Valve Sells Software, So What’s With All The Hardware?

Steam branding is strong. Valve Corporation has turned their third-party marketplace into the first place millions choose to buy their PC games. The service has seen record-breaking numbers earlier this year with over 25 million concurrent users, so whatever they are doing is clearly working. Yet with all those software sales, last month Valve announced a new piece of hardware they call the Steam Deck.

Use the colloquialism you’d like, “not resting on your laurels” or “Mamba Mentality”, it’s not as if competitors in the handheld PC space are boasting ludicrous sales numbers. At their core, Valve is in the business of selling computer games. So why venture into making hardware?

One of the first things that (Valve) are often asked by people whenever we’ve told people we’re creating a new controller is, “Why?” There’s a bunch of good dual analog stick controllers out there…unfortunately in the PC space most games weren’t designed to work with a traditional controller.
Scott Dalton, GDC 2016 Presentation

Where Did All That Steam Come From?

Valve’s first commercial attempt in the world of hardware development came in the form of the “Steam Machines” branding. Valve partnered with established PC hardware manufacturers in 2013 in order to create a common set of specifications for gaming PC builds. The specs amounted to good, better, or best. Three options that sought to simplify PC gaming albeit with one major issue, SteamOS. Valve customized a version of Debian Linux with the same approach Ray did in Field of Dreams, “If you build it, (the games) will come”. They didn’t. The better part of a decade later it is still the exception, rather than the rule, that PC games receive ports to Linux.

Steam Piston Promo Image from Xi
The first of the ill-fated Steam Machines, the Valve Piston modular computer, reportedly could run Crysis.

A couple years later, Valve flirted with the idea that PC games should be on TV. This idea took the physical form of the Steam Link and Steam Controller. The tandem of devices, when paired with a proper gaming PC, would allow users to remotely play their game libraries on any TV in the house. If both the PC and Steam Link were hardwired into ethernet, the experience was generally pretty good. If left alone with WiFi, it was a decidedly worse experience (because everybody’s WiFi sucks). Though the legacy of this hardware excursion for Valve was summed up by the day they liquidated their inventory in 2019 for five bucks a pop. That’s why Steam Link is just an app now.

Valve was working on virtual reality tech as early as 2012, but opted to partner with smartphone manufacturer HTC for a commercial VR headset in 2016. The rhetoric surrounding VR at the time was as if the word saccharine had extra sugar on top. Tastes would sour on VR when the people counting the number of virtual shooting galleries ran out of fingers. The market stagnated. Lessons learned there obviously led to Valve creating their own product (Valve Index) a few years later, so the story of Valve in VR has yet to be written. However, the most telling statistic may be that only about a quarter of VR headsets connected to Steam are one of theirs.

What If You Get The Steam On Your Hands?

Steam Deck Switch Game Gear GameBoy Advance Stack
Here’s how the Steam Deck stacks up with past handhelds. Photo credit: Jan Ochoa

The concept of a portable gaming device is more than proven. Nintendo’s history of handhelds has seen over a half billion served, so it’s no wonder Valve saw an opportunity with a handheld of their own. The Steam Deck is a foot long slab with four core AMD Zen 2 APU, 16 GB of DDR5 RAM, on a seven inch 1280×800 IPS display wrapped with the full suite of controller buttons. All that for an entry price of $399. What’s not to like?

For one, the Steam Deck ships with SteamOS 3.0 which is based on Arch Linux. Open source software is something to be celebrated in most scenarios, but the reality of gaming on Linux has been more famine than feast. Valve plans to remedy that situation with their compatibility tool, Proton. This software acts as a translation layer between Windows API calls into portable operating system interface calls via Wine, another tool many Linux users are all too familiar with. It means that Valve is no longer waiting for developers to bring native ports to Linux, and just as with human language translations some goofiness is to be expected. An independent group of software testers outside Valve have compiled a database of Proton’s performance, and the results speak for themselves. It’s way better than how games used to be on Linux, but it is still early days yet.

