The Steam Deck Isn’t Competing With The Nintendo Switch

The Steam Deck Isn’t Competing With The Nintendo Switch
Photo: Nintendo

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. A game gets announced, say maybe an indie game. It’s exclusive to PC, and it looks promising. Then, out of nowhere, the eternal question: When is it coming out on Switch?

Sure, some people might buy the cool game twice. But it’s also just as common for folks to abstain from purchasing any given game until it lands on the quirky Nintendo hardware. I’ve certainly done it, and can think of a handful of instances where I chose to wait for the Nintendo version rather than spending twice the money.

In late July, Valve threw a wrench in that ongoing dilemma. The Steam Deck, Valve’s take on a portable gaming device, doesn’t just let you play games on the go. You could, according to the specs released by Valve, actually run demanding PC games that the Switch just wouldn’t be up to. They’d probably drain your Steam Deck’s battery pretty quickly, and you might have to play at a lower framerate. But still, it’ll be doable.

It’s easy to look at that and go, shit, there goes Nintendo’s biggest advantage — a system that lets you play your favourite indie games anytime, anywhere. But this take ignores the audiences at play in this hardware battle, if not the wider video game landscape.

The Switch Deck, by Valve’s own admission, is pricey. The starting model costs 400 bucks, more if you want faster, larger internal storage. Given the ballooning size of major video games nowadays, especially on PC, some might want the largest capacity possible. But would an average person really spend upward of $US650 ($875) for the best version of the Steam Deck? I doubt it. You can’t even play Animal Crossing on that thing*, and that’s like half the reason most people get the Switch in the first place.

Picture this scene, but with a Steam Deck.  (Photo: Nintendo) Picture this scene, but with a Steam Deck. (Photo: Nintendo)

Fact is, the Steam Deck and the Nintendo Switch are going after totally different consumers. The Steam Deck seems more geared toward “hardcore” gaming folks who’ve already purchased a library of games on Valve’s platform. It seems unlikely that someone would purchase the Deck on its own without an existing Steam account. It is, in other words, an additive piece of equipment — and a luxury one at that, given the price. The Steam Deck appears to be less for the “I’ll wait for the Switch version” crowd and more for early adopters with cash to burn who are already devoted to Valve’s platform.

The Switch, meanwhile, is often used either as a primary console, or a complementary device to other video game consoles. In contrast to its competitors, Nintendo-developed first-party games remain exclusive to the Japanese company; there is no other way to play certain iconic Nintendo franchises. And given the popularity of the Switch, much of the world already has a portable gaming device. Most of those folks probably aren’t going to spend a good chunk of their paycheck on another device that more or less does the same thing as the thing they already have.

For these people, the honkin’ size, added weight, and lack of colour options might make the Deck less appealing when compared to the cheery and more lightweight Switch and Switch Lite. And with the $US200 ($269) Switch Lite only costing half of what a Deck does, what do you think an average person might go for?

But even among so-called hardcore gamers, the Steam Deck’s chances of succeeding are a gamble. Nowadays, thanks to the advent of cloud streaming, you can play modern video games on pretty much any device. You could, for example, play Destiny 2 on your iPhone or tablet via Xbox Cloud Gaming, or pair it via remote play. You might not even need a workaround for major games like Genshin Impact, which are already playable on mobile devices. Though some of the tech isn’t quite there yet, we are already living in a world with a wealth of portable gaming options at cheaper price points. The Steam Deck faces an uphill battle, and given the unimpressive lifespan of Valve hardware like the Steam Link and Steam Machines, its track record doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Photo: Valve Photo: Valve

The comparisons between the two are shortsighted. If anything, the two devices don’t exist in the same orbit. To hear about the Steam Deck at all, you have to be somewhat plugged into the video game world, or at least have an interest in tech. Likely, you both value and understand the leap in processing power offered by the Deck, or have a vested interest in niche PC games that will never see a console port. In Valve’s introduction video for the Deck, it says that the device was designed for extended gameplay sessions, which sounds an awful lot like “you’re going to mostly play this at home, where you can charge it.”

The Switch does not have those barriers. You don’t need specialised knowledge or interests, nor do you need nearly as much money to get started. You don’t need a dedicated chunk of time, either, with many games designed to be played during small pockets of downtime, or during commutes. In the face of hard-to-find next-gen consoles, the Switch is now the most mainstream video game device outside of maybe phones. Can an expensive PC gaming-adjacent piece of hardware truly compete with that?

For some, the Steam Deck will ameliorate the need to wait months for a Switch release, nevermind being forced to pay for the same thing twice. People hungry for an upgrade and sick of playing compromised games on the Switch may skip the kinda disappointing OLED model and nab a Deck instead. Undoubtedly, some confused grandparents might circumvent both altogether and accidentally buy Elgato’s Stream Deck for some poor, unsuspecting kid.

