Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Can the Steam Deck succeed?

Posted in botch, business, gaming, portable by commorancy on February 28, 2022

SteamDeck1I’ve not yet had my hands onto this new Valve bad boy of a handheld, but I still want to give my first impressions of this device with its base $399 price tag. Let’s explore.

Handhelds in Gaming

Before I jump into my opinion of Valve’s new Steam Deck, let’s take step back in time to understand this device’s origins. I’m sure you may already be aware of many of the devices listed, but for those who may be new to some of them, I’ll list them below.

Handheld gaming began with Nintendo going as far back as early 80s with the Nintendo Game & Watch series of handheld gaming devices. These were single game devices that played very simplistic games, such as Fire and Ball. These simplistic games had you doing very simplistic things, such as with Fire, catching people as they tumble out of a burning building or in Ball, juggling balls.

Nintendo realized the magic of these small single-game handhelds and introduced the more flexible cartridge based GameBoy. Using cartridges, this handheld gaming unit offered the ability to switch games out and play many different games, up to as many as cartridges were made. It also offered game play on the go in a compact format.

Since then, we’ve seen a number of portable gaming handhelds in the subsequent years including:

  • Gameboy Color
  • Gameboy Color Clamshell
  • Atari Lynx
  • Sega Gamegear
  • Nintendo DS
  • Nintendo 3DS
  • Neo Geo Pocket
  • Sony PSP
  • Nokia NGage
  • Sony Xperia Play
  • Sony PS Vita
  • NVIDIA Shield
  • Nintendo Switch

and now we have the Steam Deck to add to this list. I didn’t include the Nintendo Wii U because while it had a portable element in the Gamepad, it simply wasn’t possible to play games strictly on the Gamepad on-the-go.

The Reviews

The early reviewers of the Steam Deck call it groundbreaking. Yet, the Steam Deck doesn’t solve any of the fundamental problems of handheld consoles of this variety. So, how exactly is it groundbreaking? It isn’t. It has one huge limitation that makes it fall far short of “ground breaking”. It’s also buggy as all get-out in far too many places that matter. Let’s take a closer look at the Steam Deck. SteamDeck2

From the above image, it looks like a fairly standard kind of handheld with …

  • A large touch screen
  • Two thumbsticks
  • A D-Pad
  • ABXY buttons (using the Xbox Controller layout)
  • A ‘Steam’ button
  • A ‘…’ menu button
  • Two shoulder and two trigger buttons
  • (new) Two trackpad buttons below the thumb sticks
  • (new) Two additional buttons (View and Options) between the thumbsticks and the D-Pad and ABXY buttons.
  • Power, volume up (+) and down (-), headphone jack, USB-C port and reset buttons are on the top edge.

This console runs Linux, or rather SteamOS, apparently. I’m uncertain why Steam chose to go with Linux on this handheld when choosing Windows would have been a much more compatible option. I mean, every single PC game would operate right out of the box on a handheld built on Windows. My only thought is that Gabe Newell didn’t want to fork over a bunch of cash to Microsoft to make this console a reality. Using a Linux based SteamOS meant cheaper outlay and no royalty fees.

Unfortunately, that design choice immediately sacrifices game compatibility right out of the gate. No where is this more apparent than when you attempt to play some games, which simply crash outright. Seeing as this is Linux based, it must use a Windows compatibility stack. The SteamOS apparently uses the open source Proton for its Windows compatibility stack, in similar form to Wine (Wine Is Not an Emulator). In fact, Proton’s Windows compatibility is based on Wine, but is being developed and improved by Valve and CodeWeavers. If you’ve ever used Wine, then you know it’s not ready for everyday use the vast majority of the time. Valve’s Proton layer may be better, but it can’t be that much better than Wine.

One thing I’ll say about compatibility is that it can work great one minute and suck hard the next. It’s entirely dependent on so many tiny little things to line up. Instead of fighting with compatibility layers, the Steam Deck could have run Windows directly and avoided all of these compatibility problems. Assuming the the point is to play Windows games, then why fake Windows when you can use the real thing? If the Steam Deck had at least been given the option of loading Windows as its operating system, then a buggy Windows compatibility layer wouldn’t have been required.

