A Brief History Of Steam Machines

Photo: Ethan Miller (Getty)

Remember Steam Machines? Valve's console-style gaming PC rigs meant for the living room felt like they might revolutionise gaming when they were first announced. A few years later, they're mostly forgotten. Even Valve is ready to turn the page on that chapter: It recently removed them from the front page of Steam. Since it seems like they're over and done with, let's take a look back at the history of Steam Machines.

Up until recently, Steam Machines were listed as one of the entries on the drop-down menu of the Steam store's hardware section. Now it only lists the Steam Controller, Steam Link, and HTC Vive. The stealth change was first noticed by the fan site Gaming on Linux, which posted about it last Friday.

Ars Technica did some digging through the Wayback Machine and surmised that the change went into effect somewhere around March 20, meaning it took over a week for people to even notice. The outlet also points out that where Steam used to have a dedicated hardware page, with Steam Machines featured prominently, the same URL now just takes people to a search results page.

While the devices are still listed on the site via direct link, and you can still buy them, it's a reminder of a PC gaming future that never came to pass despite Valve's best efforts.

Steam Machines, Valve's vision for modular and easily upgradeable computers to be supplied by companies like Alienware and outfitted with SteamOS, were first unveiled in September of 2013.

Not much was known other than that Valve was designing some sort of new PC gaming experience and 300 lucky people would get to beta test it. Here's a brief timeline of what happened next:

September 2013: Valve's announcement FAQ says Steam Machines will be available to purchase starting in 2014.

October 2013: Valve shows off the specs of its test units, the high-end of which is composed of parts that put it in the ballpark of a $US1 ($1),700 ($2,212) PC.

November 2013: Valve says it is crowdsourcing Steam Controller button configurations and testing tons of different weird looking prototypes.

January 2014: Valve unveils a starting lineup of 14 different Steam Machines ranging in price from $US500 ($651) to several thousands of dollars, available in all different boxy shapes, sizes, and colours, at that year's CES.

"Right now they're just saying this is the best thing since, you know, the beginning of time or something," CEO Gabe Newell said about beta tester feedback during the presentation.

March 2014: The Steam Controller continues to get reworked, ditching touch screens for real buttons, and images of several slightly different configurations travel from one end of the internet to the other.

May 2014: Valve delays shipment of Steam Machines until 2015. "We're now using wireless prototype controllers to conduct live playtests, with everyone from industry professionals to die-hard gamers to casual gamers," the company says in a blog post. "It's generating a ton of useful feedback."

November 2014: Alienware Alpha, originally marketed as the flagship Steam Machine, ships review units with Xbox 360 controllers because the Steam Controller still isn't done.

While powerful for the $US550 ($716) price tag, it's still a bit overcomplicated to replace traditional video game consoles, leaving people underwhelmed.

Image: Valve

March 2015: The Steam Controller gets a finalised design, and Valve says Steam Machines will ship November of that year.

June 2015: Valve opens up pre-orders, but only for select Steam Machines.

November 2015: Alienware's official Steam Machine, for real this time, makes its way out into the wild.

Unfortunately, it's laggy, the interface is clunky, and the game selection is somewhat limited, leading Kotaku's Nathan Grayson to wonder "who Alienware's Steam Machine is for."

2016: Valve pivots away from talking about the project almost entirely.

January 2017: A commenter in Gabe Newell's AMA Reddit thread asks if Steam Machines have been abandoned but receives no response.


While the idea itself remains alluring - there's still something to be said for the idea of combining power and efficiency of PC gaming with the cost-effectiveness and simplicity of a gaming console - it's clear Valve has moved on to other projects like VR and card games.

The Steam Link, which Valve occasionally puts on sale for $US1 ($1), appears to have filled the demand for those who want to link their gaming PCs to the living room television.


Comments

    Good idea. Poor execution.

    I think Microsoft is playing this game the right way with the integration of Windows and Xbox.

