SteamPal and Mobility

The silver lining of this pandemic is the forced hand of increased mobility to do nearly everything. Restaurants have had to figure out ordering online and pickups. Hardware stores deal with curbside pickup. Offices with insane volumes of remote workers. Video chat for everything it seems. The resistance that work cannot be done without face to face interaction is dissipating, replaced with fatigue of somehow doing more in less time. Commuting may not have been good for the environment (1 bus is like 50 cars, and 1 Amazon driver seems to be worth a hundred), but the mental gains from that repose of life certainly were. Some good from this, and a new social challenge to surmount.

Gaming has for many years been a remote affair. You buy games online, download, and play. It’s not exactly remote, in the concept that you are still beholden to a desk or a couch. Mobile gaming is disparaged as a mobile phone nightmare, and I can’t really blame that view. While they are certainly able devices, they are missing the necessary inputs (controls) and outputs (video connections) to be proper alternatives. Great as diversions, and some of the biggest games on the planet, at least profit-wise, are mobile.

What we’ve had instead are either homebrew systems that need an engineering degree or proprietary boxes with poor battery performance and limited gamesets. The PSP and VITA were great ideas, as were the GBA and 3/DS. The latter of which was a real standout, notably for a stupidly long lasting battery and touch controls. Eventually we got the Switch, which smartly integrated with an app store with a large focus on 3rd party/indie games.

That store is garbage by the way, with an interface designed by a lead-eating chimp. It’s 2021 and a first year student could do a better job – it’s ridiculous the amount of money Nintendo is leaving on the table. The console itself however is mechanically superb. Great visuals in a mobile form, detachable and complex controllers. Easy docking for connection to an external screen. Easy to add more controllers. Doesn’t yet have wireless headphone support mind you, but that should be a firmware update. As an iterative view on consoles, it’s good.

But back to that horrid interface. Which I should add, has initial retail prices for way too long. Immortals Fenyx Rising sells for $30 retail now, but $60 on Switch. Sales seem to be once a year, so there’s some price resistance if people have something other than a Switch (and if surveys are any indication, that is certainly the case).

Steam

Lots of preamble to get to the interesting news about Steam working on their own handheld portable. There’s not much on it, other than the expectation of a larger reveal this year.

The less good to start… Valve has a history of launching very interesting ideas and then not following through. Steambox, Steam Controller, VR… not even talking about their games. Credit that it does a great job incubating ideas, but the follow-through is very rough. So while this is interesting, Valve has a poor track record for, oh, just about anything that isn’t the actual Steam store.

The good part is the actual Steam store. I have no real issues with Epic’s game store, but Steam really is the all-in-one solution. Nearly every game on the planet, with thousands added every month. Ongoing sales, curated lists, message boards, and a very impressive Big Picture Mode (which does great on remote play). The software part is extremely solid, which is extremely important for any console.

The question marks in this space are less hardware related and more so on the operating system. The reason consoles just plain work is the hardstamped hardware config and optimized OS. The CPU is one piece, the RAM another… but those are small peanuts to the video card. Nearly every PC game issue I’ve encountered was related to the video card – made worse with AMD and NVIDIA taking much different approaches to architecture. I don’t expect this thing to run Crysis at 4K, but there are certainly some expectations that games with controller support look decent and can actually run without continual device patches.

And then there’s the games. While PC traditionally focuses on mouse/keyboard controls, there are plenty that support controllers. With the world’s largest PC library, it will be a balancing act to figure out what games do and do not get support. CoD seems an option, until you realize that it requires nearly 300gb of data to even boot.

Finally, the mystery mark around Stadia & remote gameplay. The concept of remote gameplay is almost entirely predicated on amazing network speeds and tiny latency. Yes, there are server hardware pieces that need to be sorted out, given that the processing requirements are always in flux. The user experience is gaming is focused on input lag. If the SteamPal can support both local and remote gameplay… well that would be a rather crazy mixture.

Given the challenges in hardware development, I’d be amazed if this thing was consumer ready within 3 years, another 2 to work out the bug, and then 5 to optimize . While I’m certainly not holding my breath, I am oddly optimistic that this thing can actually work. Quite impressed with the prospect!

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