Pricing

The Steam Deck isn’t cheap. Let’s examine the Steam Deck’s pricing levels:

Screen Shot 2022-02-28 at 11.08.47 AM

For $399, that gets you an entry level handheld device and a carrying case. I’m assuming the Steam Deck also ships with a power cord and power brick, but it’s not listed in the above. If you want the top end version of the Steam Deck, you’re going to fork over $650 … more once you’ve bought accessories and games and paid taxes.

Let’s put this into perspective. For $499 ($100 more than the Steam Deck’s base model), you can buy a PS5 or an Xbox Series X. Both are true gaming consoles, but not handhelds.

PlayStation Vita, NVIDIA Shield, Nintendo Switch

All three of these consoles are the most recent iteration of touch screen “tablet” handhelds. These are the handhelds that should have been able to perform the best. In fact, the NVIDIA Shield should have been competitive with this console. Although, the Shield is now several years old at this point.

However, the Shield tried exactly what the Steam Deck is now trying. To bring PC gaming to a handheld. Yet, for whatever reason, it hasn’t ultimately worked.

That’s not to say that the Steam Deck won’t have some success, but ultimately it likely won’t succeed in the way Gabe hopes. It’s not for lack of trying. This format has been tried multiple times each with varying degrees of success, but none so runaway as to call it massively successful. As I said above, though, there’s one huge fail in the Steam Deck’s design. I’ll come to this shortly.

Of all of them, Nintendo’s Switch is probably the closest to a ‘runaway success’, but it’s still not winning the handheld space. What is? The Smartphone. Why? Because of it’s multifunction purpose. You can play games as easily as answer the phone as easily as book your next flight to Aruba. A phone supports always on data and, thus, gaming can take full advantage of that fact… making carrying around a phone the easiest gaming handheld available. On top of this, smartphones are updated about every year, making them 100% compatible with your current software, but allowing them to run that software much more fluidly. Gaming handhelds, like the Steam Deck, are lucky to be updated once every 3 years.

The point is, the handheld market is dominated by smartphones, not gaming handhelds. The reason for this, as I stated above, is clear. Not to mention, the battery life on phones, while not perfect, is about as good as you can expect in that sized device. It lasts all day, at least 8 hours. Many phone batteries can last up to 12 hours.

Handheld Gaming Battery Woes

Handheld gaming devices, at best, offer about 2 hours of play time with the best games. That’s a problem with the Nintendo Switch, the PS Vita, the NVIDIA Shield and, yes, even the Steam Deck. The point is, 2 hours of play time is simply not enough when you’re attempting to become immersed in a brand new game. All immersion is immediately broken when you see that sad red flashing battery icon letting you know your battery is about to die.

Sure, you can then find a wall outlet to plug into to continue your gaming, but that can be a hassle. This is also the fundamental problem why such handheld gaming consoles don’t sell as well as they should. You can’t produce fabulous looking games at a rock stable 60 FPS gaming experience when you’re limited to 2 hours of play time. The OS must then play internal conservation tricks with frame rates, CPU power levels, GPU power levels, shutting hard drives down and so on. These power saving techniques mean better battery life, but poor gaming performance. It also gets worse as the battery runs down. Less amperage and voltage means limiting CPU and GPU computing speeds.

This problem exists even with the Nintendo Switch, but Nintendo has taken a balanced approach by reducing the resolution to 720p when playing on the console’s screen. Moving the Switch to OLED, though, likely means even better battery life. An LCD screen backlight is a huge power drain. When using OLED, each LED in the screen uses much less overall power than a full sized backlight. Unfortunately, OLED also raises the cost of the unit simply due to its inclusion. Basically, to get a small amount of battery savings from an OLED display means the consumer shelling out $50 more ($349) to replace a Switch that you may already paid $300 previously.

Display Technology

Unfortunately, Valve chose not to use OLED to help save battery power for the Steam Deck. Instead, Valve chose to build it with a TFT LCD screen with a backlight. Let’s talk about the screen for a moment. What type of screen does the Steam Deck offer?