    Now, a SteamBox partnership between MS and Valve would crush all before it. Except that would essentially relegate MS to supplying hardware, and Valve would have to share that sweet 30% with MS. Will it happen? Not likely. But let's see what next generation Xbox looks like.

    It was a bad idea from the start. People are into PC gaming because they want something better than a console - thus they don’t need prebuilt boxes that still offer none of the convenience of a console. On top of that plenty of PC ports are still bad at couch gaming by expecting keyboard input in some areas - and Steam’a on screen keyboard doesn’t always work.

    For convenience and ease of use the consoles still reign supreme. Anybody who wants a gaming PC gets one and wants something either super small like a Nuc or something they can easily upgrade.

      While I don't really see console as any more "convenient" than PC these days (they are starting to suffer from serious bloat, interface-wise), you're absolutely right about why people are into PC gaming.

      The other problem is that, until really recently, a TV was a worse display than a monitor for most PC gamers. Max 60Hz at 1080p, super-soft, slow GtG refresh rates etc. Anyone with a good quality 24-32 inch monitor had it better. Plus a big monitor at 1m in front of you (or less) looks way bigger than a 65-inch TV on the other side of the room.

      As for ease of use... I think with all the account sign ups and different tiers of membership, and updates and social media connectivity and "do you want to stream this no do ya do ya come on!" and weird cluttered interfaces, and crappy stores, and achievements and fake points where some are just real enough to be used to buy indie games or whatever...

      ...consoles are really giving away their "ease of use" lead.

        I disagree about losing their “ease of use”. Yes the Xbox One’s attempt to bring Windows 10’s UI to the console is an abortion, but otherwise issues like random massive updates are a problem on all platforms - even the PC, except both the PS4 and Xbox are supposed to be able to update while in sleep mode (though in my experience it’s variable whether it works or not).

        The convenience is that there’s nothing else for the user to do except plug the box in, follow a few prompts, and drop the disc in. Whatever platform you choose you’re going to be waiting for patches at some point. I don’t have any issues with obtrusive social media or signups on either console.

        While I don’t suggest the PC is all that hard (I’ve been PC gaming since the DOS days) it’s still more involved than a console, especially if something goes wrong. Also outfits like Ubisoft seem hell bent on having their own clients install themselves to be a pain in the arse.

          Well sure, and I did couch my criticism of consoles in terms of "starting to become". I think something that's not often acknowledged is that the PC isn't exclusively a gaming device. This is obvious of course, but it's understated.

          Gaming on a PC is just one of a whole bunch of things we do with our PCs - I don't need to tell YOU that. For people like you and me, the PC is in many ways an extension of our consciousness. I know mine stays on pretty much all day (because I work at home) and is my primary communication and work tool.

          And because people like you and me have been PC gaming for ages, we remember when it absolutely WAS a stuffaround. We remember "boot disks" and having to specifically set the PC into certain modes to play certain games (will we ever get over the trauma of "No Expanded Memory Detected: Limited Music Will Play"?)

          Now of course, we have Steam and sure those extra ones like Origin and Uplay are annoying, but to actually use them these days takes, like, a double click and a short wait.

          My PC boots much much faster than any console (except the Switch) because its spec is now verging on the ridiculous. Steam, which plays 90%+ of my games, launches games faster. PCs big advantage of course is RAM. It's disadvantage (in terms of complexity of use) is its flexibility.

          PC is complicated not because you HAVE to stuff around with it, but because you CAN stuff around with it.

          But... I borrowed an Xbox One X for a weekend off a mate. And the amount of stuffing around I had to do to ensure I was getting the most out of it - 4K with HDR - in terms of settings on my TV alone, was absolutely a very "PC" experience.

          In fact in some ways it was worse because my TV is all about making non 4K HDR content look like 4K HDR content with upscaling and whatnot. I was never quite sure if I was using the X to its full potential or whether I was just using it as if it was an Xbox One S.

          For me, given that PC my is always on, gaming is much quick and easier on PC. I click the Steam icon, I wait for a second, I choose a game from my easily navigable list of games, using my proportional-movement pointing device ie the mouse.

