Unless you’ve been living under a rock that is itself under another, larger rock, you’re probably aware that the next generation of gaming consoles is here. Sony’s Playstation 4 just launched, and the XBox One’s turn is coming this week. As a gamer, it’s hard not to get excited about all this new hardware. So which one should you buy? Neither.
After the PS4 launch, my colleague Mary-Anne passed along a link to a humor piece that purports to be an interview with Joey, the first person to buy a PS4 last night. It’s satire — Joey never actually said this — but one of the quotations attributed to him still gave me pause:
It’s just the same games with better graphics. There’s nothing next-generation about it. […] This isn’t the next-generation of gaming. How is this any different from a crappy game on the PS3?
Again, that’s not a real quote, but fake-Joey may still be right. This round of next-gen consoles seems decidedly current-gen, especially to those of us who have also been playing games on PCs.
What is really new about the PS4 or the Xbox One? Sure, the graphics are updated (although they still can’t compete with the prettiest PC games). But the controllers are basically the same. Motion gaming peripherals? We already have those. There are a few online and social options that are available now that weren’t before — I’ll admit the PS4’s video and screen-sharing features seem cool — but in terms of the games, I think this generation is going to feel a lot like the last one did for most people.
But there is a next-gen console I haven’t mentioned, one that bears at least the promise of some actual new experiences: the Steam Machine. Or rather, the Steam Machines, because there will certainly be more than one model available. Granted, you’re going to have to wait a while to get your hands on one. But if you want a real next-gen gaming experience in your living room, the Steam Machines will be your best choice. Why?
- A vast library of exclusives. Playstation and Xbox may have a few interesting exclusive games, but that’s nothing compared to the vast library of PC-only games that would finally be conveniently accessible on your TV using a Steam Machine.
- Unparalleled backwards compatibility. The PC doesn’t generally have the backwards-compatibility issues that console systems have, so you’ll probably be able to run your favorite DOS games on your Steam Machine if that’s something you’d like to do.
- A revolutionary new controller. Valve’s new game controller, which uses haptic feedback and touchpads instead of joysticks, may be a revelation. Or it might be a total disaster. It’ll be hard to know for sure until they’re out in the wild. But even if it ends up being a flop, at least it’s something new. Isn’t the idea of next-gen gaming at least in part about controlling your games in new ways?
- Crazy support for peripherals. Speaking of controlling games in new ways, because the PC is such a widely-used platform, Steam Machines will likely feature support for other experimental peripherals before the next-gen consoles do. You can already play some Steam games with the Oculus Rift, for example — if that’s not real next-gen gaming I don’t know what is.
- Customizable, upgradeable. The best part about Steam Machines will likely be that you’ll be able to choose from a variety of models and manufacturers, or simply build one yourself (since they’re essentially just PCs). There will probably both low-cost and high-end options available, so budget gamers and high rollers will both have options to suit them. And of course, since SteamOS will be open-source, there will probably be tons of hacks available that offer customization, language localizations, and other goodies that Sony and Microsoft’s consoles can’t compete with.
As I wrote back when Valve first made its announcements, there are also some reasons that Asian gamers in particular should be interested in Steam Machines. But even without all that, I can’t help but look at this console generation and feel like it’s just more of the same but a little bigger, a little faster, and a little sharper. I’m ready for something new, something truly next-generation.
And yes, Steam Machines might be a terrible flop. I know I’m sounding a bit like a Valve PR person, but let’s be clear: this could end up being a disaster. No one has really gotten a chance to try Steam Machines out yet, and the things will sink or swim based on whether they can really live up the promise of offering the upsides of PC gaming and the convenience of a living room console at the same time. Maybe they can’t, and ten years from now living rooms will still be dominated by Sony and Microsoft. But at least Valve is trying something new; at least someone is taking a shot at showing us that the next generation of gaming can still be more than just this generation of gaming with slightly sharper graphics.