One of the biggest sponsors for PAX Australia 2015 this year was Alienware. The company that has been at the forefront of developing tech and gaming peripherals for a fairly long time. This year in particular, there is a high level of buzz surrounding them as they show off their Steam Machine. I managed to sit down and have a chat with a few of the people over at Alienware including Joe Olmsted, the Director of Product Planning. Here’s a run down of questions and answers we spoke about:
As a creator of gaming computers and laptops, what prompted the Alienware‘s move in creating the Steam Machine?
It was actually a long and tenure history and started as simple as some of the leaders from Alienware and some of the leaders from Valve literally getting together in a brainstorming session and asking ‘How do we expand PC gaming’? And from that very simple thought, we started breathing new life into Valve’s software and Alienware’s hardware. Over the course of a couple of years that partnership came together and we’re finally here years later, ready to announce and ship the Alienware Steam Machine. But the overall idea was simple, Valve heard from their customer base that they love the Steam experience and wanted to experience it in more rooms and more devices. We collaborated with Valve for a number of years and we put together a product offering what we felt would be the best fit for a living room experience and to really enjoy the benefits of Steam OS.
The Alienware Alpha that you guys released last year looked like it was similar in concept where it would serve as a bridge for console and PC gamers, would that mean the Steam Machine is an evolution of the Alpha?
Yeah the Alpha was an exciting experiment so to speak. It did a couple of things for us, you know the hardware between Alpha and Steam Machine is exactly the same but the Alpha helped us create a new category of this ‘PC gaming console’. Really, a device that’s about that ‘living room’ experience. We were able to learn a lot about the way our customers were using this product: what they liked, what they didn’t, how they experienced it with a keyboard and mouse or a controller. It helps us now as we bring the Steam Machine to the market where we can now look at the way we can serve our customer base both through a ‘windows experience’ with the traditional keyboard and mouse and the ‘living room’ experience with controllers. As mentioned, the hardware is similar but the experiences, we’re finding, are quite different.
As an extension of what you’ve mentioned regarding the customer base’s needs, I wanted to know what you believe is the target audience for the Steam Machine?
There’s going to be a couple of different types of gamers. First and foremost, we’re targetting PC gamers. If you look at what the Steam Machine does well, it adds to your PC gaming ecosystem. It will take that two-handed experience of a keyboard and mouse and extend it to a different area of your house and will enable you to enjoy those experiences, potentially with multiple people in the same room. I mean, living room gaming isn’t anything new, it’s just something that was fairly difficult for the PC in the past. That’s the barrier that the Steam Machine is trying to break down a little bit. Also, talking to some people as well as focus groups, we’ve started to see people think that this would be a nice bridge for people who are potentially intimidated by PC gaming. You know, they hear about the ‘master race’ and the complexity of PCs, and what will play, what will work and they love the simplicity of consoles but they want something from PC gaming. I’ve even heard from a lot of gamers, and I swear this is their words, that their girlfriends that want to play on PC would want to play on consoles. So this would be a really nice bridge to extend that PC gaming experience. It would allow people who would love to pick up a PC but were intimidated by it.
Ah okay so it’s kind of like the training wheels for gamers who want to get into PC gaming.
Yeah, it’s definitely a really nice way into that world without having to jump in and build your own PC or even invest thousands of dollars into a gaming rig. This is a nice way to get into it and play the same content. So that’s what is unique about it, it doesn’t limit any of that content. The fantastic part about the Steam controller is that it has the ability to map any part of a keyboard and mouse. Like a traditional genre like real time strategy and simulation games like Roller Coaster Tycoon or Cities: Skylines. They are all games that could only be played with keyboard and mouse. Now, they’re capable of being played with a controller in a really fun and unique way. It’s going to enable people to play these kinds of games without the intimidation of 128 keys.
Alright, you mentioned earlier about the whole ‘people are intimidated of building their PC from scratch’ which reminded me, when I was looking through details and preparing for this interview, I noticed that on a FAQ site for the Steam Machine, you mentioned that it was upgradeable. When I had clicked on the follow up link to that question, it showed me a video showing the Alpha machine being upgradeable. I just wanted to confirm if the Steam Machine was indeed customizable and if you could describe it to me?
