In the video game community, Valve Software is regarded very highly both for having developed consistently influential titles for more than a decade, and for its popular downloads-based game distribution service, Steam. So when strong rumors begin floating around about the company producing its own game console, you can bet they're going to grab the attention of a lot of gamers. Thanks to some sources within the company, a few suspicious comments from the company founder, and a patent filing for a new type of game controller, it's starting to seem highly likely that Valve may indeed be entering the hardware market with its purported "Steam Box" project. It's a development that, if true, will bring added spice to the forthcoming next-gen console war.
It's the sort of debate that pops up among gamers every so often: "What if games developer X just ditched the XBox/PlayStation/Wii and created their own console?" The difference here is that there seems to be some meaty evidence backing up the idea. For starters, Gabe Newell, a founder and managing director of Valve, recently addressed this possibility when posed a similar question by The Penny Arcade Report:
"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."
A couple weeks after this interview was posted, The Verge uncovered evidence indicating Newell may have been speaking more literally than people first thought. Sources have now said that Valve is actually working on a hardware spec and software for a possible system and was even holding meetings during CES 2012 to show off a hand-built prototype to potential partners. The device Valve shopped around apparently contained a Core i7 CPU, 8 GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA GPU, plus had the ability to run any current PC title as well as rival gaming services like EA's Origin. The Steam Box is also rumored to incorporate Steam's "big-picture mode," an interface for playing Steam games on a regular TV using either a controller or a keyboard and mouse.
The other piece of evidence tying it all together is a strange patent filed by Valve for a controller with swappable components. Diagrams for the proposed controller show sockets in place of the usual thumb-sticks where a trackball or touch-pad could be fitted instead. Sources are also saying that the controller could use biometric monitoring to track the emotional state of a user (a feature that could be handy for the same game developer behind Left 4 Dead, which actively adjusted the difficulty of the game based on player performance).
All this points to a game console from Valve, but it may not be the kind that takes the XBox or PlayStation head on. The backbone of the Steam Box will be developed by Valve, but the company will leave the actual hardware development up to other manufacturers. The platform would be available to anyone, with no development kit or licensing fees needed to create software for it, drawing many comparisons to Google's Android OS. The sources who revealed the Steam Box have even indicated that Valve is competing more with Apple's App Store than Microsoft or Sony.
For now, all we have are rumors and some strange activity from Valve. Sources are also saying that the game developer will reveal more later this year at either GDC or E3. We'll be watching carefully.
A further telling clue comes in the form of a series of tweets from Valve mainstay Greg Coomer. "Building a mini-ITX form factor PC is hard," he said (among other things), not so very cryptically. Kotaku's sources have Coomer down as the Steam Box project lead, running a team of five to ten people.