when Valve announced it would be partnering with a variety of gaming PC manufacturers to develop its own line of gaming rigs. Every Steam computer would be pre-installed with SteamOS and cover the range from first-class gaming PCs to small living room dishes.
Valve did a lot before the introduction of Steam Machines, bringing big manufacturers like Alienware and iBuyPower on board to work their magic. However, as the release dates of the Steam Machines drew nearer, Valve said less and less about the machines. In fact, very few steam machines came out in the end, and almost nobody bought them. Valve stopped discussing it.
Between Steam Controller, Steam Link, and Steam Machines, we can see a consistent pattern with Valve’s hardware plans. The company announces an ambitious device; the device comes out; the device receives a mixed (or negative) response; Valve lets the product die quietly.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Steam Deck will follow suit. But of Valve’s previous efforts, Steam Deck is most similar to Steam Machines, right down to the SteamOS user interface (and the possible Linux-related restrictions that go along with it). Valve’s previous foray into gaming computers ended badly. If the company is single-handedly mainstreaming handheld gaming PCs, Steam Deck has to be a tech hit, critical favorite, or fan favorite. So far, no Valve hardware has been successful in more than one of these points.
View of the steam deck
On the other hand, Steam Deck is still half a year away and I have no particular insight into how well it could work or sell. If pre-orders are a clue, players seem to be a lot more excited about Steam Deck than about the controller or the Link. In addition, a handheld gaming PC is something people are screaming for; I don’t know if I can say the same thing about a SteamOS optimized controller.
For gamers who absolutely must have a Steam Deck, I wish them the best of luck with the pre-order Meshugas. In this case, however, waiting for reviews might be the smarter move. Valve may well have a hit – but many fans thought the same thing in 2014.