          Console it's... turn on console, work your way along the list of games by pushing the controller stick X times depending where the game is on the list, wait for the game to take its sweet time to start, play.

          And the CONSTANT updates on Xbox One, ugh! That said, I do find the Switch in many ways the Holy Grail of gaming convenience. Starting a game on that thing is so damn fast.

          So I think a lot of the perceived disadvantages of the PC are to do with the way that you CAN fix your PC, you CAN mess with your PC's configuration. If a console really poops its britches, what do you do? Take it to the shop?

          I guess the other thing is that the console experience among different users of different skill/experience levels is more consistent. Guys like you and me, if our PC doesn't boot we know to check the BIOS codes or whatever, and probably have it fixed in minutes. Other people... not so much.

          Bottom line though - I am genuinely concerned that consoles are slowly, themselves, eroding their "advantage" over PC. The games are often more expensive. Putting discs in is so last decade. Boot times (from fully off, I know you can leave them sort-of on) are slower.

          Meanwhile each new generation of PC hardware becomes more plug-n-play, all that driver update stuff is becoming more automated - hell, with Windows 10 and a really fat internet pipe (over 20Mbps) you probably won't hardly even notice updates because they all happen in the background now.

          Intel just started its big push for the NUC 8, those super tiny PCs. Maybe still not quite the best for gaming, but they have Radeon GPUs in the CPU package now. Imagine what a PC in 2021 is going to be like...

            So a few points, not that I disagree with the majority of what you said:

            You can run PS4/XBX in “instant on” which increases their standby power use, but effectively allows you to turn it on and be exactly where you left off. They’re also supposed to update automatically in these states (my Xbox one x doesn’t seem to do this though and I don’t know why). On a PC there’a no way to do that except to just leave it on completely.

            As for setup - it’s still much easier for a novice to plug in a console. All I had to do to get HDR working was enable it on my console and TV. If I enable HDR on my laptop, the Windows UI suddenly loses colour saturation. Why? I’m not sure.

            As for game costs - Steam is only ever cheap when it’s a big sale, otherwise charging in USD means it’s routinely absurdly expensive compared to just buying it at JB HiFi. I agree disc media is archaic but we’re still in a transition period on consoles for digital distribution (and not having shitty internet).

            The thing with all the rest is that people can drop $700 on a Xbox One X, play games at near-4K on their expensive TV without any real thought, and can just pick up a disc at JB, sit down, and play it. $700 on a PC might get you a 1070 - and nothing else, partly thanks to crypto miners. Most people don’t really have a suitable PC for upgrading, or they have a laptop. That box is good enough for them.

            Yes, you and I know that it can be so much better on the PC, but that comes with a buy-in and knowledge cost that lots of people can’t be bothered with. That’s why consoles endure.

              Price remains the console's trump card... although if you compare apples with apples and only run your PC games in 1080p (still better than the majority of console games, though that's changing), with console-level post-processing effects and texture sizes, it should be possible to build a pretty beefy gaming machine for $700.

              As for disc-based gaming, alas the days of being able to buy a "whole game" on disc seem to be over. So many AAA titles from last year required multi-gigabyte installs, even for the disc versions.

              But AFTER they are installed, the need to have the disc in the drive is annoying - and also no longer universal even on consoles. We can certainly buy AAA titles straight from the various e-stores on console now too. So the "convenience" of being able to drop-in-and-play a new game is something else consoles seem to be in the process of giving up.

              As for instant-on... someone oughta do a time-to-playing comparison between a gaming PC running the latest generation kit, and the Xbox One X. My 8700K-based system boots from cold in like, eight seconds or something? Of course, then Steam takes its sweet time starting up, but then games launch pretty much instantly.

