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Valve have a trickier road to your living room than you might think

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“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.” – Niccolò Machiavelli

Machiavelli philosophises over the Steam Box

Above: Machiavelli philosophises over the Steam Box

If you take a moment to sit back and consider how fast technology is advancing within our lifetimes, it is pretty mind blowing. My dad will say it seemed like yesterday he used a crystal set to listen to the radio, and now we have live video-calls with people across the world without batting an eyelid. This makes it really tough for companies whom to stay in business have to avoid complacency and be always looking ahead. Failing to adapt to technological and societal change can bring the mightiest to their knees. Kodak are the perfect example of this.

With this in mind, Valve are being very smart. Gabe Newell has revealed the reason for creating the Steam Box – Valve’s living room gaming machine – is to avoid Microsoft’s increasingly closed Windows OS. Ethics aside, Valve clearly don’t want to start giving Microsoft a cut for every game they play. There’s a more long term factor too; as tablets and smartphones take off, desktop PCs suffer as a consequence. Although as a PC gamer it might make no sense to buy a Steam Box now, if we continue to see this downward trend of desktop sales then Valve’s machine might even be the saving grace of PC-gaming.

It would be naive to think Valve’s future is safe even with the Steam Box. The hybrid PC/console may seem like the end goal Valve have been working towards, but the wrong move and the Steam Box could just be a brief spark in gaming history, and may even mark the peak of Valve’s outstanding history before their slow, downward spiral towards being a mere fond memory of the good old days (it’s more fun when we are being dramatic).

If you hadn’t guessed from the above quote, with Valve looking so far ahead what they mustn’t do is ignore the past. Without looking behind can we truly make the right decisions? With this in mind, here are three examples made by companies you know well – HTC and Microsoft – decisions which have led to huge loses. Will Valve make similar mistakes?

“Giving the customer loads of choice is a good thing, right?” – A now fired HTC guy

Half-life Three Confirmed

Above: Half-life Three Confirmed

Smartphone manufacturer HTC shot to the spotlight when they released a series of smartphones rivalling the iPhone’s dominance, while laughing in the face of established mobile phone companies like Blackberry and Nokia who were too busy counting dollar and euro signs. I got myself the Legend, the baby of the lot and despite its many flaws, loved it to bits. Now we all know that word-of-mouth matters a lot for mobile phones and yet HTC quickly made it almost impossible for me to recommend the Legend by flooding the market with newer phones.

Valve risk falling into a similar boat, with a BBC report on the Steam Box catching my eye: “…confusingly, some of these machines will have different specifications and different prices“. When the media are describing your product as confusing before it is even released, there’s a big red flag flying.

For all outward appearances, the Steam Box is a console, and someone none the wiser will treat it as such. What all consoles have in common is by being non-upgradable, they are released in versions; whether like Nintendo consoles which are all very different beasts, or Sony consoles with their 1-to-4. Regardless of what it’s called, you always know which is the most recent console to buy. Steam Box on the other hand won’t have versions. There will be many Steam Boxes of different shapes and sizes to pick from, but never a Steam Box 2.

To your PC gamer, this is old news. We have all designed or dreamt up our custom built PCs. In the mainstream console market however this is not normal. If mums and dads go into a shop to buy their kids a console, will the sales assistant have to explain what exactly a Steam Box is? It might be easier after-all to go for something the parents have heard of. The Nintendo. The Xbox. The Playstation. In short, by providing so many options, Valve risk confusing their customers who just want a console which their mates have.

Conclusion: Educate your customers. Just because you know what your product is, doesn’t mean everyone else does.

“Marketing doesn’t matter, if it’s good enough it will sell itself” – Another fired HTC guy

HTC’s One X was released mere months ahead of the almost identical Samsung Galaxy S4. It was then with some bemusement that everyone started buzzing about the S4 as soon as it was released while only being vaguely aware of the One X. The key difference is that Samsung had a huge and aggressive marketing campaign, whereas HTC… I’m not sure what they did. It doesn’t stop there – poor HTC then went onto paying the region of $12m to have Robert Downey Jr. in what can only be described as a confusing marketing campaign for the highly rated HTC One. Marketing matters, even more so where there is fierce competition. Releasing the Steam Box in the wake of the Xbox One and Playstation 4 certainly gives Valve an uphill climb (we have all seen the impressive sales figures of Microsoft and Sony).

Now Valve up until this point have been in a rather unique position in that their products usually do sell themselves. Either Steam users see the most recent releases and discounts when they sign into Steam, or word of mouth quickly sells the games for them. Hardware is a completely different ball park though, and the marketing strategy could make or break it.

Conclusion: Investment into a marketing campaign can have huge rewards, but equally needs to be smartly done.

“Let’s combine everything so that it can do everything for everyone” - Ex Microsoft employee

The Surface, one of the most underrated pieces of tech in the market

Above: The Surface, confusing the public since 2012

The Surface is Microsoft’s flagship attempt to fuse the desktop and tablet experience together. Microsoft’s Surface RT and to an extent the Pro rather unnecessarily have two screens to switch between, the app interface and the traditional desktop. To confuse the user even further, you can’t install third-party programs for the RT, making the desktop ultimately pointless. It’s this sort of floppy design thinking which contributed to the underwhelming support to an otherwise intelligent piece of tech. The Steam Box equally risks this sort of confusion. Due to using Linux, not all your games will be available which you’ve purchased. You can also install Windows on your machine, but this makes the whole idea of using the Steam OS pointless if you start plugging in your mouse and keyboard. You can stream from your PC to your Steam Box, but that begs the question of why anyone would have two pricey devices which do exactly the same thing. If I could stream from my PC to my TV without having to spend about £900 that would be great.

There is nothing wrong with having a device which can do lots of different things, just look at smart phones. The more complicated a device gets though, the trickier it is to pull it off. Valve need to seriously think about how they are going to sell the Steam Box, because at the moment it is completely bemuddled. Truth be told, no one really knows at the moment who the Steam Box is for. We still know very little on what the Steam Box can do beyond playing games, and how Valve package it all together in the Steam Box OS could either bring gamers on-board or seriously damage Valve’s reputation.

Conclusion: Always remember the golden rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Closing thoughts

Although ultimately protecting their own interests, I can only applaud Valve for taking the initiative and preparing for the future in such an ambitious way. While only touching upon two companies, it should be clear that Valve have some serious obstacles they need to avoid if they are to successfully bring Steam to your living room TV.


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