  • 7-inch touchscreen
  • 1280 x 800 (16:10)
  • 60 Hz
  • IPS (In-Plane Switching)
  • Anti-glare etched glass

This is a decent screen type for handheld. Consider, though, that the Nintendo Switch offers OLED at 1280×720 (720p) at $349, meaning that the screen on the Steam Deck is only 80 pixels wider. However, even were the Steam Deck to ship with an OLED screen, the CPU and GPU are the power hungry hogs in this unit. Yes, the Backlight does consume power, but not at the same rate as the CPU and GPU. An OLED screen might buy the unit an additional 15-45 minutes of play time depending on many factors for how the screen is used. Meaning, the fewer pixels lit, the less power it takes to drive the screen.

On a handheld, OLED should always be the first consideration when choosing a display, if only because of the backlight power savings. For a TV monitor, OLED’s benefits are inky blackness in dark areas.

I give it to Valve, though. You gotta start your design somewhere and LCD was the easiest place to start the Steam Deck, I suppose. Let’s hope that the next iteration, assuming there is one, that Gabe considers the power savings an OLED screen affords in a handheld design.

Can the Steam Deck succeed?

Unknown, but probably not this version. Did I mention that one huge flaw in this design? It’s still coming. Though, based on its current specifications, I’d give it a relatively low chance for success. Why? Because a gaming-only piece of hardware swimming in among a sea of smartphones doesn’t exactly indicate success. Oh, the unit will sell to various die-hard gamers and those who really want to be out-and-about gaming (ahem). But, those die-hard gamers are not going prop up this market. If that were to happen, the PS Vita would have succeeded. Yet, it hasn’t.

The only reason the Nintendo Switch has done as well as it has isn’t because of the Switch itself. It’s because of the franchises that Nintendo owns: Super Mario, Donkey Kong, Pokémon, Animal Crossing, Super Smash, Zelda, Mario Party, Kirby, Metroid and so on. These franchises drive the sales of the device, not the other way around. Nintendo could put out the worst piece of handheld garbage imaginable and people would still flock to it so long as they can play Pokémon.

Unfortunately, the Steam Deck doesn’t have legitimate access to these Nintendo franchises (other than through emulation after-the-fact). The Steam Deck must rely on games written for SteamOS or that are compatible with SteamOS. Even then, not all of these Steam games work on the Steam Deck properly, because they were designed to work with a mouse and keyboard, not a console controller. In essence, putting these games on a Steam Deck is tantamount to shoving a square peg into a round hole. Sometimes you can get it to work. Sometimes you can’t.

Ultimately, what this all means for the Steam Deck is a mixed bag and a mixed gaming experience.

Games Should Just Work

Consoles have taught us that games should simply “just work”. What that means to the gamer is that the simple act of opening a game on a console means that it launches and plays without problems. Though, recently, many games devs have taken this to a whole new and bad level… I’m looking at you, Bethesda.

With the Nintendo Switch, for example, games simply just work. The Nintendo Switch is, if nothing else, one of the best handheld gaming experiences I’ve had with a handheld. Not from a battery perspective, but from a “just works” perspective. I can’t even recall the last time I ran a Nintendo game that crashed outright back to the dashboard. Nintendo’s games are always rock solid.

Unfortunately, for the Steam Deck, that experience doesn’t exist. Some games may work well. Some may work halfway. Some may crash part way through. Some games won’t launch. The experience is a mixed bag. This poor level of experience is exactly why the Steam Deck may or may not succeed. That and the Steam Deck’s one big flaw… yes, that info is still coming.

When paying $400-700 for a gaming console, you expect games to play. Yet, even though the game is listed on the Steam store doesn’t imply the Steam Deck will run it. That’s a fairly major problem with the Steam Deck.

Instead, the Steam Deck folks need to create a tried and tested list of Steam Deck games and limit only those games to being visible, available and playable on the Steam Deck’s interface. Basically, the unit should prevent you from seeing, downloading and attempting to play any game which has not been thoroughly tested as functional on the Steam Deck. This vetting is important to bring the Steam Deck back into a similar stable play experience to other handhelds, like Nintendo. If a game doesn’t work, you can’t see it or download it on the Steam Deck.

This “games just work” mentality is an important aspect to a gaming handheld like the Steam Deck. It’s a make or break aspect of marketing this handheld. It’s not that difficult to limit which games can be seen and downloaded. There’s absolutely no reason why this handheld shows games that knowingly don’t work or that are knowingly unstable. Yes, such limits will reduce the amount of games available, but will improve the overall play experience of this device for buyers.

