Valve couldn’t have picked a better time to announce its system. After more than one year of rumors of a Switch upgrade, many gamers were disappointed to see Nintendo’s new hardware will be a very minor upgrade – just a bigger, brighter screen, an adjustable stand and a LAN port for faster online speeds. It’s certainly not the “Switch Pro” most were wanting.
Considering Steam is by far the largest and most widely used PC game storefront, the device has massive appeal. This puts the Steam Deck in a unique position. Most new consoles have to build up a good-sized library of games over time, meaning the first year or two can be a bit slow.
Valve attempted to inject itself into the “half PC, half console” space once before by recruiting a multitude of companies such as Alienware, Origin PC and Zotac to create dedicated “Steam Machines,” economical gaming PCs optimized for playing on the couch.
Not so with the Steam Deck, which aims to occupy a unique space between console and PC gaming. Although Valve isn’t typically known for its hardware, it’s not the Bellevue-based company’s first foray into the hardware space, either. Ironically, this is where my biggest worry lies with regard to the Steam Deck.
It’s not common for two major video game consoles to be announced in one month, but here we are. Just nine days after Nintendo showed off its newest hardware upgrade, the Switch OLED, Valve came out of left field with the Steam Deck, a similar but beefier hybrid console.
Evidently, Valve’s answer to this is to create a similar hybrid console – it functions as a handheld but can be docked to a screen, as well. The tech specs are far superior, and the base model costs $400 to the Switch’s $300, but the real kicker is that anyone who owns games on Steam will have the whole library at their fingertips on the Steam Deck right out of the box.
I was interested at the time, but it turned out to be a half-baked and poorly organized idea that fizzled within months. Valve’s other hardware efforts include the Valve Index, a high-end VR setup – the Steam Link, a streaming device – and the Steam Controller, which was a steaming pile of garbage.
The premise was to make games best-suited to mouse and keyboard play work better with a controller by replacing the typical “dual analog” setup of modern controllers with laptop-like trackpads with haptic feedback.
The trouble was that it required a manual setup for each and every game in your library. And for me and many others, the Steam Controller also suffered from spontaneous connectivity issues. When I attempted to update the firmware in the hopes of resolving the problem, it bricked the controller. Sadly, all of these issues pointed toward unexpected compatibility issues with my computer, not a straightforward manufacturing defect. The controller has since been discontinued. Suffice to say, Valve’s hardware front has some wins and some loses, and that makes the Steam Deck a bit of a gamble – will it work exactly as advertised?
Then again, to compete with Nintendo. it may not have to be perfect since the Switch is notorious for its flimsy analog sticks, which often acquire a “drift” over time. The company is facing a class-action lawsuit over the widespread defect, and as a result all U.S. customers can have their “JoyCons” repaired for free, something I’ve had to do. Despite this notorious issue, the Switch has sold an estimated 84.59 million units as of March 31, according to Nintendo. After the struggling sales of the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube, Nintendo has been banking on competing indirectly by releasing underpowered but unique consoles – the Wii had motion controls, the Wii U had a tablet controller, and the Switch is a hybrid console.
Although the Wii U flopped, the strategy has worked overall, but it’s clear that Valve is aiming to toss a wrench in the plans. If the Steam Deck is a rousing success – and preorder demand is so high thus far that the estimated delivery for some is summer 2022 – Nintendo’s only real advantage will be its family-friendly image and first-party titles. To be fair, those games are the stuff of legend. Everyone knows classic series like “Super Mario,” “The Legend of Zelda,” “Super Smash Bros.” and “Metroid,” and even recent IPs like “Splatoon” and “Animal Crossing” have been very successful. But will Nintendo’s renowned franchises be enough to keep them from losing ground? Only time will tell.
The actual street date of the Steam Deck has not been announced, but reservations are expected to be fulfilled starting in December. The Steam Deck will have three models – the $400 baseline with 64 gigabytes of built-in storage, a $529 model with a 256 GB solid-state drive and a 512 GB SSD variant for $650. All iterations can have their memory capacity upgraded with a microSD card, of course.