Last week when Valve revealed the Steam Deck, I joined the rest of the internet in collectively blinking profusely at the sight of it. Steam Deck is a Nintendo Switch, but it’s… better. It’s more powerful and will have access to a much vaster library of games. Some even are saying that it’ll be the “Switch killer.” But honestly, I was initially turned off by it. I wrote it off as a neat little machine that will appeal to an extremely small market. With this mindset, I was prepared to write a reactionary article that would essentially drag Valve and the device for trying too hard to bank off of Nintendo’s success. But then I gave it some more thought. So with that, along with some input from my Enthusiast colleagues, I had a bit of a change of heart.
The Steam Deck seems poised to be a device that really shakes up the gaming industry. It may very well usher in a whole new dimension of hardware in the PC space. Really, it seems like it has the potential to do for PCs what the Switch did for consoles — change the way gamers enjoy the experience.
Looking back at my initial gut reaction towards the Steam Deck, my thoughts were similar to many of the reactions I observed when Nintendo Switch was first revealed.
From hate to great
At the time of Switch’s announcement, Nintendo was not in a good place, with the failure of the Wii U and arguably the fading prominence of the 3DS. Following his retirement, even former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime acknowledged how poor a position Wii U had left the company in. The solution to the woes of Nintendo’s unorthodox hardware seemed obvious: just make a “normal” system and ditch the gimmicks. But Nintendo didn’t listen. Instead, it introduced the world to a whole new breed of console: the hybrid model.
Initial reactions seemed to be mixed; it was met with a lot of disdain, yet also a lot of fanfare. Many of Nintendo’s naysayers threw it in the flop bucket immediately, calling it yet another unnecessary, gimmicky system. These folks thought that it was too weird and too unconventional to catch on with anyone else but the Nintendo diehards.
Of course, four and a half years later, Nintendo Switch has been steadily breaking global sales records and maintaining momentum for several months. On top of that, it’s one of Nintendo’s most successful consoles to date and is expected to surpass Wii in lifetime sales. Thus, it’s no wonder why a noticeable number of companies have since followed suit in trying to capture some of this success.
The quest to mimic the Switch’s success
Prior to Steam Deck, other Nintendo Switch clones came along, like Alienware’s Concept UFO prototype early last year. The majority of these clones feature wild futuristic designs with an equally outlandish price. Thus, none of them have materialized into any serious competition.
Switch succeeded because its “gimmick” serves a legitimate purpose. The hybrid design has liberated full-scale console gaming from the confines of a couch and even a house. Players have been loving that flexibility, to the point where many put up with the lower-spec output of the system for the sake of having their games with them anywhere and everywhere. This combined with an attractive price point has all led to Nintendo’s quirkiness finally being honored anew. But now that the Steam Deck has come onto the scene with all of these same benefits, it’s being met with more instant praise than Nintendo Switch initially received.
I believe the shift in perception simply has to do with the hybrid design now being fully established. Now that Nintendo already braved the trail and proved its worth, all that needed to happen was an equally capable company to come in and try its hand at refining the idea, which is exactly what Valve is doing.
Would Valve have been the first major company to invest heavily in this idea if Nintendo didn’t do it? I’m not sure. Regardless, the Steam Deck reiterates that, when Nintendo comes through with a good idea, the industry will follow suit to some extent. Though Sony and Microsoft show no interest in creating hybrids of their own, they’ve both congratulated Nintendo on its success with the Switch and acknowledge its effect on the industry. Valve’s efforts only further legitimize the hybrid console as its own category of gaming device.
Companies rarely rally behind unproven methods and quirky ideas because of the financial risk. Look at what happened to LG’s mobile division recently; it shuddered its operations in part because it created very off-the-rails ideas and sold them as flagship devices. Nintendo, on the other hand, has been playing with fire creatively speaking since at least the days of Wii and Nintendo DS and has managed to make it work till this day, Wii U aside. Chasing innovation over beefy specs is ostensibly not the safest option, but it’s what makes the most financial sense to Nintendo.
Of course, Steam Deck isn’t a guaranteed success for following in Nintendo’s footsteps, but there’s no denying that interest is high in the new device mostly due to Switch already being so revered. Many diehard gamers have been frothing at the mouth for some time now over the idea of a more powerful hybrid, and now that desire will finally be fulfilled. Whether the Steam Deck has the same mass appeal as the Switch remains to be seen, but for now at least, interest appears to be high.
Steam Deck vibe check
Just as Nintendo Switch normalized home console gaming on the go, I believe Steam Deck has the potential to make playing PC games portably a mainstream reality. And yes, laptops are a thing already, but they’re nowhere near as portable as a handheld. Seeing that it will also feature a dock of some sort, Steam Deck will even have the added flexibility of being a laptop alternative for some folks, as they can still use it to enjoy the power of a good PC at home to perform other tasks like photo and video editing.
On another note, since Steam Deck is now a thing, this will also enable Nintendo to do some studying of its own. It can look at Steam Deck to see where it shines and stumbles and hopefully incorporate some of that research into whatever its next system may be. I would be surprised if it’s not a full-on hybrid successor to the Switch.
I’m curious as to how Nintendo feels about losing its exclusive control over this category of gaming hardware. That exclusivity, too, is probably another reason why the Switch has been so successful. So does this mean the Steam Deck has what it takes to snatch the Switch’s throne? That’s best left to its own dedicated discussion.