But the more likely scenario? The person who buys the Steam Deck probably isn’t the same person who is going to buy a Nintendo Switch. 

Comments

  • I don’t think that it’s necessarily aiming to replace the Switch in every demogrpahic, but it is definitely competing for some of the same big use cases. I bought a Switch at launch and will be doing what I can to get a Steam Deck as soon as reservations are open for Australia, and with the exception of certain Switch exclusives the Deck will probably replace the Switch entirely for me. Assuming it’s competently built hardware, of course.

  • I am a PC gamer for decades, the Switch has the biggest barrier to entry for me.

    I buy a Deck, I immediately at no extra cost, get access to over 450 games on Steam (and even more outside of steam).

    I buy a Switch, I have zero games, and I am locked to an eco-system that for the most part retains the full RRP on its game for longer before hitting “sales” and “bargain” thresholds. Unless your fanatical about Nintendo exclusive games, the value of games over time is an inflated expense.

    PC gaming has less of the pitfuls of mobile gaming, especially with gatchas and mobile data scraping. And Cloud gaming is still in its infancy and really hasn’t proven itself on Australia’s crappy internet (both mobile and NBN) to warrant a good download it once and play in offline mode.

    • With the really low GPU performance though, I’m worried how well games will play, even at the 720P-ish resolution of the Deck.
      It appears to be lower powered than the original PS4 , about a third as powerful as a PS4Pro, and almost an order of magnitude underpowered (GPU wise) than any of the current RDNA2 consoles, and they have been pretty crap with games that run well on the PC, like Cyberpunk etc.

      (Steamdeck GPU – up to 1.6 TFLOPS, PS4 – 1.84 TFLOPS, PS4Pro -4.20 TFLOPS, PS5 – 10.28 TFLOPS, Xbox Series X – 12 TFLOPS)

      I’m hopeful it will have some trickery to keep performance up, and that they small screen won’t cause issues on games designed to be played on at least a 13″ monitor, but I’m not going to jump into the pre-order.

      • Numerous sits say it has a RDNA 2 GPU in it. Thats the same as the Series X and PS5, which is going to put it up around the 10-12 TFLOPS. Kotaku, Ars, and The Verge at least are stating the RDNA 2 chip.

        That chip iss not far short of a 2080, which runs around 14 TFLOPS, so if it has the same GPU as the latest consoles its certainly not going to fall short of the graphics.

        Whats your source for the 1.6 TFLOPS number?

        • Valve itself told The Verge the 1.6 tflops number (https://mobile.twitter.com/tomwarren/status/1415724561123926024). It’s an RDNA 2 gpu, but this only describes the architecture. It’s like saying the GTX 1030 is a Pascal GPU – it is, but that doesn’t mean it stacks up against a 1060 or a 1080.

          That said, I wouldn’t worry too much about power in the short term. RDNA 2 is more efficient than other devices in that range such as the Xbox One, so those 1.6 Tflops go further. On top of that, the device is only outputting at 720p normally, while most last-gen games target 1080p and most modern games target either 1080p or 4k. And we have the advantage of the modern glut of image reconstruction techniques like FSR and dynamic resolution scaling. These factors accounted for, sites like Eurogamer have estimated performance on the Deck targeting 720p within the range of an Xbox One X or Xbox Series S targeting 4k (https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/digitalfoundry-2021-valve-steam-deck-spec-analysis)

          • 800p not 720p, but yeah. It should handle a lot of things just fine at that res and with the range of options available for tuning settings down.

          • Cheers. I made the simple (and stupid) assumption that all RDNA 2 chips were pretty much the same. Hadnt seen the 1.6 comment anywhere, so just ran with the assumption.

            My bad.

          • I hope you are right re the performance, but the low number of CUs has me worried for the kind of games I’d want to play on it.

  • The Steam Deck is probably the perfect competitor to the PlayStation/Xbox for me. I honestly have no real desire for something more powerful than my PS4, but I would happily pay for more consoles to have the versatility of the Switch

  • The low battery life, weight and size make this not a switch replacement for me. The switch is already a bit big and a bit heavy.
    I’m not sure how many games will really work from a UI standpoint on such a small screen either.
    I still kinda want one, but I’ll be sitting it out to find out how the user experience is on the kind of games I play.

  • SteamOS seems a big-unknown to me, they are saying they will have it improved, but last time I tried it on my PC, I had a ton of problems with the games in my library. I might have been unlucky in that the games I played were unusually poorly supported, but it is something I’m also waiting real-world testing on before buying.

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