Yeah absolutely, see, that’s our dirty little secret, the Steam Machine is actually a PC. Off-the-shelves PC components will be fully upgradable so long as they are compatible. For example the hardware underlining the Steam Machine is an Intel quad processor. Any other processor that fits the socket can be placed into that spot whether they are solid-state drive or rotational. The idea is that there are 4 simple screws will allow you lift the entire cover off so that you can access the CPU, memory, hard drive and what not. So it’s fast and simple for the people who want to go the extra mile and update their devices. The memory and hard drive are literally held with 4 or 5 screws and the CPU can be the next level for people who will start learning about thermal paste and its applications.
Nice, I can definitely see your design brief coming back: To make the Steam Machine the beginners device for people who want to get into PC gaming. However, there’s been talks about the custom GPU and how that can not be changed, can you tell us a bit about that?
Yeah, let me give you some detail on that, that’s usually the first question we get: ‘What is that GPU and why do you call it custom?’ And frankly it’s because working with Nvidia, a great partner of ours, we came to them with this design to discuss how we could place it in the box and the cooling needed to have it run efficiently. Certain compromises had to be made and so we had to solder the chip into the board in order to make it cooled and quiet. So that’s why it can not be upgradable. We can’t give it a brand because it’s built specifically for our Steam Machine and can not be purchased on shelves. However, we have done performance testings and can show that it is on par or at least better than the (Nvidia) 860m which can run nearly every game under the sun. Of course, there will be games that continue to push the limits but we’ve done extensive testings for both the Alpha and the Steam Machine and we’ve been able to show a lot AAA content running on medium-high settings at 30-60 frames per second.
Again, we designed it for the living room so we wanted to make sure (the Steam Machine) was price accessible. We knew that TVs were 1080p so we didn’t want to overburden the box with something designed for more than that.
Right that’s fair enough, not everyone has a 4K TV just lying around. You mentioned earlier most games being available on the Steam Machine, one thing that was discussed everywhere was that the specs of the Steam Machine might not be enough for the minimum requirement like 6GB RAM when the cheapest Steam Machine model has 4GB of RAM. I’m curious as to how you guys will work around that?
There’s a couple of things, first and foremost, we’re working with all the developers, big and small to find out what their minimum specs are and we’re divulging very early in our process what our minimum specs are. So there’s certainly a chicken and the egg dilemma where we’re chasing them and they’re chasing us as we discuss how we can make their specs work in line with us. Likewise we want them to be able to scale, to have a greater experience whether it’s to have a higher FPS or even more eye candy. But like we said, there will always be games that will break that like Fallout 4 who needs a minimum of 16GB. That said, we’ll continually work with the industry in order to allow our machine to facilitate their games. As long as the customer can still have an good experience with the device. As you know, the entry level model will have 4GB of RAM that will cover at least 90% of games with other components that will help push the boundaries and unlock the capacity to play those high end games.
Funny you talk about Fallout 4, the Steam Machine generally uses SteamOS titles. It’s touted on the Steam store that there are over 1000 games compatible on SteamOS however, high profile games like Fallout 4 and GTA V are not currently available for SteamOS. I believe your solution was in home streaming?
Yeah there’s definitely a two fold. First yes there will be over 1500 native titles to Linux that will be available for SteamOS. If you compare the Steam Machine to a console, when you see a console’s launch title, you’ll see maybe 20+ titles upon release, so as you can see there is a gigantic library to choose from for the SteamOS. That being said, if there is a game there isn’t native to Linux, the Steam Machine will absolutely act as a receiver. So you do have access to your entire Steam library through another rig in the house. It kind of comes back to the first edition where the Steam Machine is meant for a PC gamer who wants a new experience. We’re not suggesting that the Steam Machine acts as a replacement, just add to it. With the old rig still running the in home streaming system. In relation top triple A content coming to SteamOS, we can’t obviously comment on what publisher is going to make a big announcement but what people will see is that as the Steam devices reach the market, people will start seeing more support within the Steam ecosystem including the Steam Controller, Steam Link and Steam Machine. As for developers, particularly the ones who are doing the ‘wait-and-see’ approach, they’ll become more receptive towards the Steam Machine. You might even start seeing support in the next 6 months, whether it is support for their big titles heading to Linux or enable their back catalog. The Steam Machine at that point will be a formidable device.
That’s brilliant, hopefully the success will be apparent and developers who are holding back really do throw themselves in there. I wanted to address the Steam Link. There’s been some issues with some early adopters who found that there was some connectivity issues, and how is Steam Machine’s in home streaming any different from the Steam Link that was recently released or releases soon?
