CES 2013 Project Shield and Steam Box – Commentary

A feature I wrote for the website www.square-go.com

CES is an annual Consumer Electronics Show held in America at the start of the year where various manufacturers, both big and small, can show off their upcoming wares. It used to be a big video games show, until shows like E3 rose up to give video games their own platform. So what are we talking about a show that mainly focus on TV on a video game website? Well, because computer manufacturers go to CES and this year a couple of announcements were made that might, just might be important a bit further down the road.

Project Shield – Nice Name, Shame About the Design

Nvidia are a name that will be well known to some of you being that they are purveyors of graphic cards to PC owners for years. They might seem like a strange one to try and get a chunk of the highly competitive handheld video game market but this seems to be their plan.

The manufacturer has actually been having an effect on handheld gaming for quite a while now; their Tegra computer processor has been a large part of the progression of smartphones and tablets that have been seriously competing with dedicated handhelds like the DS and PlayStation Vita. You’ll find it in things like Google’s Nexus7, the Microsoft Surface and quite a few Android based phones. What it does is put powerful processing power onto a chip without a huge power drain, perfect for the computers that we keep in our pockets and bags.

What they have done now is take the next version of their chip, the Tegra-4, and wrap it in a video game controller with a screen attached and called it Project Shield. You can then either play games from the Android store, as the handheld uses it for it’s operating system, or you can stream games from your Windows PC and play then on the device.

The problem is this; it’s not quite clear who this is aimed at. It’s not a dedicated console so relies on you investing in the games available in the Android market which are generally made for touch devices so why not just get one of those instead? And if we’re talking about cheap tablets, from the rumours the price tag for Project Shield is going to be much higher.

This then puts this as being aimed at video gamers, a demographic that isn’t afraid of high initial costs for consoles. But then will they need it? If they have a collection of PC games, arguably they will play them on there with a decent sized monitor rather than the 5 inch screen of The Shield.

It also looks, to put it nicely, like a cheap console knock off from the South American country of your choice; an X-Box style controller with a screen stapled onto it does not a pretty device make. Perhaps it would have been better to go down the Apple route and make it a luxury item to lust after, especially if the price tag is wince inducing.

So this is potentially one to watch; the idea is sound but the execution so far is suspect. Nvidia might have experience in supplying hardware for consoles and computers but launching a new handheld is a tricky business with many previous attempts by now bankrupted companies gathering dust in attics everywhere. The price will be key but it’s hard not to imagine this being at the top of a ‘What Were They Thinking?’ article come the end of 2013.

Let off some Steam, Newell!

Whilst Nvidia mainly has a name in the background of the video game industry, Valve are one of the marquee names. They have transitioned from being a developer of top drawer games to game retailer; when Steam was first released alongside Half Life 2 it was hated and vilified by literally everyone. And when the word literally is used it is without hyperbole, everyone actually hated it. Slowly over the years, as piracy tore chunks out of the profits of PC game publishers, it became the definitive online store for PCs and even on the Mac. And all that time, as the store grew and became more successful, people wondered when Valve would turn all of their profits into a Steam console. Only a matter of time surely?

Kind of. At CES Valve announced that they were working with hardware partners to produce a PC for your living room that accesses the Steam store and the content you have on there. Nothing definitive has been shown but this could be pretty important.

The living room has been the playground for the two big console manufacturers, Sony and Microsoft, for the past five years or so. However, making consoles is an expensive business; the hardware tends to be sold at a loss with the licences for the games expected to generate the profits. Never mind the research and development costs that go into it, with the early versions of the PlayStation 3 allegedly costing Sony an estimated $3billion in lost profits.

So to step into this market would seem to be for the brave or stupid or rich; Valve is two of those things and stupid isn’t one of them.

With Steam being predominately PC based, teaming up with manufacturers so produce what is essentially a PC in a box is a simple idea that makes sense; rather than the custom innards of a PS3 or a 360, a manufacturer can use generic PC components keeping the cost down. The Steam software itself has been getting ready for this; recently a Big Screen mode was introduced which makes it easier to access Steam when it’s viewed on a TV.

This is where we get to a problem; if you’re a big fan of Steam and want to play your games on your TV then you’re probably the kind of person who will either a) be able to hook up their PC to a big screen TV or b) build a Steam Box PC yourself.

Steam also can’t use games to draw people to it’s platform; several of the top sellers on the store are multi-platform titles available on consoles. Sure, there are some big name PC games but nothing with the drawing power of a Call of Duty which makes it’s home on consoles.

So, again, this will come down to price. Whilst a few prototypes where shown at CES no firm details are confirmed, including the money you need to hand over to get a Steam Box. If it’s cheap enough then it’ll be sure to find a market; thanks to Steam Sales at Christmas and indie game bundles people probably have more games on Steam than they think. A cheap, easy to setup box that plays games without too much fuss looks like a good idea.

However, based on Valve’s previous timescales, we might not actually find this out until next year’s CES. If we’re lucky.

Good Ideas At The Wrong Time?

So whilst both of these devices may seem like they have a few negatives, they do seemingly point to where things are going. An off the shelf PC in a box seems like the best way to counter the costs of console development. Handhelds powered by Android? Seems to be working out okay for Samsung.

The is no denying that changes are coming in the video game industry; people thought that OnLive and a disc-less future was going to be the way forward until that crashed. What we’re in for now is a period of experimentation, with ideas being thrown at the wall until something sticks. We saw this before in the mid-nineties when CDs came to consoles and it took a few failures before everything settled down. Will Project Shield and The Steam Box go down as a failure or the next PlayStation?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Originally published January 15th 2013


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