Valve has been refreshingly open by letting potential customers know they can install an alternative OS on the Steam Deck. Multiplayer game enthusiasts will certainly want to take advantage. Many of the anti-cheat services that run in the background with games like PUBG and Fortnite do not currently work on SteamOS. A Windows install would solve that, however, while readers of Hackaday are no stranger to creating bootable media the truth is most players will stick with the default.

By this writer’s estimation the Steam Deck represents Valve’s third major push into designing their own hardware. Previous efforts like the Steam Controller are commendable for their audacity to “reinvent the wheel”. The Index VR headset design is widely considered best in class. Though it would be remiss not to note the strange relationship Valve has always had with the number three. If you ever needed convincing of this phenomena…just ask Gordon Freeman.

For more on Valve Software’s history, check out this article on the company’s VR and AR prototypes.

[Main image source: Steam Deck]

47 thoughts on “Valve Sells Software, So What’s With All The Hardware?

  1. Note that thing runs Steam OS 3.0. Valve learned to count 3!!!

    About compatibility, if you look to protondb, you will find that most of the games that do not run, are because anti-cheat technology, and Valve has stated two wild things about this:

    1. They say you will be able to play “all your Steam library” with Steam OS 3.0.
    2. They also say they are working with anti-cheat providers to fix the aforementioned problem.

    I suppose reaching 100% compatibility will be near impossible, but let’s see if they deliver.

    1. So far having gamed almost exclusively on Linux for ages now I can say its getting damn close. Even VR games on Linux through Proton work, at least the few I dare try till I can get my hands of a GPU really worth having…

      I suspect there will never be 100% functionality – but then there isn’t with windows either – game updates or driver updates and suddenly what was working isn’t anymore, at least for a while.

    2. Regarding anti-cheat, there are kernel patches pending to help wine emulate the kernel interfaces that the anti-cheat relies on. When it will become widely available and how much more might be needed to fake out some of the anti-cheat is something of an open question.

      I wouldn’t blame VALVe for also playing the other side of the fence, trying to convince publishers and developers to come up with another solution (or lay off the paranoia a bit).

      1. won’t be locked down, with a caveat– it is going to be W11 compliant, which means secure boot, which means signed kernels. We’ll see how it shakes out in the end but there is some potential that you will be limited to W11 and distributions and kernel modules that are signed

        1. Being advertised as W11 compliant is more more I would think about reassuring purchasers they can load M$’s bloatware if they want to.

          Running ‘Steam OS’ which seems to be Arch based – which as far as I can recall doesn’t have signing as M$ want it, it must surely have the ability to turn secure boot bollocks off in its BIOS if you want to, or at least add your own keys. Probably both. I may be wrong and Arch may be signed – too many distro to keep track of and personally I think secure boot is largely pointless, at least for most people so not worth really trying to memorise – look it up if and when its the right thing for you..

          1. These days Secure Boot is just about exactly that: mainline distros typically have signed kernels or signed shims, with internal control so they can release at their pace. It just makes sure everything from UEFI up is signed and not tampered, for whatever that means to you: usually you can put your own key in the bios/UEFI so you can sign whatever you like.

  2. Valve really started their push into Linux and hardware back when Microsoft was making noises about forcing all software into the Microsoft store. Valve realized that MS had the power to end Steam overnight, if they went the Apple path. The Linux push has been their insurance against that for a while now.

  3. I’m just glad someone’s bringing down prices within the handheld space. Companies like Aya and GPD are tiny by comparison and struggle to get good component prices on their low volume products so prices shoot up. That’s why I haven’t upgraded from my GPD Win 1, there hasn’t been anything cheap enough until now.

  4. Remember when Microsoft sold pretty much the best Mouse available?

    Steam is a gaming company. Of course they’re going to get into hardware. And the only reason the Index is only a quarter of the installed userbase is because it’s more expensive than the others – because it’s objectively better. It’s also popular enough that they can’t keep the things in stock sometimes.

