Steam Box To Make Life Difficult for Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo
The battle for living room dominance is going to get freaky in 2013, and while Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are certainly in the fight, they’re no longer assured victory. While rumors persist of some kind of Apple TV box that will spit increasingly impressive iOS titles like Real Racing 3 or Arc Squadron onto your TV, and a variety of Android derivatives like the $99 indie darling Ouya, and the recently Kickstarted GameStick will make gaming cheaper and potentially more accessible, the 800-pound-gorilla that stands to disrupt everything is the long-rumored and recently confirmed Steam Box. Previewed as Steam’s “Big Picture” TV interface mode, and described by Valve boss Gabe Newell as “a very controlled environment,” the platform could bring the kind of discipline and structure to the PC games space that Microsoft has so frequently failed to bring with its numerous half-assed attempts at supporting Games for Windows.
While cynics may dismiss the concept as little more than a 21st century variant of Trip Hawkins’ ill-conceived 3DO dream, the difference with the Steam Box concept is that it’s fundamentally an open platform. Any PC manufacturer can get in on the act, but the infrastructure that Steam provides will bind everything together. It has the potential to change the whole games market, and most importantly, studios will be able to put games onto your TV without having to jump through the typical platform-holder hoops imposed by Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. To many, “Steam” and “PC gaming” are already interchangeable terms, and with the launch of this next initiative, Valve will further seize control of the platform.
Skipping The Middleman and the Rise of the Super Indie
2012 saw a marked shift toward game creators having a much more direct relationship with their audience, and that trend will continue in 2013. As the fruits of last year’s Kickstarter binge start to see the light of day, we’ll finally have proof that serving audience desires directly is the way ahead. For years, studios have sat on ideas that they believe in but which big publishers weren’t prepared to take a risk on. Conversely, gamers have been decrying the shift away from some of the genres that they love dearly. By connecting directly and moving away from the model that relies on the conservatism of traditional publishers, marketers, and retailers, we’ll see more and more creative risks being taken.
Kickstarter isn’t the be-all, end-all solution, though. Emboldened by successes like Riot Games’ League of Legends, Adhesive Games’ Hawken, and Mojang’s Minecraft,a new development space will emerge. As the “B-level” (for want of a better term) goes away, it will be fully replaced by a far healthier and more audience-focused alternative; the “super indie.” Rather than being driven by the need to bang out more and more $60 packaged products to achieve their business needs, this new type of studio is more directly tied to audience appetites, and is able to build strong fan cultures and strong business cases around fewer, deeply appreciated experiences. Digitally distributed, tightly focused, driven by in-game transaction economies, and iterated on regularly, the new games created by these studios will complement the continued resurgence of the PC platform, the Steam Box, and tablet gaming.
Source 2 and Half-Life 3, Maybe
After so long, it almost seems ridiculous to even mention Half-Life 3 in a predictions piece, but what the hell–let’s think this one all the way through. We know that Steam Box is coming, and Valve needs a symbolic game to lead the charge for its new world order. We also know that a next-generation variant of the Source engine has been in development for a while, and is nearing a point where its ready to be unleashed on the world. What better combination than Half-Life 3 as a showcase for both the Steam hardware initiative and Valve’s new engine tech? Yes, it’s idealistic wishful thinking, and yes, you’re probably right if your immediate reaction is “that would be very nice, but it seems unlikely,” but if 2013 is really going to be Valve’s big year as it would appear, the timing is better than it ever has been. Valve marches to the beat of its own drum, so file this one under “it’s nice to want things.”
Next Xbox is Called…Xbox
Remember when “Xbox 720” was just a silly joke that we all used as a way to refer to the next-generation platform? Over the past few years it has become the most popular search term associated with Microsoft’s next console, yet it’s also the last thing that the company is likely to call it. The term “360” was a way to represent the holistic nature of the platform and its ability to surround the player with entertainment, so using “720” would just be dumb. It surrounds you, what…twice? Microsoft has been keen to establish “Xbox” as the umbrella brand for its overall gaming service of late (letting “Live” take a back seat), integrating the brand into both the Windows 8 and Windows Mobile ecosystems. For the next-generation, expect Microsoft to continue with this behavior and see “Xbox” as a similar brand to “Surface” – a tag that represents a purpose more than a single product.
In the past, Microsoft’s Xbox group has used its E3 press conferences as its primary global announcement platform. This year expect it to behave differently. Surface got its own Apple-style show-and-tell event last October, and it’s safe to assume that the new Xbox get a similar treatment in the first half of this year. Expect a reveal ahead of E3, with hints at games that will later be shown at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in June.
Xbox Surface By The Summer
Last year’s predictions proclaimed that the next Xbox would be tablet-based. “The core of the new platform will be akin to a tablet PC that wirelessly connects to a base station, which in turn plugs into your TV. If this is the case, a premium Xbox Next setup could feasibly include a base station, a tablet, a conventional controller of some kind, and the recently discussed high-def evolution of the Kinect,” we said. That very well may still be the case for the next-generation Xbox (above), but it seems highly likely that Microsoft will also push the existing Xbox 360 technology into tablet territory. An “Xbox Tablet” was rumored back in November, and sources seem fairly convinced of its viability. With “Xbox” as the name for the overall games strategy at Microsoft rather than the name of a specific box, an “Xbox” variant of Surface makes a lot of sense as a gaming-focused device. Given the age of the 360 technology, something capable of replicating the capabilities of a 3.2GHz tri-core Xenon processor, along with its 500MHz ATI Xenos graphics chip, is well within the realms of possibility for a mobile device.
There are already chipsets that could be squeezed into a tablet that are more than up to the task. A $400 Xbox Surface would prolong the life of the existing 360 base, and provide an interesting and unique approach to a mobile strategy for Microsoft. If would necessitate providing sufficient on-board storage for games that clock in at multiple gigabytes, and a willingness to push digital distribution of 360 games much more aggressively. To fully establish such a device as the ultimate gaming tablet, this would need to be much more than a casual game box with an Xbox sticker on it. If Microsoft really wants to shake up the market, it needs to replicate full 360 functionality in a 10-inch tablet, and support wireless controllers so that we can play Halo 4 with sticks and triggers just as effectively as we can play Bejeweled Blitz by touching the screen.