As soon as Valve’s Steam Deck was revealed a week and a half ago, the torrent of comparisons between it and Nintendo Switch began. Many have been pointing to the superior specs of the Steam Deck as an indication that it’s going to wipe the floor with Nintendo’s hybrid as soon as it hits the market. However, they are two fundamentally different devices. Chiefly, Nintendo Switch is a console, and Steam Deck is a PC. And while there’s no denying that Valve’s new system is quite capable for its compact nature, specs alone will not cause it to dominate the Switch in its operating space.
“All that glitters…”
Valve is pushing the Steam Deck as being a portable Linux-based machine that has the power to run just about any PC game. PC gaming is often heralded as being the “superior” way to enjoy video games. Diehard fans point to the ability to have full control over one’s experience as the main selling point. This includes the ability to fully modify (most) games, decide which hardware components best suit the buyer, and enjoy the frequent (and steep) discounts offered by a variety of different storefronts. Indeed, I can attest to enjoying all of these benefits with my gaming laptop.
And of course, PCs are not just gaming machines. For instance, as I write this article, I’m currently playing Microsoft Flight Simulator, a high-end title that Steam Deck can run but that my Nintendo Switch absolutely cannot. So, this variety of uses alone makes Valve’s offering better, right?
“…is not gold”
I’ve been enjoying being a PC gamer basically my whole life. I didn’t own a console until 2010 when I was given a Wii. But after that, I quickly learned and appreciated one of the most important reasons why console gaming has always remained prominent: simplicity and accessibility.
Aside from just being affordable, consoles are purpose-built for playing games. So, yes, while PCs offer variety in terms of capabilities, that non-gaming focus comes at the cost of lack of optimization. This is what truly sets Steam Deck apart from Nintendo Switch.
In all my years of playing on PC, I cannot count how many times things have just… broken. I have literally gone to sleep with a functioning machine and woken up to some completely random issue that did not exist mere hours before. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to resort to completely reinstalling Windows to fix a critical error, and it’s happened on literally every computer I’ve owned. If the computer or the OS isn’t staging a protest, then there’s the equally infuriating situation of dealing with a game that’s decided to spontaneously go AWOL. I’ve had several games just stop working as well. One day they’re fine; the next day I’m hunting through Google, Reddit, YouTube, and the like looking for a solution to some error message.
I’ll confidently say that every last PC gamer has experienced situations like these on more than one occasion. And it’s not as though these random errors are quick fixes either. I’ve lost hours, sometimes days, trying to get to the bottom of particularly serious issues. For example, I bought a new gaming laptop last year. After getting it set up and testing it out, I then opened its cover to install a new M.2 SSD drive, something that’s very routine. I then spent the first 24 hours troubleshooting, not using, my brand new machine.
Now, yes, I would be lying if I said consoles don’t have issues too. Especially during the early days of a system, severe hardware and software bugs do occur. But otherwise, one can own a console for years and experience a critical error only rarely, if at all. I’ve had my Switch since 2017 and have never had a serious problem with it. I’ve fixed a speaker and a Joy-Con stick, but that’s about it. Will Valve be able to say the same for Steam Deck?
Simplicity > power
Steam Deck is going to run Steam OS, which is a custom version of Linux. In theory, this should help mitigate a lot of the random issues that can sprout up in a typical PC environment. This machine is also capable of running Windows, which I’m sure some customers may opt to stick with. But regardless, there’s still the matter of optimization. No PC game is “perfectly” optimized. There are great PC ports, but that doesn’t change the fact that the platform as a whole is very fragmented. From OS to hardware components, developers have always had the challenge of attempting to make sure their games can run on most hardware that’s compatible. There are no guarantees though.
While every Steam Deck is going to be uniform in terms of technical specifications, Valve has not guaranteed that games will adapt to the system’s capabilities, even with Steam OS. Meanwhile, the Switch is definitely not as powerful, but every game brought to it has been made specifically for it. True, port quality varies wildly, but when a Switch game is made well, it certainly does shine. Until said otherwise, this is an advantage that it and every other console is going to have over Steam Deck.
The continued success of consoles
Console accessibility extends beyond guaranteed game compatibility; the simplicity of operating a console also contributes to its mass appeal. Whether someone is a tech guru or not, it’s just a matter of plugging the console in, turning it on, and downloading a few updates, and then it’s off to the races with the gameplay. No system file searches, no BIOS menu to troubleshoot — it all just works. That inherent mass appeal is what has made Nintendo, PlayStation, and Xbox household names for decades now. You can ask just about anyone if they’ve heard of a “Nintendo” or a PlayStation or Xbox. But if you ask an average Joe today if they know what “Steam” and “Valve” are, I’ll be surprised if they won’t be thinking of pipes.
This isn’t to say that Valve can’t aggressively market the new Steam Deck to the point that people have no choice but to learn about it. But they’re still going to need to be convinced to buy it potentially over a Nintendo Switch or any other console, something that’s more familiar.
Of course, Steam Deck is still shaping up to be a great machine, but until Valve can prove that it can offer a console-like seamless experience, then I should expect it to have the same growing pains as, say, my existing gaming laptop. Thus, while it will impress the core PC crowd and might result in some hot sales with them, that’s a drop in the bucket in relation to the millions of casual gamers who primarily play on consoles.
Can Steam Deck make money the way Nintendo Switch makes money?
I imagine the goal of the Steam Deck is to transition console gamers over to PC. Otherwise, Valve will just be selling its existing user base another piece of hardware, hardware that the company is selling at a much lower price than it wants to and thus inevitably incurring a loss. If a good chunk of its consumers already own a lot of the games they end playing on Steam Deck, then no new game sales will be made to help recoup the lost revenue. Additionally, Valve will not benefit from the network service charges that the other console makers enjoy, making it even harder for the company to actually profit off of Steam Deck. There won’t be Steam Deck-exclusive games, and since Steam itself is a free service (and Steam Deck can be used to buy games on other storefronts), Valve’s sure-fire ways of making revenue from the system are limited.
Compare all of this to Nintendo Switch, which is the most profitable console of the generation so far in the sense that the system has been sold at a profit since day one. Even if someone theoretically purchased a Switch and never used it or bought a game for it, Nintendo has always profited from the initial purchase. This is something not even Sony and Microsoft could boast.
In short, the Steam Deck is a great new system. I’m excited to see if it can shake up the PC industry the way that the Switch has shaken up the console industry. But it has a long ladder to climb before it can actually be a sales threat to Nintendo’s hybrid. These are for-profit companies, after all.
For all intents and purposes, Valve seems to be forging a path but also burning it as it goes. On the other hand, Nintendo is running all the way to the bank.