    1. Even better when they created the Index they kept compatibility with the Vive parts – so you don’t need to buy the whole damn system if you already got into VR and want a better experience, and that is a really classy move, they could have just made it not compatible for no good reason, lots of brands would… (Not that the Vive is a bad experience – still got the same magic level tracking just a little less sharp to look through…)

      Wish I had been able to justify getting the Index, but without a GPU that can really handle the more modern VR titles on the Vive even… Was just about to upgrade when the pandemic pushed prices so high my current card was for a while worth more second hand than I paid for it new, and its only up for 1080p gaming really…

      I hope this steam deck catches on enough they release a steam controller V2, or just start making the originals again – I really love mine, gyro and those trackpads are great. I’d say the only real mis-step Valve made with hardware was assuming their massive userbase would push game devs to support at least their flavour of Linux – which to me is fair enough as most games are already built upon on engines that do just work on Linux, so the effort to support a native release often isn’t going to be that high…

      1. In my opinion, the refusal by Valve to sell any hardware outside the US cost them a lot of money and success on various hardware products. Japan is a huge gaming market, and I couldn’t get anything through Steam beyond games, and even then, region locks on some games’ listings make those games completely unavailable.

        How is refusing to sell your product to people who want to buy it a good business decision? This drives piracy and boycotts. Personally I vote with my wallet, and I blacklist entire publisher’s catalogs over their poor choices.

          1. There are multiple reasons for not being able to get hardware or software outside the us. Some are governmental regulations on technology. Some countries also have limitations on importation into their country of items that could affect their gdp. With all of the tech and gaming companies in Japan I could see the latter being a part of it. It may be completely out of valves hands

        1. As I know the odd person all over the world, and none of them have ever been unable to get Valve’s products.. I expect its some regulatory thing – The Big N and co perhaps twisting the regulators arms to help keep their captive audience able to only play with Japanese hardware. Or like Aus with so many games not allowed for nanny state reasoning…

          Why wouldn’t Valve sell to anybody they can? The only sensible answer is that something between production and sale in that region makes its too costly to actually sell there, or impossible to sell at all.

          1. Correct! Just because you make something does not mean you can sell it anywhere you want. You have to be able to maintain the product. You mentioned Australia cause of the restrictions on violent games but there is more to it. I know prices in Aus are inflated to deal with many of their consumer protection laws. Also it’s easier to test certain markets with a product and once released it would be released to other regions. Nintendo did this constantly in Japan.

  5. did… did you even attempt to answer the question posed in the title?

    (alternative post: “editor: did you title an article with a question that the article doesn’t answer?”)

    1. They didn’t, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out either.

      What’s good for gaming is good for Valve.

      They’re simply betting that people will game more if they can do so on the go. Same way they bet that PC VR in general would improve with better hardware available, or that more people would game on the couch with a Steam Link and Steam Controller (and later with the Steam Link app).

  6. Personally I’m not a fan of PC handhelds. PC games are usually designed for mice, keyboard, and large screens. The experience on handheld is poor. Old console games or handheld games are a better fit – a niche already dominated by smartphones and hacked handhelds.

    I’m still extremely excited about Valve’s contributions to Linux and Wine. But I think this hardware will be a fizzle.

    1. If the real world performance is anything like as good as the few demo unit tests I’ve seen it won’t fizzle – its the most affordable, still with high performance gaming unit you can get right now… So it will do well just from folks (myself included) who jumped at one because its got better performance than our current rigs, which would cost more than the Steam Deck to upgrade enough to get close to its performance.

      I really don’t need the portable form factor, but personally like the idea – high performance but efficient and mobile powerhouse. But I go places so rarely, and with a solar farm on the roof don’t really need to worry about consuming a few extra watts in the gaming sessions…

      I also personally think, having used a steam controller for a fair few KB/Mouse games think it should be rather good even for that (and you can just plug monitor, KB/Mouse into it if you like) – still games I will always take KB/Mouse if its available, but for many of them its just the old muscle memory not because I doubt I could set the steam controller up to play them well, maybe even better.

