The Consumer Electronics Show has become one of the largest marketing platforms for innovative consumer technologies in the world. While the large gaming console and computing companies like Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo prefer to make their announcements at E3 (or, increasingly, at dedicated press conferences), the smaller players in the video game sphere made big news at CES. (Microsoft did tease the “IllumiRoom“, but that was its only Xbox-related announcement.)
The biggest splash was made by one of the biggest names in PC gaming. Valve, the company behind the PC gaming platform Steam, announced development on a new system that will allow gamers to easily play their PC games on their TVs. Actually, “announced” isn’t the right word to use here, since Valve only set up a small booth at the show to meet with business partners, but a The Verge interview with CEO Gabe Newell revealed plenty of details about the new in-development system, called Steam Box.
The speculation is that Steam Box will function like a console gaming system, as well as a household-wide server. With Steam’s cloud-based technology – users can download their purchased games on any PC on which the Steam software is installed – it makes sense to create and market a small, quiet, high-performance “console”.
One upside to a system like Steam Box is the fact that PC games are constantly being pushed to the limits of technology. PC gamers are always upgrading their graphics hardware to play games better and faster. Traditional consoles like the Xbox 360 and PS3 don’t have hardware upgrades. PC video game graphics have long left the consoles in the dust. Because the Steam Box will be flexible in regards to hardware, it will be updatable in a way traditional consoles aren’t (as of now).
As Newell told The Verge, “One of the things that’s interesting is that the PC has always had a huge amount of scalability. It was sort of the wild dog that moved into Australia and killed all the local life because it could just adapt. There used to be these dedicated devices, like dedicated word processors. We think that right now the PC scales from laptops up to mainframe.”
Also, the Steam Box will make it theoretically possible to play your games on multiple platforms. On Steam Box, you could play a game on the PC, or you could throw it to any television in your home. Newell says, “The Steam Box will also be a server. Any PC can serve multiple monitors, so over time, the next-generation… you can have one GPU that’s serving up eight simultaneous game calls. So you could have one PC and eight televisions and eight controllers and everybody getting great performance out of it.”
As a PC/Xbox gamer, I love the idea of the Steam Box. I often find myself making a hard decision between platforms when it comes to purchasing major games. Do I go for the achievement points and ease of the Xbox? Or do I go for the better graphics and portability (but smaller screen) of my gaming laptop? If the Steam Box becomes a reality, it’s possible that I might end up leaving consoles for good.
Valve is also working with a partner, hardware maker Xi3, making a product that sounds remarkably like Steam Box. However, this mini-computer, named Piston, has been debunked as the new project. Piston will be its own entity, and will function more as a computer than a media server.
Other gaming systems shown off at CES this year were mostly mobile-based. The MOGA Pro is a weird Xbox controller/Android phone hybrid that looks clunky and unnecessary. If I’m going to clip my phone into a controller I might as well not even play games on my phone at all.
Nvidia has an interesting way to bridge the gap between PC and gaming device. Project Shield will be an Android-based device that will wirelessly stream games from a PC running a GeForce GTX graphics card. The handheld device has an Xbox 360-esque controller and a 5-inch 720p screen. The game system will be limited by the fact that not everyone will be using that specific graphics card (AMD users will be out of luck), and not everyone likes Android games (or will buy a dedicated system to play games that can be played on a smartphone), but it’s a step in the right direction. It’s also one of the closest to being a reality, currently scheduled for a Q2 2013 release.
While there were many other technologies and innovations at this year’s CES, these are the standouts in the realm of video games. Will they change the way we game in the next few years? Will some of these even make it out of development? Only time will tell.