              I have no doubt an Xbox One X could wake from sleep mode and get to a game's loading screen faster than my PC can from off... but from there to actually playing might be interesting.

                it should be possible to build a pretty beefy gaming machine for $700.
                But by that point I can get an Xbox One X and it plays close to 4k at 30 FPS solid - sometimes even managing native 4k. Even my 1070 struggles with 4k at moderate settings (it's a massive resolution jump over 1080p). These "cheap" gaming PCs aren't great comparisons since the X launched - and it's gotten worse because of cryptomining driving up GPU prices. These budget builds all have compromises, and it's why Steam Machines failed - when a console is 'good enough' most people will pick it over a PC, or they're already going to be building a PC and will get something better anyway with a better budget.

                I have no doubt an Xbox One X could wake from sleep mode and get to a game's loading screen faster than my PC can from off...
                It doesn't go to a loading screen - it literally resumes where the console was put in 'sleep' mode. It's akin to having a game running and putting the PC into sleep mode - while allowing some processes (like updating) to run even while in sleep. Hence the name 'instant on'. This is always going to be faster than a cold-boot from a PC.

                That said some games will let you do this on PC as well - but others flip out and crash on resuming.

    Bought myself a steam controller last July, when I started my new career. Figured I'd blow my first paycheck on random stuff, just to sort of 'celebrate'. Bought my son one and myself one (EB had a special).

    Worst. Controller. Ever.

    Freaking hate the thing. It's complete crap. Cheap, complete crap. If that's any indication of what the Steam Machines were headed to being? Hoo boy, bullet dodged.

      I disagree that it’s crap but I also don’t think it’s revolutionary. It’s literally a touch pad instead of a thumb stick. The only good part was gyroscope aiming - something I wish MS and Sony would adopt because it made aiming much easier.

      I did the whole Steam Link/Controller thing for a while and abandoned it. Steam would occasionally crash and kill the stream, and I’d have to either remote in or physically go to the rig to fix it. I’d spend more time configuring the controller than playing - and some games (notably Fallout or Skyrim) don’t support mouse aiming with controller buttons, and the on screen keyboard would randomly not work.

      Overall it felt like a series of compromises which would also decide to not work properly with a new Steam update (or requiring beta branch depending on the build). It was easier to just get a lap board but also way less comfortable.

        I go back to what they originally planned with the steam controller and what we ended up with was a cheap shadow of what the original was meant to be. I can't help but imagine how nice the original would've been in comparison unfortunately. I completely get it's a touch pad, that's completely evident, I just don't think it was implemented very well. The customisation aspect was ok, but could've been better, being a bit clunky as well.

    Why do I get the feeling that the workplace culture at Valve has something to do with all this?

    There are definitely some benefits to the way they allow their employees to just do whatever they want, but there are also some pretty glaring downsides.

    Valve lost interest in steam machines the second MS relented and allowed windows 10 to boot directly into big picture mode.

    The Steam Machine was stillborn because you can attach a PC to a TV no problem.

    Seriously, if a PC gamer is all about PC to the extent that they want their PC games on their big TV, why buy a second, less powerful PC? Just plug the PC into the TV. The days of weird aspect ratio glitches and fiddly settings to get proper pixel-to-pixel display are a ways behind us now. Shit is plug and play over HDMI, even 60Hz 4K on some TVs.

    As for the "convenience" of consoles, well I can't speak for PlayStation 4, but Xbox One is getting worse and worse IMHO. I can't remember the last time I fronted up to it to play a game WITHOUT having to do some multi-hundred-megabyte update. And what the hell is going on with that interface?

    The Xbox One now is like playing Steam Big Picture mode except with way less games, and AAA titles don't look as good.

    Can't argue that console isn't still a lot cheaper, of course. But on the flip side, my PC is my all-purpose tool for doing, well, everything.

    Oh, don't want your ATX PC in the living room blasting your retinas with all its RGB LED strips and howling away with its fans? Steam Home Streaming. My Samsung TV runs it natively (I assume most newer TVs do now) and it works great.

    I'm still amazed they didn't call them Steam Engines.

    Steam Machine is a boring name.

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