Opinion: Why Valve's move on hardware should be met with a warm welcome
It's time for a change
The wording of its recent job postings reveals that the move has been inspired by "sheer frustration" with the "lack of innovation in the computer hardware space".
Bemoaning the fact that the basic keyboard/mouse input "hasn't really changed in any meaningful way over the years," Valve has eyed a "void in the marketplace" and that "opportunities to create compelling user experiences are being overlooked."
The form that such an entry into the market would take inevitably prompts much speculation, but Valve has consistently left a breadcrumb trail.
Getting a handle on the hardware
The ready assumption is that Valve is readying some sort of Linux-powered 'Steam Box' gaming system, presumably so that Gabe Newell and co. can body swerve the "catastrophe" that is the Windows 8.
As a hedging strategy, there's definitely a strong case for Valve going it alone with its own platform. Indeed, a previous job listing for an Electronics Engineer specifically references designing "platform hardware," alongside "new types" of input and output devices.
Said job posting also puts comments made back in April by new hire Michael Abrash in a new light.
Back then, he commented: "We have all sorts of projects going on - the fact that I'm doing wearable computing should give you a hint of the range of things we're doing."
With Valve's grievances with legacy input devices coming on top of Gabe Newell's scathing assessment of Microsoft's OS direction, there's barely any room for doubt that Valve is in the mood to break free, go it alone and create its own bespoke platform.
Of course, while Valve has every right to feel restricted by the traditional PC/Mac approach, it's the ubiquitous and open nature of these platforms that have allowed Steam to blossom into one of gaming most important digital delivery platforms.
Indeed, Valve admits "they enable us and our partners to have a robust and direct relationship with customers".
The assumption, therefore, has to be that if it does go it alone, a large proportion of its exceptionally loyal user base will get on board with whatever its new platform turns out to be.
It's either exceptionally brave or downright foolish to consider breaking out of the PC/Mac status quo, but Valve has hit the nail on the head with its frustration regarding user input.
The people that doggedly insist that the mouse/keyboard system is perfect have obviously never tried to integrate their PC into their main big screen gaming set-up. It's often a clunky, unsatisfying experience, and with patchy joypad support and mouse-driven user interfaces, it's about as far from ideal as is possible.
Frankly, if Valve can design better solutions to this ongoing issue, I'll be the one doing my best Steve Balmer. Keyboard and mouse might be fantastic for some genres, and the joypad is perfect for others, but both can be hopelessly inadequate at times and both are rooted in the 1980s.
The dire desktop
It's 2012: we can do better.
The concept of forgoing the big screen and surround sound set-up for a desktop configuration every time you want to play a specific type of game seems faintly quaint and anachronistic these days.
Valve knows this all too well, and already has at least one stop-gap solution ready to roll this month in the the shape of its Big Picture Mode for Steam.
Although primary intended as a means of making Steam easier to navigate via a joypad, it also serves as a useful testbed for the demands of its forthcoming system. If the UI goes down well with its userbase here, you can bet it will eventually make its way into its own bespoke system further down the line.
Another thing we'd fully expect Valve to experiment with is tablet and smartphone integration. With Android and iOS Apps already supporting store and community features, it's probably only a matter of time before we start seeing 'Smartglass'-style integration.
Were that to happen, it not only pisses on Microsoft's bonfire, but opens the door to the kind of dual screen gameplay innovation on Apple TV and coming soon to Wii U.
If it's suddenly feasible not only use your smartphone/tablet as a tilt and touch controller, but as a dedicated HUD, it also gets around the need for Valve to worry about producing its own bespoke handheld/tablet add-on.
If we assume that it's only a matter of time before a 'Steam Box' becomes a reality, the big question is whether it's worth the risk of throwing vast amounts of money at such a project.
What's in the box
Valve seems to be operating on a 'build it and they will come' principle, and - much like Apple - it's a nimble digital-only model that doesn't rely on any of the existing retail, distribution and duplication models that Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are still largely based upon.
If it can completely outmanoeuvre the combined innovation of all its rivals in terms of accessibility and user input, and offer the broadest amount of content at the most competitive prices, then Valve's in with a shout.
A competitively priced next generation system that covers not only the best of the independent scene, but also offers the best hardcore and blockbuster games around deserves to succeed.
Ultimately it's down to the talent at Valve to make it work, and it's those people that give the greatest hope that it's not all hot air and bluster from a company with too much money to spend. Perhaps more than any company in the industry, Valve's single greatest strength is in its consistent ability to inspire creativity from the people it brings on board.
Put simply, almost everything Valve has ever attempted has been world class, because it's never been content with mediocrity. If something's not good enough, it'll work on it until it is.
As a company, it's never been content to sit still. It wasn't content to simply be one of the best game developers, so decided to build the best digital distribution platform around and single-handedly revived PC gaming in the process.
And not content with the scale of Steam's successes, it now feels it's time to break loose and become the master of its own destiny.
That Valve does so with such unfettered innovation is not only inspirational, but necessary. It might seem like a sign of misplaced arrogance for Valve to think that it can do better, but the truth is, it probably can.
If the next generation of consoles merely offers more of the same, that would be a disaster for the games industry. Gamers are roundly bored of annual sequels and risk averse 'blockbusters' being churned out, and the stifled creativity that has polluted the console market for much of the past few years.
If Valve can help shake things up, all the better.