Talking Point: The Steam Gaming Machines Are An Unconventional Challenge to the Wii U

Sony and Microsoft aren't the only competitors

When considering the challenges and competitors that the Wii U faces in the months and years to come, it's becoming an increasingly cluttered and tricky space to manoeuvre. Much the same was said during the early days of the 3DS, as its struggles saw it stacked up against smartphones and tablets; at one point it seemed a mountain too high. With a combination of competitive pricing, a great deal of enticing software and plenty of hard work on Nintendo's part, the 3DS has navigated the modern day hurdles to carve itself a niche in the market. While the DS family's sales are arguably a distant goal, it's a system performing well around the world.

Of course the Wii U is currently in the same spot as the 3DS was six months into its own lifetime, even if the home console's struggles have stretched an additional few months. Nintendo is once again working to similar principles of recovery, lining up a number of exciting game releases and gradually revealing hardware bundles to improve the system's 'value' in the eyes of consumers — a modest price cut is also being implemented. The strategy goes that, despite the PS4 and Xbox One preparing to wade into the market, Nintendo's unique controller options and first-party software will set it apart and win plenty of new owners in the hugely competitive Holiday season. With a strong Winter comes renewed confidence in the platform, momentum into 2014 and, as with the 3DS, a roadmap to success.

That may well be how the scenario plays, and we certainly hope so, but the competition for living room attention is getting increasingly fierce. The picture this year is, we believe, as painted above, and Nintendo will slug it out with Microsoft and Sony — there's no notable evidence at the time of writing that the Ouya or similar Android micro-consoles will make much of a dent in the living room gaming space. Assuming Nintendo emerges from the Holidays with some confidence restored, there are challenges in 2014 and beyond that are worth acknowledgement, however, even at this early stage.

Two particular eventualities have, we suspect, had the executives of the 'big three' anxiously scanning major competitor reveals — an Apple console, and a "Steam Box". The former is still, perhaps contrary to initial instincts, not yet on the cards. Apple has had many product reveals, and beyond its Apple TV service and many, many phones and tablets, it's yet to say "here's a controller, play iOS games with this on your TV". It's perfectly possible to play iOS games on a TV using various gizmos from the company — and even approved third-party physical controllers that hook up to touchscreen devices — but there's been no high-profile or sustained effort to produce a universal controller and to turn the platform — or a part of it — into a dedicated console-style gaming service. Perhaps it's because of the hands-off approach to the iOS marketplace that leads to thousands of apps flooding the digital shelves, or simply that the company isn't sure whether it's worth the effort, but no amount of rumours have brought a dedicated Apple gaming offering to the living room.

So we come to Steam, the phenomenally successful PC platform that has, in recent times, been creeping away from PC monitors towards bigger screens. "Big Picture" mode essentially allows you to make your PC a console, if you're happy to move your computer next to the TV. The next logical step, therefore, was some sort of console from Steam's creators, Valve, as it had taken every step but release a branded box. It was coming, and the company has announced a range of Steam gaming machines. Intriguingly "there will ultimately be several boxes to choose from, with an array of specifications, price, and performance."

These boxes will utilise the just-announced SteamOS (operating system), which will be open in nature and available to anyone that wants it. In terms of controllers the boxes will support PC gamepads, mouse and keyboard options, as well there being hints at a new control input, which could be announced shortly. So we'll have a readily available set of systems that'll support various control options and Valve's own OS. It's a firing across the bows to the fixed units of Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, and a genuinely new threat. These could be the bridging gap between the flexibility and freedom of PCs and living room convenience; PC nuts will apparently be able to "hack" the OS and mess around while, presumably, these gaming machines will be relatively simple to use in their default form — easier than a PC, we'd expect.

Valve is preparing 300 of the "high performance" variants to send out to select gamers later this year, and the machines themselves are expected at retail in 2014. There are great unknowns, primarily price: are any of these models going to be in the Xbox One price range, lower at the PS4 rate, or will there even be a Steam system competing with the Wii U price? Will these gaming machines ultimately use the same online marketplace as the existing PC and Mac Steam, will they be simplified to automatically run games to their maximum capabilities, and will you only be able to buy titles tested to run well on the particular box you own? Surely to promote itself as a living room box, it won't be necessary to check operating system requirements and mess around with graphics settings, right? And will having multiple boxes from different manufacturers confuse potential consumers?

Ultimately, it's answers to these questions that will help determine whether this move by Valve is genuinely wading into the home console space, or whether it's destined to primarily attract PC gamers. We'd expect Valve to gun for simplicity if it is trying to attract a home console audience, though it has over 50 million Steam users to also target with its marketing. Make no mistake, Steam is a big deal.

From Nintendo's perspective it's another potential shark in the water, with the space set to become even more crowded — Vita TV, if it comes West, would be yet another living room gaming system. So should Nintendo fans be concerned? Well there's always concern, as there's always competition, and with so many systems in the present and future shouting for attention it's increasingly challenging for each to be heard. Valve is a company with a lot of clout, so of course could be a formidable foe if it gets these systems right.

On the flipside, and acknowledging the many competitors on the way and Nintendo's own need to reverse a poor début year for the Wii U, the company's strengths have often been its ability to separate itself from the crowd. No-one can realistically accuse the Wii U of being a me-too system following the crowd, as it has bespoke control inputs, as well as hardware and infrastructure best suited to Nintendo's own games and projects. That can be to its detriment with third-parties, in particular, but in this case could be a benefit.

We don't think many have ever looked at a Wii U and thought of it as an underpowered PC, as the system offers a range of franchises and games not available anywhere else, along with motion controllers, a Balance Board — the benefits of the Wii legacy — and all sorts of extras. You look at the Winter lineup for the Wii U and it's serving up content that's only available on Nintendo hardware. The challenge for Nintendo is persuading millions of people that they want to play these games badly enough to buy the console.

If we are heading for an increasingly crowded and full-on battle for living room entertainment, then Nintendo will likely be forced to continue betting its fortunes on its own content. If Valve successfully simplifies PC gaming into a living room box, it'll be Nintendo's own brands and unique gameplay experiences that will help it stand apart; the words "fun" and "value" may become mainstays of the company's marketing. Whether this current generation will be the last of the conventional "closed" hardware platforms is certainly up for debate, but Nintendo's continual refusal to countenance its content appearing on other platforms is looking like it could be integral to its potential ongoing role in living room gaming.

Does the potential of Valve's Steam gaming machines in 2014 rock the world of console gaming? In theory, yes. So many details are unknown, of course, but the very concept alone is enough to put the whole console industry on alert — Valve is a big player that can't be easily dismissed. Whatever form various systems take, it's Nintendo's own experiences, allied with good value and fiercely competitive pricing, that will give it a stronger chance of staying in our living rooms as a major presence for years to come. Now is not the time for Nintendo to follow the lead of others, but rather to set itself apart.