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Will Steam Deck suffer from Valve's short attention span? | Opinion

Valve is building a track record of great hardware launches - but also tends to lose interest post-launch. Can Steam Deck break the streak?

Valve, when it puts its mind to it, makes some of the best gaming hardware in the world. It is also one of the most successful platform holders in the world, if you consider Steam to be a platform -- which it is, at least to some extent.

The launch, or quasi-launch, of the Steam Deck should therefore be a major milestone for gaming -- a handheld PC gaming platform that's by all accounts head and shoulders above every previous effort at creating such a device, backed up by the considerable muscle of the company that's effectively dominated the distribution of PC games for the past two decades.

In many important ways, indeed, the Steam Deck is a milestone -- albeit one that's only trickling out very slowly into the hands of consumers, though Valve can hardly take the blame for the world's ongoing problems with semiconductor manufacturing and supply chains. It's a remarkable proof of concept, showing that PC gaming in what is effectively a "beefy Switch" form factor can work very well given sufficient focus and attention to the quality of the hardware, both from a technical and from a design standpoint.

It's also eye-opening just how good the Proton system for playing Windows games on Valve's custom Linux OS is; imperfect, certainly, but still achieving a level of compatibility unimaginable only a few years ago.

I'm tempering my anticipation with a little reality about how likely a Steam Deck v2 is, given Valve's track record in hardware

I'll say it up front: I want one. In terms of the target market for this kind of device, I'm firmly in the crosshairs -- something of a lapsed PC gamer who'd dearly love a device that lets me re-engage with the platform (and/or wallow in nostalgia for the games I used to fritter away my life on way back in my twenties) in a context that fits my life now, when sitting at a desk in front of a monitor is the absolute last thing I want to do when I get home in the evening after sitting at a desk in front of a monitor all day.

I imagine there are a great many people of similar mind, plus many more who have never really engaged with PC gaming but would be intrigued by the possibility of doing so with a device like the Steam Deck. I want one, and I'll probably end up buying one -- albeit that I suspect the middle of next year is the most realistic timeline for being able to do so, given that Valve hasn't even deigned to open pre-orders in my country yet, let alone start fulfilling them.

However, even my internal resignation to throwing money at Valve for one of these devices the moment they're actually willing to sell me one has a slightly wary note to it, because reader: I've been here before.

After dabbling with VR thanks to Sony's smart but ultimately low-spec PSVR headset for the PS4, it was Valve's Index headset -- supported at launch by the release of Half-Life: Alyx -- that convinced me to take the plunge into full-bore PC VR, with its room-scale laser sensor boxes, mandatory PC upgrades, and well over $1000 price tag. It was solidly amazing; still a bulky device to wear on your head, as they all are, but it remains by far the best VR headset I've ever used in terms of the hardware design and quality.

Critics have praised Steam Deck but are already discussing what Valve needs to do for a follow-up (if there is a follow-up)

Critics have praised Steam Deck but are already discussing what Valve needs to do for a follow-up (if there is a follow-up)

Combined with the AAA production values and smart, VR-centric design of Alyx, it felt like a huge jump forward for the VR space; taking into consideration Valve's absolutely central role in the PC gaming market, and the remarkable decision that the first Half-Life game in so many years would be a VR title, it felt like the company was about to really get behind VR and push, taking on a platform holder role that the sector desperately needed from a major player.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but you don't need to change too many words in the preceding paragraph to describe the situation around the launch of the Steam Deck.

By all means, buy a Steam Deck - I certainly will - but do so for the device it is today, not for the promise of the future it might bring tomorrow

You could even go back a few years more and talk in similar terms around Valve's promotion of the Steam Machines, devices whose concept as a set of broadly standardised, console-like PCs that would give players consistent and reliable gaming experiences was pretty fantastic.

In each of those cases, we see somewhat the same pattern playing out: Valve's excellent instincts and skills for hardware and platform design creating a product that could reshape the landscape of a certain area of the industry; Valve's powerful position raising hopes that it would provide a bright future for that product; and ultimately, Valve seeming to lose interest, only to come up with another hardware idea it wanted to pursue a few months or years later.

The story hasn't played out exactly the same every time; Steam Machines, for example, were promoted back when Valve figured it wouldn't have to get directly into the hardware business itself (which is arguably one of the reasons for their failure -- the third parties who did build Steam Machines never made anything that lived up to the promise of Valve's prototypes), and the Steam Controller, another great piece of hardware with a core adoring fanbase that Valve seemed to lose interest in post-launch, has at least seen some of its best functionality brought back as part of the Steam Deck. Even if the details differ, though, the pattern is the same; the product, the promise, and the seeming loss of interest.

That's worrying in the context of the Steam Deck, because so much of the excitement around the device seems to be founded on anticipation of what this platform will become, rather than the reality of what it is now. This isn't to say that it isn't a great piece of hardware now -- like I said, I'm trying to stuff these ¥10,000 bills into my Steam client but Valve just won't take them just yet -- but nearly every review or comment about the system acknowledges that it is incomplete and represents an amazing foundation, rather than a polished final product.

Some of the areas requiring attention are in software, and Valve is working very fast to make improvements on that front; others, however, are hardware related, and lots of people are already musing about the improvements a Steam Deck v2 could bring to the table. I'm right there musing with them; I'm just also tempering my anticipation with a little reality about how likely a Steam Deck v2 actually is, given Valve's track record in hardware.

The Steam Deck is the latest in a line of promising Valve hardware launches, but the company rarely builds upon initial success

The Steam Deck is the latest in a line of promising Valve hardware launches, but the company rarely builds upon initial success

I hope I'm wrong but as harsh as it may sound, Valve has never really shown itself to have the temperament, discipline and long-term commitment required to be an effective player in the hardware side of the business.

That's a disappointment precisely because their hardware is so good, and their market position so perfectly suited to becoming a key player in hardware; if they were bad at that side of it, nobody would care about their commitment-shy attitude. But instead we have a company that's genuinely great at designing and building gaming hardware, only to leave its excellent (and expensive) devices orphaned and eventually unsupported as it meanders off to chase a new dream.

This doesn't make them useless, of course. The Valve Index hasn't stopped being one of the best VR headsets ever made just because Valve seemed to lose interest in being a key player in the VR space; it remains pretty much the best way to play a lot of new VR games.

Similarly, even if Valve's interest in the Steam Deck wanes after launch, the device itself will remain excellent -- and the launch this week of some Windows drivers for the system, in particular, means that it'll continue to be a useful and effective platform even if Valve's attention drifts and updates to Valve's own OS slow to a trickle.

So by all means, buy a Steam Deck -- I certainly will -- but do so for the device it is today, not for the promise of the future it might bring tomorrow, because its creators' attentions are fickle and by tomorrow they might well be doing something else entirely.

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