My editor is on the road this weekend, which means I don’t have anyone to take our weekly podcast and wrangle the audio into something presentable. So no podcast. We might not get one next weekend either. The young people are making the plans around here lately, which means everything is disorganized last-minute chaos.
I really envy them sometimes.
At any rate, let’s talk about…
Why Valve Needs the Steam Deck
Remember the Steam Machine? That was Valve’s attempt to make a “console” for PC games. It didn’t work out, and I figured that was the end of it. But no. Valve is trying again, this time with a Switch-esque device called the Steam Deck.
Paradoxically, I think this effort is probably doomed and yet I’m glad to see that Valve is still trying. They’re continuing to invest in Proton, a compatibility tool for getting Windows-targeted games running on Linux.
Microsoft is in a weird place right now. Apple is apparently the third most profitable company on the planet. Sure, Microsoft is #4. But the secret to Apple’s income is that their platform (the iPhone) is a walled garden and they get a cut of every single transaction performed on the device. There are about 1 billion iPhones in use today. Meanwhile, there are about 1.3 billion Windows 10 users. Microsoft is being used on more devices, yet Microsoft trails Apple in income to the tune of $15 billion.
But Shamus! You’re comparing mobile phones to desktop installs. There are different platforms, with different income models, for different user bases with using different usage patterns. This is a nonsensical comparison!
I agree. But we also know that companies are guilty of a lot of nonsensical corporate dick-measuring. If there’s an executive meeting next week and some soft-brained doofus asks, “Why are we making less than Apple when we have more users?” we know it won’t be the stupidest thing ever uttered in the Microsoft conference room.
The point I’m getting at is that having a locked-down platform with a single storefront might look really attractive to someone at Microsoft.
“Hey guys, I just ran the numbers. It turns out that if we controlled access to Windows the way that Apple controls access to iPhone, and if we assume that such control would have no negative impact on our userbase and we also assume that consumers and manufacturers won’t flee to competing operating systems, including earlier versions of Windows, and if we further assume that our storefront can capture a similar percent of all software transactions even though enterprise packages and productivity software have radically different economic models compared to phone apps, then by my calculations we would make $LOLEFFYOU billions every year!”
Imagine if Microsoft made the Microsoft Store the only way of getting new software on Windows, and so all software sales had to go through them. Sure, tech-savvy users could “jailbreak” their desktops, but a lot of non-technical people wouldn’t be able to make that leap. In response to PC gamer backlash, Microsoft responds with “Get an Xbox!”
It doesn’t matter if the plan makes sense. It only matters if Microsoft thinks it makes sense. If they ever decided to seriously pursue something like this, it would be a huge threat to Steam. Even if it ultimately failed, Microsoft could still make life very unpleasant for the folks at Valve software for a few years.
I’ll admit this scenario doesn’t seem likely. But it’s not impossible. If I wore Gabe Newell‘s shoes, this would be the scenario that kept me up at night. I’d be very happy to pour money into projects like Proton that would give me additional options when dealing with a threat like this.
So What About the Steam Deck?
The problem with the Steam machine was that it was basically a gaming console for the price of a desktop PC. You were giving up the functionality of a PC, but you didn’t seem to be getting anything in return in terms of more power or a lower price. There were certainly use cases for a Steam Machine, but all of those use cases could be covered by a desktop PC.
For contrast, the Steam Deck really does do something you can’t do with a desktop PC. At $400, it’s competitive with the other gaming consoles in terms of price. And if you get the dock, then you have a portable gaming machine that can become a “desktop PC” type deal. Or to look at it from the other direction, it’s a desktop PC that can become a Switch-like portable gaming device.
I work from home and I don’t really travel so I don’t need something like this, but if I travelled or had a daily commute, the Steam Deck seems like a really sensible option. I can play games on the road, and then I can come home and stick it in the dock for a more traditional mouse + keyboard + monitor experience.
The Steam Deck will begin shipping this December. It’ll be interesting to see how it does.
Sandy of Cthulhu
This week I discovered the YouTube channel Sandy of Cthulhu, by id Software alumnus Sandy Petersen. During his time at id, Petersen contributed to Doom, Doom II, Quake, and a bit of Quake II. Beyond that, he also contributed to Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1989), Civilization (1991), and all three Age of Empires games (1997-2006). Whenever people talk about the history of early shooters, they usually focus on superstar names like John Carmack, John Romero, Adrian Carmack, and American McGee. Guys like Sandy Petersen, Michael Abrash, Tom Hall, and Kevin Cloud often get glossed over because of the show-stealing interpersonal drama between the big names.
Petersen was also a designer for Lightspeed (1990) a game I played obsessively in the summer of 1991 and then never touched again. Over the next couple of decades I watched as it sort of vanished from history. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone reference the game since I played it, even though I thought it had a couple of interesting ideas.
Anyway, Sandy’s channel is worth a look if you want some behind-the-scenes stuff on those early games. He’s more focused on the design than the drama, which is cool because, again, I think the “Boy John Romero sure was a wildcard back in the 90s!” story has been told enough times.
The true story of three strange days in 1989, when the last months of my adolescence ran out and the first few sparks of adulthood appeared.
Why Google sucks, and what made me switch to crowdfunding for this site.
Grand Theft Railroad
Grand Theft Auto is a lousy, cheating jerk of a game.
PC Gaming Golden Age
It's not a legend. It was real. There was a time before DLC. Before DRM. Before crappy ports. It was glorious.
The Best of 2014
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2014.