Yeah, so the Steam Link and the Controller formally globally on November 10th. The way we’re using Steam Link is to allow people who want to give this ‘living room experience’ a try without having to put in the money for the Steam Machine just yet. The Steam Link would effectively lower the barrier for people who still had reservations. For a lack of a better word, we believe that the Steam Link is the ‘crack’ that’ll get people addicted to this style of play. Now in terms of the connectivity, the Steam Link is only as good as your network and the system that’s pushing it. Furthermore, no matter what, if someone else in the house wants to use the system that the Link is hooked up to, it will give precedence to the rig user. The idea of the Steam Machine is that it can play these games locally and offline. It’s a dedicated console that has the ability to stream on top of it. Further expanding the ecosystem, the Steam Link can then be linked to the Steam Machine and then put into your kids room or something like that to allow your kids to stream too.
It was suggested that these devices are connected with hard cables so that there wasn’t too much of an issue with connectivity issues including the frame drops and latency that you mentioned earlier. Of course like we mentioned just before, it depends on network and since everyone’s connection is different due to too many variables within their homes, to the point where it’s impossible to truly gauge and have a 100% fix.
For the Steam Machine, there’s an Intel wireless card within it. The entry level machine starts off as what we would call a ‘one-by-one’. While the i5 and i7 devices will have a ‘two-by-two’ which will provide better range. Due to this, we technically have a better wireless capabilities than the Steam Link, but then again, there are always variables that can affect what will and won’t work.
That’s definitely a fair call, it’s truly impossible to have everyone’s connection be perfect all the time. Speaking of the device, I was wondering if the Steam Machine will be available in retail stores?
As of right now, the Steam Machine will not be available globally at the same time due to Valve’s engineering schedule. We do expect these devices to be available in stores across Australia in due time. I’m actually having a meeting soon with some guys who would be in charge of that. The Australian version of the Steam Machine won’t be out until later Q1 2016.
Okay so that’s pretty soon and yet pretty far. Let’s talk about the Alpha for a bit, will you guys still be working on the Alpha even though the Steam Machine is what your focus is at the moment?
Absolutely, what we found with our customer base is that there’s still a market for a windows-based ultra small compact desktop. We found that its smaller sizes were popular for people who had smaller rooms, dorm rooms and do still enjoy the same keyboard and mouse experience that comes from the normal PC gaming experience. Not everyone will want a device that is limited to just gaming and will want to be able to use Windows to create and do work.
Alright that’s great, is there any future plans for the Alpha? A revision or something to that effect?
We don’t necessarily comment on future plans but we can say that the Alpha and Steam Machine will have a refresh cycle closer to that of a PC rather than a console.
Ah so that would accommodate for the continuous demands of the PC market. I’ll wrap it up soon, I wanted to ask, while you say the Steam Machine is an add on to the PC ecosystem you desire, how do you think the Steam Machine will effect the console market, if it even will?
Interesting question, only time will tell honestly. The console market has been established for a long time, over 20 years. We’re looking to bring a new device category into this realm so it’s certainly additive to the PC gaming ecosystem but it’s a new market. Where I see the Steam Machine compared to other consoles, it’s not meant to be a replacement device as we stressed. It’s not about stopping someone from being a hardcore Xbox or PlayStation player, especially for ones who don’t have a strong desire for PC gaming. It’s definitely not the box for them in that case. But I think if this comes to market, we’ll work together with Valve to set a new stage. Only time will tell how it fairs.
For sure. I’m incredibly excited to see where this takes off, especially since it’s such a heated discussion regarding its place within the community. I appreciate your honest answers and thoughts on all of this. Is there anything you’d like to add before we wrap up?
I think we’ve got it all out, we’ve pushed our position and our thoughts on where the Steam Machine’s market is. What would be interesting to us is to see the market react to the device when it is eventually in the hands of our customer base who will really let us know what they like and what they don’t like so we can change and improve it. It’ll be interesting where Valve adapts to meet with these demands. The hardware will speak for itself, you can check out the multitude of videos showcasing gameplay footage from the Alpha and Steam Machine on YouTube as well. We’ll also be showcasing at PAX Australia to show off the Steam Machine and a second floor that is showcasing a cool VR game with Zero Latency that utilizes the Steam Machine too.
Sounds great, thank you so much for your time guys, hope to hear more from you in the future!