The newly-announced Steam Deck seems like a dream come true for a lot of gamers: a cross between the portable Nintendo Switch and a powerful gaming PC that can run modern titles. And on the surface it seems like a great idea; the Switch proved definitively that there’s a market for a handheld console that can play more than just Pokémon and Mario Kart. Lots of folks have enjoyed playing titles like The Witcher 3, Skyrim, and Doom on the go.
This marriage of a portable format with the power of a gaming PC seems like a match made in heaven then! Surely it’s just a matter of time until the reasonably-priced device becomes the next big thing in gaming, right?
Well let’s slow down for a minute and think about this. Firstly it’s worth pointing out that no reviewer has yet got their hands on the Steam Deck, so its claim to being a powerful handheld that can run most of the games in Steam’s library is untested, as is its screen and other hardware. But secondly, the most important reason why I’m wary of the Steam Deck is Valve’s poor track record when it comes to hardware.
Remember the Steam Controller? Valve’s big foray into the controller market aimed to create a device that could play not only games designed for a gamepad, but also games designed to be played with mouse and keyboard. The controller lasted a scant four years before Valve discontinued it following poor sales.
The Steam Controller was originally created alongside the Steam Machine – a lineup of prebuilt gaming PCs co-created by Valve. These computers didn’t even last as long as the controller – being discontinued within three years.
There’s also been the Steam Link – a device which was designed to allow players to stream their Steam games to another device (like a television or mobile phone). That lasted a scant three years before being discontinued. Valve has also struggled to make a success of the HTC Vive – a virtual reality setup that it purchased – and its own Valve Index VR device.
Then there’s SteamOS. This was Valve’s attempt to create a Linux-based operating system – and is the OS which will come preinstalled with the Steam Deck. But SteamOS hasn’t been widely adopted, and is only natively compatible with a handful of games – others can only be played via a Windows emulator which naturally impacts performance. SteamOS has been overlooked by practically everyone, and until the announcement of the Steam Deck I considered it dead and buried – the last version was released two years ago and it hasn’t been updated since.
Are you seeing a pattern yet? Valve has an appalling track record when it comes to hardware, and early adopters of practically all of the machines and devices the company has produced to date have been screwed over when Valve discontinued them and stopped providing support and updates. It’s possible that the Steam Deck will be different; an exception to the rule, so to speak. But I wouldn’t bet on that right now, and I would be very wary of picking up such a device until it’s definitively established itself as a viable platform.
It’s not only Valve that has struggled to break into the video game hardware market. Who could forget the Google Stadia? Everyone, apparently, because Stadia is basically discontinued already, having lasted less than a year. This market is not easy to crack, and even a company like Google – with practically unlimited resources – has failed to make significant inroads.
The Steam Deck is trying to offer players a way to play higher-end PC games on a portable device. Stadia tried to offer players a way to play higher-end games without the need for an expensive PC or console. The comparison is significant, because practically nobody took up Google on that offer. Steam does have a large library of titles at its back – something Stadia definitely lacked – and though it may appeal to tech enthusiasts and other early adopters, most players already have a PC or console that can play those games. And most players interested in portable devices already have a Nintendo Switch.
All of this overlooks a significant fact about portable PC gaming – the existence of gaming laptops! Players who want a portable PC capable of playing their games already have that option via a gaming laptop. This further erodes the market that the Steam Deck is trying to appeal to.
I’m just not sure where the Steam Deck will fit in, and who it’s trying to appeal to aside from the aforementioned enthusiasts and early adopters. And my concern with that is that when it inevitably fails to achieve the kind of sales figures in its first year that Valve is hoping for, will they simply stop marketing it and then quietly kill it off, as they’ve done on many occasions in the past? A company’s track record is well worth paying attention to before sinking your money into their latest project. Some companies doggedly support their products for years, even when things don’t seem to be going well. Valve is categorically not that kind of company.
First-gen tech products are often janky, with issues that later revisions and newer models fix later on. The Steam Deck may fall into that category, though as mentioned there are still no units in reviewers’ hands to check that either way. But as a general rule, second- or third-generation iterations of a product tend to be better all-round experiences, with problems and issues encountered in early models being fixed. That’s also a concern when it comes to the Steam Deck.
Despite all of this, I can understand why people are hyped for the Steam Deck. It looks like a beefier, more powerful Nintendo Switch. And after the disappointment some fans felt at Nintendo not launching a “Switch Pro,” perhaps they’re looking at this machine as an alternative way to play games in a handheld format. The Steam Deck is a device with potential, and if some folks see it as a more affordable way into gaming than buying or building a full PC, I’m on board with that. I definitely want as many folks as possible to be able to access gaming as a hobby. But for your £349/$399 (the Steam Deck’s RRP) you could buy a PlayStation 5 (the discless version). Or you could get an Xbox Series S with enough money left over for a full year of Game Pass. Or, of course, a Nintendo Switch – a console which is already well-established and has a huge library of games, many of which are exclusive to the system.
As you can see, I’m sceptical of the Steam Deck. There are reasons to look at it with excitement, and it represents a potential new type of PC that may become more popular in future. But for a number of reasons – not least of which is Valve’s awful track record when it comes to hardware – I shan’t be picking one up on this occasion. If the device survives and thrives, it’s possible I’d consider it in future. But I have no desire to get burned by Valve as so many early adopters have been in the past.
The Steam Deck will launch in select markets in December 2021. The Steam Deck, Steam, and other properties and products mentioned above are the copyright of Valve. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.