In 2012, rumors began about a "Steam Box" project. Gabe Newell confirmed the project, claiming that it was intended to compete with consoles while running like a computer. In 2013, the company officially unveiled SteamOS, the Linux-based system that would power Steam Machines, the final name of the product line. While the hardware was supposed to launch in early 2014, by the end of the year, Alienware gave up waiting, installing Windows on the computers and shipping them.
This week, Valve's dream of owning the living room came to an end, as Valve has removed all Steam Machines from their store and redirected the original URL to a list of other hardware. This retirement was inevitable and, for many, one that was believed to have already happened. If it weren't for those of us who watch for these things, most people would have assumed that Steam Machines had been retired in 2015, which was the last time we really heard anything about the platform.
The success of SteamOS and the Steam Machines was doomed even before they were announced. Some issues simply couldn't be overcome no matter what Value tried, while others could only have been dealt with if the platform was already successful.
Reliance on Linux
Sure, we've seen platforms based on Linux succeed in the past, but more often than not, if it relies on Linux as a platform, it has no chance in the market. SteamOS relied on Linux to succeed, and didn't because of it. We talked on F5 Live: Refreshing Technology before and after the release of the platform that less than 10% of Steam games were available on Linux, which meant that the game selection was already limited. As time went on, and more games came to Steam, that percentage lowered, as few new games target Linux.
Having no success in attracting AAA titles to Linux meant that few hardcore gamers were interested in the platform. Those who might be interested in playing the types of games that were available, often games made with platforms like GameMaker or Unity, would not be interested in this hardware.
Speaking of hardware that people didn't want, take a look at the original controllers. Most of the games available on Linux at the time of release were designed to be played with a mouse and keyboard, as very few people who use Linux use controllers. However, the console shipped with controller support and a controller that did not work in non-controller games.
Even if the controller had been a good pairing for the types of games on the platform, people still weren't happy to hold them. Absolutely no research was done on ergonomics and what was produced was uncomfortable after only a few minutes. Also, reaching some of the button combinations was nearly impossible if you had small hands.
To add insult to injury, there was not a way to pair third party controllers to the system. That is until January 2016 when Bluetooth pairing was added to the system. That is over a year into the hardware finally being available. In the end, the most popular controller for the Steam Machines were those for the Xbox.
A War With PC Gamers
Game Newell said, when Windows 8 was first released, that it was not a platform for gaming. Instead, he recommended either Windows 7 or Linux, the former sharing a kernel with Windows 8 and the latter having very few games available. It was a strange statement meant to undermine Microsoft's PC gaming community and, hopefully, transition them to SteamOS.
If you know anything about the gaming community, you know that insulting a gamer's platform of choice is like insulting someone's religion. Immediately, the gamer is on the defensive and unwilling to even listen to reason. In this case, it turned PC gamers off to SteamOS rather than endearing them to the platform.
Microsoft Stole Their Thunder
Valve's idea of a PC-based living room gaming console was obviously not a bad one. In fact, it was one that Microsoft had already had. With the release of Windows 8, which Gabe believed was anti-gaming, Microsoft also released a new Xbox Experience to the Xbox 360. That new experience was based entirely on the Windows 8 kernel. With Windows 8.1 came another update to the 360, updating not only the kernel but the interface to work similar to the prime interface.
With the release of the Xbox One came a unified platform, known as the Universal Windows Platform, which meant that an app or game written for Windows could run on Windows Mobile, Xbox One and HoloLens. This move let the last remaining Steam out of the biggest selling point of Steam OS: the Xbox One was a Windows 10 PC.
One of Valve's strange ideas is that internal resources can kind of decide what projects they want to work on. Unfortunately, SteamVR came along and partnered with HTC to produce the Vive. As we have discussed on The Piltch Point, the Vive is a runaway VR success. As such, employees want to be part of it, meaning that there were not enough resources available to keep SteamOS alive. Add to that the entry of new competitors, including Microsoft's HoloLens and additional Mixed Reality headsets from every major manufacturer (including HTC's Vive), Valve lost focus on their already dying platform.
All of this together meant that no one, from hardware manufacturers to gamers and even game studios and publishers, had any interest in the platform. Some hardware partners converted their computers to Windows before release, while others allowed the upgrade later. Game studios and publishers continued with business as usual, publishing nearly nothing of value to the Steam Store for Linux. Gamers universally ignored the consoles, sticking to their existing platforms of choice, either for price, convenience or game choice - or possibly all of these together.
Finally, the gaming world has the ability to say goodbye to the platform that no one cared about.