Steam Machines may not be dead, but are they still relevant?

A few days ago, Valve removed the Steam Machines section from the main navigation bar of Steam’s storefront page, a move which was perceived by the gaming community at large as a subtle indicator that the well-known PC gaming company was throwing in the towel. After all, in the two and a half years since Steam Machines first launched, they have largely failed to make much of an impact.

To its credit, Valve was quick to set the record straight, saying that the removal was simply part of a routine effort to de-clutter the Steam storefront and that the company still plans to support Linux-based efforts like the Steam Machines. However, even if that’s true, one can’t help but wonder if the ongoing effort is really worth Valve’s time.

A Steam Machine Primer

In case you’re not fully aware of just what the heck Steam Machines are, here’s a brief summary. Way back in September of 2013, Valve unveiled a line of what it called ‘Steam Machines,’ pre-built gaming PC’s which would run a unique Linux-based operating system called SteamOS.

The Steam Machines were touted as powerful micro-PC’s which, among other things, would allow users to play their favorite PC games on their television sets, replicating the feel of playing on a home console. Valve also said it planned to make Steam Machines modular and highly customizable, allowing users to upgrade them over time.

Expanding The Steam Ecosystem

Soon after the Steam Machine announcement, Valve also unveiled its own console-style controller which was aptly named the Steam Controller. The Steam Controller also  raised some eyebrows thanks in part to Valve’s claim that it could be used to play any Steam game (even ones which weren’t normally designed for controller use) and because it would utilize a pair of haptic track pads instead of joysticks.

The hype surrounding Steam Machines continued to build into early 2014, especially after Valve unveiled a starting lineup of 14 different machines which were being made by top PC gaming companies like CyberPowerPC and Alienware. While the first line of Steam Machines was originally supposed to launch later in 2014, Valve decided to delay the public release until 2015 so that it could implement feedback it had received from those who had tested the initial prototype units.

The first wave of Alienware Steam Machine review units, called “Alienware Alphas,” went out in November of 2014, and even though they did what Valve advertised, they still left critics feeling underwhelmed due to the unit’s overcomplicated setup process and minutia of technical issues. 

A Slight Miscalculation

A few months later, in March of 2015, Valve announced that Steam Machines would be released to the public in November of that year alongside yet another new product: the Steam Link. Using the Steam Link (a $49.99 peripheral), users would be able to stream their Steam games from their PC to their television screen, essentially robbing the Steam Machines of one of their key selling points, being able to run PC games on a television set.

After all, if a potential user had a good enough internet connection to support streaming, it was way more cost effective to buy a Steam Link over a Steam Machine, especially since even the cheapest Steam Machines would cost about $500.

Unsurprisingly, when both the Steam Link and Alienware’s first line of Steam Machines launched in November of 2015, the Steam Link sold like hotcakes while Steam Machine sales floundered. By 2016, Valve had stopped talking about Steam Machines entirely.

A year later, when Valve CEO Gabe Newell hosted a Reddit Ask Me Anything session in January of 2017, one commenter asked whether Steam Machines had been abandoned and received no response. Valve continued to remain silent on the issue up until 2018 when it published the above blog post responding to the Steam Store page speculation.

The State of Steam Machines

Even though it’s no longer accessible via Steam’s main navigation bar, there is still a dedicated Steam Store page for Steam Machines with five different models that range in price from $499 to $1,099. In the above blog post, Valve admitted that the appeal of the Steam Machine is handicapped by its usage of a Linux-based OS and that it is investing significant resources to make Linux a more gaming-friendly platform.

However, even if Valve is serious about maintaining its commitment to Steam Machines and Linux gaming, it’s hard to see any upsides for a consumer who invests in a Steam Machine, especially now that we have the Steam Link.

Think about it this way: why would you want to invest in a $500+ machine which, by previously reported accounts, is a bit of a pain to setup and can only run a small selection of Linux-compatible Steam games? If your end goal is to play PC games on your living room television, you’re much better off either buying a Steam Link or, if you want to really simplify things, an HDMI cable that’s long enough to connect your gaming PC to your television.

Even using a Steam Machine as a standard gaming PC isn’t a viable option since, again, you’d be restricted to playing Linux-compatible games unless you wanted to through the hassle of uninstalling SteamOS and installing Windows. But then why not just take all the money you would spend on a Steam Machine and either build or buy a pre-built gaming PC that already has Windows on it instead?

Overall, the Steam Machines experiment was an interesting endeavor to pursue, but also one which ultimately just didn’t pan out. There is always a chance that Valve could find a way to pivot and make Steam Machines exciting again, but even for a company with as much clout as Valve, that would be a very high hurdle to clear. At the very least, we did get the Steam Link and the Steam Controller out of the deal, so it wasn’t a total loss on Valve’s part.

Still, if there’s anything to learn from the whole Steam Machines affair, it’s that even companies like Valve can miscalculate in giving gamers what they think they want. Steam Machines were nice in theory, but in reality they ended up just being the unnecessary result of a hastily cobbled-together idea.