Thoughts on the Steam Link and Valve

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The cats help me unpack my order from Valve

I pre-ordered the Steam Link and the Steam Controller the day they were made available, so they were delivered several weeks ago. I’ve barely used either, though, so can’t really justify devoting a “First Impressions” column on them. However I do have a few thoughts about these products and also some broader ones about Valve that have been on my mind for some time. I’m planning some other pieces on Valve at a future date, with a particular emphasis on Dota 2 and Valve’s attitude towards the eSports scene.

But first things first. The Steam Link is a small black box and is very easy to set up. I had it up and running and streaming my PC to my TV in a couple of minutes. I installed the controller at the same time as you can’t really use the Link on your TV without it. The graphic and sound that plays when you boot to your TV is all very nice, futuristic, and relaxing, and the picture on my HDTV from my PC, streaming wirelessly from the next room, looks pretty good.

Now, I haven’t really tried to use it much, partly as I have a bunch of PS3 games I’m trying to blow through before Fallout 4 comes out and I finally buy a PS4. So my patience with the Steam Link is zero because I don’t need it for anything and it’s just a curiosity to me–for now. It’s a good job too, because the three times I’ve tried to play a game on it via my PC, it has crashed. (The game in question is Hitman: Absolution.) The picture is terrific–very crisp and clear–but the animation chugs and frequently freezes completely for 30 seconds or so. Each time I’ve tried to play the game I’ve failed and ended up having to reboot my PC. Not really what you’d call a success. I imagine things would probably work a bit better if I played around with it for a while, but like I said, I have no reason to do so at present and I don’t care. So for now my Steam Link is redundant and my PC gaming takes place where it always has, in the spare room rather than the living room, which still belongs to the Playstation and Xbox.

As with any discussion of Valve we come, inexorably, to the subject of Half Life 3. I heard a few people speculate that the Steam consoles and all this other hardware might be connected to HL3, which of course seems to be no more than wishful thinking at present. But the whole situation put me in mind of comments from Gabe Newell which were reported earlier this year (http://uk.ign.com/articles/2015/03/19/gabe-newell-discusses-possibility-of-half-life-3). Newell had the following to say:

“The only reason we’d go back and do like a super classic kind of product is if a whole bunch of people just internally at Valve said they wanted to do it and had a reasonable explanation for why [they did]… But you know if you want to do another Half-Life game and you want to ignore everything we’ve learned in shipping Portal 2 and in shipping all the updates on the multiplayer side, that seems like a bad choice,” Newell continued. “So we’ll keep moving forward. But that doesn’t necessarily always mean what people are worried that it might mean.”

When I first read this in March 2015 there were a number of things I thought were strange, and I still do. It has been clear for ages that Valve is moving away from developing its own games to instead publishing those of others and now even releasing its own hardware. Nevertheless, Valve remains a business rather than, say, some kind of a cult or something, and businesses usually have an interest in something which can be referred to in layman’s terms as ‘making money’. And you have to think that by not making Half Life 3 Valve is kissing goodbye to countless millions of dollars (and don’t give me any ‘opportunity cost’ crap please. This is Half Life 3 we’re talking about).

Second, even laying aside the question of money, there’s a phenomenon known as popular demand which companies other than Valve have been known to acknowledge in the past. While Half Life 3 has acquired a kind of memetic status which renders a term like ‘popular demand’ rather outdated, one could still argue that the mere fact that millions of actual living people want Half life 3 to exist is a good enough reason to make it.

But, apparently, not for Valve, or at least not for Newell. Money (a lot of it) is not a good enough reason, and neither is the interest of millions of people. No, what Newell specifies as the key criteria is that “a whole bunch of people just internally at Valve said they wanted to do it and had a reasonable explanation for why”. We don’t know what a reasonable explanation would be, and it would seem to exclude the examples I give above (making a profit or making people happy). So what would the reasons be?

Am I the only one to see significant elements of conceit and pretension in these remarks?

For a long time Valve had a sort of mythic reputation among gamers and commentators alike and received many plaudits for its products and services, and even for things like its workplace culture. But it feels like we are entering a period when there will, ultimately, be an accounting for the decisions Valve has made and for the approach the company has taken over the last few years. If things go wrong they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves.

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One comment on “Thoughts on the Steam Link and Valve

  1. […] I’ve spoken before about my disillusionment with Valve. Over the past few years they seem to have become ever more conceited and self-regarding; and what I have interpreted as their increased use of gambling mechanics in-game in Dota 2 has been one of the strangest aspects of their development (or degeneration) as a company. This year’s Steam Sale was widely derided as offering relatively little in the way of value or incentives compared to previous years; and in general, the company just seems to have lost its compass. Obviously, there’s still plenty of money in the bank, and Valve remains enormously powerful and influential. But as these latest allegations suggest, this is a company which no longer looks to be on the side of the angels. And I’d wager to say there are a lot of people out there who would be quite happy to see them taken down a peg or two. […]

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