When spending $400, we’ve come to expect a specific level of sanity and stability. This goes hand-in-hand for the price tag, even for the Steam Deck.

Yet, reviewers have stated that their review models have experienced a completely mixed bag. Some games that work, work well. Some games that were expected to work, haven’t worked at all. Some games that worked well have crashed the following day of play. This problem all comes back down to the Proton compatibility problems mentioned earlier.

Success or Failure?

At this point, it’s too early to tell, but one big flaw will likely prevent full success. However, let me dive right into my own opinion of this handheld console. My first observation is that the Steam Deck is physically too big. I understand that Steam wanted it to have a big enough screen with the Steam Deck, but its simply too big and bulky. With the added bulk of the controls, it simply becomes oversized.

Instead, how I would handled design of this platform would have been to use a separate remote joystick. Design the screen to be a simple tablet display with a hefty fan, kickstand and no controls on the tablet at all (other than volume, power, reset and headphone jack). Then, have a separate joystick that can be charged and carried separately. This does a couple of things. Joysticks with separate batteries mean no drain on the console battery under use. Additionally, a battery in the joystick could be hefty enough to be used as a supplemental power source, which can be tapped by the console to extend its battery life once the console is out and about. Having a separate battery means longer play time, thus carrying a separate and charged joystick means extra playtime.

Separate joysticks also feel better in the hand than attached joysticks on handhelds like this. The wide spaced joystick always feels somewhat awkward to use. This awkwardness can be overcome after using it for some time, but I’ve never really gotten past the awkwardness of the Nintendo Switch. I always prefer using the Pro controller over the attached JoyCons. The mechanics used to drive the sticks in a small form factor like the Steam Deck are squashed down and usually don’t feel correct. Using a full sized joystick, these awkward sizing and design issues don’t exist.

With the PS Vita, this spacing problem was less of a problem due to the smaller screen. Though, playing games with the smashed-flat thumbsticks on the PS Vita always felt awkward.

I do get having an attached controller, though. For places like on a train or a bus or in a car, it may be difficult to use two separate devices. Thus, having a controller built-in solves that problem in these few situations. Yet, I don’t know if I’d hamper a handheld device’s size simply to cover a few limited places where having a separate controller won’t easily work. The vast majority of out-and-about play locations would allow for using a controller separately from the LCD screen base, which can be propped up or even hung.

However, these are all relatively minor problems not likely cause failure of sales of the device. The major problem with this device is its lack of additional functionality. For example, it’s not a phone. You can’t make calls using the device.

SteamOS also seems to also offer limited productivity apps, such as word processors, video editors and so on. It does have a browser, but even that seems limited because of the limited controls. You’d have to pair a keyboard if you want more functionality.

Because SteamOS is based on Linux, there’s limited commercial software available for Linux. Unlike MacOS X and Windows, where the vast majority of software is being written, Linux doesn’t have many of these commercial software options. To run Windows apps requires a compatibility stack like Proton, to which those problems have been discussed above.

The Steam Deck goes way deeper than not being a phone, though. It has no cell phone data capability at all. I’ve been teasing the Steam Deck’s biggest flaw… so here it is. No on-the-go always on networking. Meaning, there’s no way to play multiplayer games while out and about without carrying additional devices. Which leads to….

Multiplayer Games?

Don’t go into the purchase of a Steam Deck for any purpose other than single player offline gaming. Know that you won’t be making cell phone calls nor have any easy always-on data options available. If you want data while out and about, you’re going to need a WiFi network handy, to carry a MiFi hotspot with you or use your phone as a WiFi hotspot. This means you’ll need to carry a second device for playing any games which require multiplayer. Because too many games these days require multiplayer always-on Internet, the Steam Deck substantially misses the boat here.

Even still, using a phone or MiFi hotspot may limit your speeds enough to prevent the use of multiplayer in some games. If you try to use a Starbucks or Target store WiFi, you may find that gaming is blocked entirely. This is a huge downside to this device for out-and-about multiplayer gaming. Basically, the only games you can play while out and about are single player offline games only, not multiplayer. While some offline games are still being made, many games now require online Internet at all times, regardless of whether you are playing multiplayer. As more and more game devs require always online status, this will limit the usefulness of this model of the Steam Deck over time.

