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Steam Machines unleashed: Impressions from one week in a Steam-powered living room

Hayden Dingman | Oct. 16, 2015
When I abandoned the living room, I did so willingly.

Steam Controller

That’s a staggering challenge. And the Steam Controller isn’t a perfect solution. Game design is informed by hardware. It’s why third-person action games are playable with a mouse and keyboard but typically feel more natural on a controller—the input device they were designed around. It’s why MAME cabinets falter when confronted with games like Tapper or Tron that had semi-unique arcade controls.

So Civilization will keep on feeling most natural on a keyboard and mouse, as will Dota 2. The old question of whether we’d see professional Dota 2 players choosing the Steam Controller? I doubt it.

The Steam Controller works, though. It inherits enough from both its predecessors to unlock the full gamut of PC gaming on a single device—and one that’s living-room-appropriate. For whatever reason, we’re seemingly fine as a broad gaming culture with keeping controllers in the living room, but most frown on a wireless keyboard and mouse in the same space. Don’t ask me why.

I talk more about the Steam Controller and why I love it in far greater detail in my Steam Controller hands-on, but suffice it to say it opens up the living room to an entirely new range of experiences. Genres that have typically been confined to the PC, to a monitor, I’ve found myself reevaluating. I look at my computer and then opt to sit in the living room instead. Not all the time, but enough to be notable. My couch has gotten more use this week than it has in the past year.

Steam Machine
Point-and-clicks on the couch? Don’t mind if I do.

For comparison, the other day I booted my Xbox One to play Rock Band and realized it had a Mortal Kombat X disc inside—from April. Yeah, I don’t use my actual consoles often, outside of Netflix.

Who’s gonna drive you home?

If we accept that playing games in the living room is a Good Thing, the main question becomes “How do you drive those experiences?” Unfortunately this is where I get bogged down in “But wait!” and “If this, then that” edge cases—not because Valve hasn’t provided choices, but because each choice comes with a significant compromise.

This week I’ve spent many, many hours with two pieces of hardware: Alienware’s Steam Machine and Valve’s own Steam Link. Like the Steam Controller, I’ve taken a more in-depth look at both Alienware and Valve’s hardware, but this article is more a critique of the concept, not the specific execution; an examination of the larger Steam Machine environment versus the Steam Link, a box that’s essentially a conduit that brings Steam in-home streaming to your TV.

 

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