Valve, the company behind the video game distribution service Steam, recently announced that it will be launching a handheld system called Steam Deck later this year. It’s a little gaming computer that you can optionally hook up to a TV. Essentially, it’s a Nintendo Switch that only runs Steam. And I am absolutely hyped.
I love handheld games. For me, the ideal gaming experience is dropping the entire console on your face as you fall asleep while playing some weird 12-year-old JRPG in bed. You can’t do that with a gaming PC or a typical console, but you can with a Switch. Soon you will be able to with a Steam Deck too.
I’m half-joking here. But I do strongly prefer gaming experiences that I can take to-go. Before the pandemic, I found it hard to find time to play video games on a console or PC. It’s so much easier to whip out the Switch during a subway delay or while lying in bed.
But it’s also nice to have the option to play on a TV when you have a little extra time. That’s why the Switch tends to be my console of choice. I anticipate the Steam Deck will put up strong competition for that title.
However, I have a few questions about the system and the idea behind it, such as:
Does the Steam Deck even make sense?
While I’m excited to own a Steam Deck, it surprises me that it’s going to exist.
My understanding is the handheld gaming market is not huge. Nintendo has basically had a monopoly on it for a decade. The closest thing it had to a competitor, the Playstation Vita, was a flop, apparently because developers shunned it. For much of the 2010s, the 3DS felt like the only game in town. Until Nintendo replaced it in 2017 with the Switch, a combination handheld/console platform.
That is unless you count mobile gaming. Gamers have long debated whether mobile would kill handhelds. Sony’s former VP of marketing John Koller seems to think so. He told The Verge that the Vita “launched at exactly the wrong time in terms of market opportunity” because of mobile’s surge in the early 2010s.
That doesn’t explain how during the same era the 3DS sold more than 70 million units with loads of developer support. What does explain it? My guess is there are probably few gamers like me who like to play in short bursts on the go. And among those who do, most are probably content with playing on the expensive device in their pocket that they already own. The market probably isn’t big enough to support multiple systems.
I mean, currently, there is half of one system in it. Even Nintendo has one foot out the door. Why on earth would any company opt to enter this space? Especially one that has built its brand on PC gaming, the least to-go form of gaming there is.
It’s also a space that has traditionally set itself apart with superior graphical and technical experiences it can offer. You won’t be getting that on a 7-inch screen. Who is going to want to play a game like Resident Evil Village on that? Vampire Mommy is best experienced in 4K.
Relatedly, how are they going to sell this thing?
That said, Steam does offer many games that probably will work in a handheld format. If nothing else, the system is going to have an incredible launch lineup. A year after the PS5’s release, I’m still unsure of what I’d play if I bought one. My Steam Deck, meanwhile, will come preloaded with dozens of games from Humble Indie Bundles of yore that I still haven’t touched, plus the thousands of other games on Steam’s store.
This makes the Steam Deck unique. It’s not a new console in the same way the PS5 or Xbox Series X were. Instead, it’s a new way to experience a client you probably already use.
Now how do you sell that to consumers? “Check it out, it’s a new $400+ way to experience something you’re already familiar with!” Not a great pitch.
If you built or purchased a powerful gaming PC, I doubt you’ll be excited about buying the Gameboy version of your rig.
Also, what happens in five years when the games coming out require better specifications than the Steam Deck can offer? The nice thing about a traditional console is that it can run all games released for it. Console games, after all, are made with a particular set of specs in mind. The specs needed to run PC games vary widely, but you can always upgrade your computer as needed to run more taxing titles.
With the Steam Deck, theoretically, you’ll eventually be able to use it to buy games that it can’t run properly, if at all.
That’s a problem for 2027 Pat. Though I doubt I’ll ever run into this issue. I envision using the Steam Deck to play all the JRPGs and indie titles I can get my hands on. You can probably run some of those games on a fancy graphing calculator.
For me, this is a big selling point, but those games aren’t exactly killer apps – software so compelling that it drives sales of the hardware you need to run it.
Can Valve learn lessons from me?
I might not be able to understand the business case for the Steam Deck, but that doesn’t mitigate my excitement. After all, even if I am the only customer, companies will still release games on Steam.
I wonder if there’s anything Valve can learn from me about who might want to buy this thing.
It all started when I was 6. I grew up with a Gameboy Color in hand. Unsurprisingly, I played a lot of Pokémon games back then, but my childhood game collection included more than that. Gameboy games were cheap and plentiful.
In high school and early university, I embraced consoles. You have a decent amount of free time as a teenager. I had a Wii and an Xbox 360, and for a while, I tried to keep up with interesting new releases.
In university, I found it far more convenient to play on my DS. I carried it everywhere and would play, unsurprisingly, various Pokémon games between classes or before bed. Though DS games were also quite plentiful and cheap, so I also had a ton of those.
I upgraded to the 3DS and Switch when they came out. Meanwhile, my Xbox 360 collected dust. My PS4 was in a similar state until the pandemic gave me high-school-level amounts of time to kill and fourth-year university levels of stress and anxiety.
Even still, if a game I wanted to play was available on both the PS4 and the Switch, I generally opted to play it on the Switch. It lets you put the system into rest mode, kind of like closing the lid of a laptop, and then resume playing immediately whenever you want. I prefer that user experience to turning on a TV and a console and waiting for my game to load.
Basically, I feel like I’m busy and I want my gaming experience to work around that. I also prefer when systems have a lot of games to choose from.
Hmm, that takeaway seems obvious. Good thing I gave it away for free. Could you imagine if they compensated me for this market research?
No more questions. I have to preorder the Steam Deck
Perhaps the most appealing thing about the Steam Deck is that I will only have to purchase the console. I really do have a backlog of games on Steam to play, and many are ancient JRPGs that will both take forever and benefit from being on a tiny screen. The worst thing about buying a pricey new console is the fact that you also must buy pricey new games. Otherwise, you just spent hundreds on a new device with which to access YouTube and Netflix.
What do you think about the Steam Deck? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.