Instead, Valve needs to rethink this design of the Steam Deck. Valve should include a cell phone radio so that this unit can join a 5G network to enable always-on networking. This is a huge miss for the Steam Deck… one that shouldn’t have been missed. Multiplayer gaming is here to stay and pretty much so is always online Internet. As I said, many game devs require always online Internet.

The lack of a cell phone data network on the Steam Deck limits out and about play for far too many games. Ultimately, the novelty of the Steam Deck’s handheld’s remote play basically limits you to playing multiplayer games in and around your home or at places where you know high speed online gaming is allowed, which isn’t very many places. Even Hotels may limit speeds such that some online games won’t function properly. Thus, the lack of always-on Internet actually undermines the portability of the Steam Deck, making it far less portable for gaming than one might expect.

Instead, Valve needs to team up with a large mobile carrier to offer always-on data networking for the Steam Deck that also allows for full speed gaming. Thus, this would mean including a built-in cell phone radio that offers purchasing a data plan offering high-speed 5G always-on network multiplayer gaming. Once this is achieved, only then could this device be considered ‘ground breaking’. Without this always-on networking capability, the Steam Deck handheld is firmly tied to a past where fewer and fewer offline games are being created today.

Success or Failure Part II

Circling back around… the Steam Deck, while novel and while also offering access to the Steam library of games may not yet be all that it can be. This handheld needs a lot more design consideration to become truly useful in today’s gaming circles.

Some gamers may be willing to shell out $399 to play it, but many won’t. The limitations of this unit far outweigh it’s usefulness as a modern handheld console. Back when the PS Vita offered two versions, WiFi only version and a Cell Phone version, that was at a time when multiplayer gaming was still not always online.

Today, because many games require always-on Internet, not having a cell phone network available on this gaming “tablet” (yes, it is a tablet), is highly limiting for multiplayer gaming. Multiplayer gaming isn’t going away. If anything, it’s getting bigger each year. Choosing not to include or offer a cell phone data version of this tablet is a huge miss.

My guess for success of this specific version of the Steam Deck is that its success will be limited. It will sell some, but only to very specific gamers. I seriously doubt that it will be considered “ground breaking” in any substantial way, particularly after missing the general purpose nature of a tablet combined with including an always-on a cell data network feature.

I felt this way both with the Nintendo Switch and with the NVIDIA Shield. Both of those tablets have done okay with their respective markets, particularly Nintendo’s Switch. It’s done exceedingly well, but only because of Nintendo’s major game franchises and because none of those franchises (other than Mario Kart) require heavy networking. The Shield, like this tablet, has only done okay in sales. Not great, not horrible.

If Valve wants to sell this gaming tablet as it is, it needs to strike while the iron is hot and while this tablet is new. Advertise the crap out of it everywhere. Because it’s new, people will be interested to have a look. Many more will buy it because it’s new. Eventually, all of the above limitations will be apparent, but only after people have paid their cash and already purchased it.

Personally, this unit has too many limitations for me to consider it. If this gaming tablet offered both cell phone data options AND full Windows gaming compatibility, I might have considered it. It isn’t enough to offer many from the Steam library of games. It also needs to offer the fundamental basics for multiplayer gaming.

For example, you wouldn’t be able to play Fallout 76 while out and about without access to a high speed MiFi hotspot. Thus, you also won’t be able to play multiplayer games like Fortnite, Overwatch or Destiny using a Steam Deck while riding a train to work. The lack of a multiplayer always-on data network is huge miss that ultimately undermines the usability of the Steam Deck and is also its biggest design flaw; a flaw that shouldn’t have been missed by the Valve team at the Steam Deck’s price tag.

Overall, I can’t personally recommend the purchase of the Steam Deck as a portable modern gaming device strictly because of its lack of thoughtful design around multiplayer gaming while on the go. However, the Steam Deck is probably fine if used as a home console device using a wireless controller while hooked to a widescreen TV and connected to a home high speed WiFi network. It may also be worth it if you intend to use it primarily to play offline single player games or if you intend to use it as a retro emulator for 80s and 90s games. Still, it’s way overpowered for the likes of Joust, Dig Dug or Defender.

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