Jan. 6, 2014 at 9:41 PM ET
Valve Software is the undisputed king of PC gaming software, thanks to classic titles like "Portal' and "Half Life" and its multi-player distribution service, Steam — which now boasts more than 65 million users. But in a move that's got gamers the world over chomping at the bit, the Seattle-based company made its first step into the world of gaming hardware Monday night at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, when it announced the companies it has partnered with to develop its highly anticipated "Steam Machines."
First revealed last fall, the "Steam Machines" are Valve's first real attempt to create a series of console-like gaming devices that still have the guts of a gaming PC. This has many people excited because, if the Steam Machines prove successful, they could combine the best parts of the console and PC gaming experience into one cost-effective package.
PC gaming desktops are far more powerful than consoles, which connect to TV sets, but building one is costly and time-intensive. For many gamers, buying popular consoles made by Microsoft and Sony is so much simpler. Consoles like the Xbox One or PlayStation 4, however, have many frustrating features of their own, such as exclusivity for popular games like "Halo" or "LittleBigPlanet," and controversial usage requirements such as the Xbox One's original "always-online" settings. In theory,the Steam Machines are exciting because they promise to deliver the impressive performance of a high-end gaming PC with the accessible format of a living room console. So, if you want a rough equivalent to, say, the PlayStation 4 but with the Steam library (to start, Valve said, there would be roughly 250 compatible games) at your fingertips, that's available. But if you want to spend thousands of dollars making a supremely decked-out system that puts your Xbox One to shame? More power to you.
In addition to Valve itself, the company confirmed 14 other PC manufacturers as the starting lineup of partners to develop Steam Machines: Alienware, Alternate, Cyberpower PC, Digital Storm, Falcon Northwest, Gigabyte, iBuyPower, Material.net, Next, Origin, Scan Computers, Webhallen.com, Zotac and Maingear.
This list runs across a broad spectrum of PC gaming companies, from high-end boutique manufacturers like Falcon to mid-level equivalents like Alienware and Origin. The specs and prices for the gadgets are equally diverse. The relatively low-end models from iBuyPower and Cyberpower start at $499, which is the same price as Microsoft's new Xbox One. A top-of-the-line model from Falcon Northwest, meanwhile, costs $6,000.
Spending $6,000 on a single piece of equipment might sound shocking, but giving gamers who prefer the couch-and-TV-based experience of console gaming the same level of choice that PC users have has always been the company's goal in bringing Steam to the living room. Steve Bailey, a video game industry analyst at the market research firm IHS Electronics and Media, told NBC News that he doesn't think Valve is making its "Steam Box proposition" as a "direct shot across the bow" of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, the big three video game console developers and makers of the Xbox, PlayStation and Wii U systems respectively. But he still thinks that it could result in "a major battleground" over who can create the definitive gaming ecosystem.
"Over the past few years, we've seen significant overlap start to form between Steam and dedicated game consoles," Bailey said. "Both are now heavily exploring 'freemium' propositions, and the 'indie' movement is now worn by all as a brazen feather in the cap. Not to mention, traditional third-party game console publishers often release on PC, and — critically — they do so through Steam. So, from here on in, I'd expect the battle for exclusivity — in terms of DLC (downloadable content), etc., if not full games — to heat up."
Valve didn't say much about availability, but the company has previously said that it expects the first round of devices to begin shipping in the second half of 2014. The first round of Steam Machine prototypes (hardware and all) are currently being demoed by some 300 beta testers. The new Linux-based operating system that Valve is also planning to release, SteamOS, is in beta and is free for anybody to download through the Valve store.
This article was updated at 9:30 pm E.T.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.