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Report: Is Valve Working on a “Steam Box” Gaming Console?

Late last night, The Verge posted an interesting article claiming that game developer and distributor Valve might be readying for a foray into the hardware business with a gaming console. Called a “Steam Box,” the hypothetical set-top device would bring Valve’s online game distribution system Steam to TVs similar to how the Roku and Boxee brought online streaming video into the living room. If true, such a device could drastically change the distinction between PC and console games.

Interestingly, The Verge claims that the devices might not actually be made by Valve but rather comply to a set of basic requirements and run Valvs software — similar to Google’s open smartphone operating system Android. A Steam Box could be made by any manufacturer, and allow players to buy and play PC games from the comfort of their couch. The article speculates that such a device could be unveiled at GDC or E3 this year.

Like most such rumors, it is cobbled together from a number of sources which have been floating around for a while now. Key to the theory is an interview with Valve co-founder Gabe Newell and Penny Arcade’s Ben Kuchera in mid-February. It’s a sprawling discussion, but frequently touches on new developments in hardware — an oddly material theme for Valve, whose Steam platform has sought to do away with physical game purchasing. In the interview, Kuchera and Newell have the following exchange while on the subject of hardware developments that Newell finds exciting.

Now do you see a future where Valve is actually selling hardware or do you just want to have things that could take advantage of that technology should it be popular?

Well, if we have to sell hardware we will. We have no reason to believe we’re any good at it, it’s more we think that we need to continue to have innovation and if the only way to get these kind of projects started is by us going and developing and selling the hardware directly then that’s what we’ll do. It’s definitely not the first thought that crosses our mind; we’d rather hardware people that are good at manufacturing and distributing hardware do that. We think it’s important enough that if that’s what we end up having to do then that’s what we end up having to do.

While it’s an interesting point it’s hardly a declaration of intent, especially since it comes in the midst of a discussion about wearable computers. However, it does suggest that Valve is at least open to the idea of creating, or fostering the creation, of exciting new technology. This kind of attitude shouldn’t be too surprising, as Valve took the leap from being a game developer to creating and operating a massive game distribution platform.

The Verge also sites a Valve patent for controllers with interchangable parts, which could facilitate modding or custom configurations for games. However, it’s worth noting that lots of companies file patents for technologies they think are interesting, but not necessarily ones they are interested in developing right now. Apple is a fantastic example of this, filing patents for all sorts of crazy devices that never see the light of day. It’s particularly noteworthy that Apple’s patents often end up as fodder for wildly speculative blog posts.

Then there’s Valve’s Big Picture technology which was unveiled last year and still has yet to be implemented. Its aim was (and almost certainly still is) to create an interface that could be used by players sitting far away from large screens. While this would seem like a pretty powerful piece of evidence for a “steam box,” it could just as easily be an interface option for users who have a TV for a computer monitor. However, it does show that Valve isn’t married to the current model of PC gaming and is keeping its options open for future developments.

Of course, in addition to existing bits of evidence, The Verge sites unnamed sources which claim Valve has drawn up the specs for what a Steam Box would look like. Not only that, they claim that Valve has already cobbled together a demo model that it’s been showing off to perspective partners.

Apparently meetings were held during CES to demo a hand-built version of the device to potential partners. We’re told that the basic specs of the Steam Box include a Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA GPU. The devices will be able to run any standard PC titles, and will also allow for rival gaming services (like EA’s Origin) to be loaded up.

While it’s entirely possible that these meetings took place, and that Valve really does have a PC-powered set-top demo device, that still doesn’t mean that the company is interested in developing such devices. It could just as easily be an effort on Valve’s part to demonstrate to the industry that such devices could exist and be successful. Sort of similar to car companies with concept cars at auto shows.

Though rumors are just rumors, it is clear that Valve is extremely interested in changing the way we play PC games. It would appear that the company sees the division between console and PC games as almost entirely artificial, and will perhaps crumble entirely in the coming years. Whether Valve is the one to break down that wall is something we can only guess at, but you can bet that Newell and his cohorts will be ready when it comes down.

(The Verge, via Techmeme)

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