Valve's foray into the console market, just rumors in March, took a step toward the credible with a job listing on their web site, according to CVG. The job listing is for an 'Industrial Designer' with "experience shipping world-class, high-tech hardware products." What high tech hardware product could they be referring to? Could it be ... STEAM BOX!
Maybe. Maybe not. Valve certainly sounds like they're ready to enter the market. A console that runs Steam and delivers access to over 1,000 titles, particularly an inexpensive one, could find a nice audience. Consider the Ouya. This console was little more than a snot-nosed Kickstarter campaign for a system designed to bring glorified mobile phone games to TV screens.
With more than 63,000 backers pledging more than $8.5 million for Ouya's development the concept of a console that plays something other than what the Big 3 (Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft) deliver obviously has mass market appeal. Valve knows there is untapped demand on the market for less expensive, less exclusive console gaming. The ad itself contains a rather candid statement about Valve's feelings toward the PC market.
"We're frustrated by the lack of innovation in the computer hardware space though, so we're jumping in. Even basic input, the keyboard and mouse, haven't really changed in any meaningful way over the years. There's a real void in the marketplace, and opportunities to create compelling user experiences are being overlooked," Valve said in the ad.
Steam Box rumors have been around since 2009, when Valve filed two intriguing patents. One was for a "video game device" centered around biofeedback, which seems to me to be more of a "down the road" type project. Valve's co-founder and managing director, Gabe Newell, told Penny Arcade in an interview that the biofeedback work was part of a plan to experiment with "wearable computing."
The second patent has more of the "Steam Box Conspiracy Theory" fans are looking for. It contains a design for a "video game controller having user swappable control components." Those components appear to be a variety of analog control options, from the traditional thumbstick down to a trackball. It certainly looks like the kind of thing you'd need to get a precise keyboard/mouse control scheme into a handheld controller. Swappable parts isn't something that's been done yet, and the prospect of physically customizing a controller set it apart from run-of-the-mill in-game sensitivity settings. The final drawing in the patent application shows a man sitting in a chair, using the controller to play a game on an unidentified console.
When Gabe Newell spoke with Penny Arcade in February of this year, he didn't confirm that Valve was developing hardware. He said he'd "rather hardware people that are good at manufacturing and distributing hardware" handle the development and innovation side of things. But hardware is in the realm of possibility for Valve.
"If we have to sell hardware we will," Newell said. "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."Valve's latest job ad certainly appears to be aimed at finding exactly the kind of person Newell describes. I hope the Steam Box becomes more then rumor. Variety is the spice of life, and the life of a console gaming fan has tasted pretty bland lately.