      Though not everyone seems to be able to get on with the steam controller, not really sure why, perhaps just lack of patience for getting back up to speed on the new input method, or maybe some folks just don’t have the same co-ordination/ precision with those digits, or flexibility in their brain to deal with the same hand feel, but very different control response as its set up for a different style of game – which it has to be if you really want to get the best out of it, might as well use a normal xbox/ps controller if not…

    2. I’ve been playing a lot of games on the GPD Win 2, and the experience has been pretty good. You’re correct that it’s mostly console ports and more stylized indie games; the thumb sticks and touch screen on that thing don’t lend themselves well for 4X or RTS games, and I’m a terrible FPS player with a stick (XCOM worked just fine though). Considering the Steam Controller however, I think the additional inputs of the Steam Deck (thumb pads and IMU) should make all the difference. The biggest remaining issue I can see is that some games don’t scale their UI super well (big issue for me with Fornite on the Switch Lite). Then there’s personal preference, of course. I like portable gaming in general, but there’s nothing wrong with preferring the desktop experience. Since this thing will also have a dock, bluetooth and a KDE desktop underneath Steam, I think that at least for me this is just going to be my main computer.

    1. Okay, maybe not.
      Just checked the EU pricing and this time they didn’t just do the usual let’s pretend $/€ = 1/1, they increased the price by 20 € on top of that… for good measure.

      So the price for the base model is around $ 500 in the EU.

          1. Not sure about msrp, but walk in to most shops in the US and everything is priced without sales tax. To make it more confusing sales tax is diferent in each state.

            Total fustercluck.

      1. Lucky! It’s not even available in Japan. The country has 120 million people and a huge gaming market, but I can’t get any hardware from Steam. I still don’t have their gamepad despite trying quite hard to find a way to buy it. There are enough steam users that I can buy steam credit at any convenience store. They’re making a huge mistake here.

        1. I hate to say it but they discontinued the steam gamepad after offering it for several years. They did a big blow out on them a black friday or two ago and stopped offering it at all.

  7. “Though the legacy of this hardware excursion for Valve was summed up by the day they liquidated their inventory in 2019 for five bucks a pop. That’s why Steam Link is just an app now.”

    That sounds decidedly backwards, they didn’t create the app because the Steam Link “failed” as the article seams to imply. Steam Link was discontinued because it made no sense to have dedicated hardware for something that now could be easily replaced by an app on other platforms.

    Remember that when the Steam Link was first released, Android TV was barely a thing and the Raspberry Pi 2 was new.

          1. Lutris might be worth looking into, it supports retrieving your games directly from GoG and it will try using the best fitting wine version to run them.

  8. I don’t think you really understand their hardware ethos at all. Pushing technology forward helps gaming evolve. They were the ones making room tracking VR even possible. Other solutions on the market during that time had terrible tracking. They were the only ones able to crack it. There are a bunch of articles on hackday all about it. You obviously don’t do research and narrowly define success by commercial sales alone.

    Also, the Valve Index IS a success. It was hands down the best VR hardware around, as reviewed by numerous outlets, and was totally sold out even before the height of the pandemic, with people backordered for months to get their hands on it. Other companies have copied their features like HP in their G2 headset. I’ve played with a bunch of different VR solutions and valve’s ‘knuckles’ controllers are the best ones by far.

    However, being the most expensive hardware on the market tends to keep sales numbers lower, unlike Facebook which subsidies their hardware heavily in order to capture market share and user data. Being pricy, needing an expensive GPU and not a ton of AAA VR content existing keeps most people who even buy VR headsets in the filthy causal / dip-toes-in-the-water areas. And with FB subsidizing their headset it makes most monetary sense for most to choose FB’s junk recall headset.

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