The new handheld video game console on the market this month is unlike the other handheld video game consoles launched in your lifetime. It’s the Steam Deck. It’s a console, but it’s also a PC. It’s a contradiction in terms. It’s the culmination of a long and fascinating history on the other side—the PC side—of video game culture.
Eighteen years ago, video game developer Valve, renowned for the sci-fi shooter series Half-Life, launched the PC gaming platform Steam. Initially, Steam ran updates for the physical copies of Counter-Strike and other games developed by Valve. With time, Valve opened Steam to other developers and transformed the platform into a digital marketplace. Now Steam hosts a wide variety of games for purchase and use in a common interface. Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony also developed digital platforms for their respective consoles, and while those platforms host many cross-platform titles, they also provide a sense of curation and branding. You’ll never mistake the PlayStation Store for the Nintendo eShop.
In contrast, Steam, for better or worse, publishes everything under the sun. Steam hosts scams. Steam hosts porn. Steam hosts Hunt Down the Freeman, an unauthorized and disastrous spinoff of Valve’s own Half-Life 2. That’s the freedom of PC. That’s the freedom of Steam. It’s the largest video game library on PC. It’s the largest video game library in general. Thus, Steam became the de facto capital of modern gaming on a computer. Valve is now the informal authority, governing the space for more than a decade before ever developing a single piece of hardware.
Now that has changed. In recent years, Valve developed the Steam Machine home console, the Steam Controller, the Steam Link streaming gadget, and the Valve Index headset for virtual reality: Each item is designed to extend the Steam Library from desktop monitors to new multimedia frontiers. It’s been a rough product line so far. The Valve Index is a modest success; it’s well reviewed with a much higher price and much lower sales than Meta’s Oculus Quest 2. But commercially, the rest of those products failed for a variety of reasons. The Steam Machine supported too few games. The Steam Controller, though a cult favorite in some circles, required too much acclimation and customization compared to a standard console controller. Nevertheless, Valve recommitted to hardware development.
The Steam Deck supports a much wider variety of games than the Steam Machine could handle. The Steam Deck sorts the Steam Library into categories: Verified (“these work”), Playable (“these probably work”), Unsupported (“these don’t work—yet”), and Unknown. The Steam Deck runs bigger games than you might expect a handheld console to support; Elden Ring, a 60 GB open-world game also available on next-gen home consoles, is Deck Verified.
It’s hard to overstate the advancement here. We’re talking about a handheld video game console. You’re supposed to be playing Pokémon and Animal Crossing on these things!
Valve announced the Steam Deck a year into the coronavirus pandemic. It was an awkward time to be touting the portability of a handheld console. Granted, Switch sales surged despite supply shortages earlier in the pandemic, but the demand was likely less about the portability and more about the games exclusive to the Switch. There’s a much narrower target audience for the Steam Deck, which appeals primarily to PC gamers who already own several titles via Steam. The Steam Deck isn’t a gateway to PC gaming but rather a physical extension of it. It’s now playing a strange role in the console market. In theory, it’s competing with the Switch, the hottest handheld console on the planet, but its specifications more so resemble the Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5. Still, it’s far more customizable than the major consoles. The Steam Deck runs Valve’s proprietary SteamOS, but alternatively you can install Windows.
The device is unlikely to convert many users from console to PC, especially at such a high price ($399) for the base model. The Switch launched at $299, and Nintendo now sells the Switch Lite for $199. And speaking of “lite,” the various Switch models each weigh less than a pound; the Steam Deck, with its better specs and bulkier profile, weighs a pound and a half. The Steam Deck risked the unflattering comparison to Sega’s Game Gear, the old handheld console once rivaling Nintendo’s Game Boy with superior color and lighting but unfortunately burning through a dozen AA batteries per week (not to mention the Game Boy’s lower price point, slimmer profile, and superior library). Lastly, note the limited release for the Steam Deck, launching only in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and EU for now, compared to the worldwide availability of the Switch.
But Valve isn’t reacting to Nintendo and the Switch. Valve is trying to solve a problem with its own market. By the end of the 2000s, laptops overtook desktop computers in global market share. You’d maybe think laptops already offer a measure of portability for video games on PC, but realistically, laptops—especially “gaming laptops”—are the worst of both worlds: They’re less powerful and less serviceable than desktops, but still less portable than handheld consoles and smartphones, plus they’re relatively expensive for the compromised specs you’re getting. So the shrunken market share for desktop computers means a shrunken surface area for PC gaming. Hence the Steam Deck. It’s a game-changing proposition. It’s also a bit of a dare. Do you really, truly want to see Elden Ring or Cyberpunk 2077 downscaled to a 7-inch screen and limited to as little as two hours of playtime on a full battery? Surely some of you just shuddered reading that. It was until now an unthinkable question with prohibitively expensive answers. It’s why handheld gaming PCs until the Steam Deck were a niche market. It’s why Nintendo prioritized convenience over performance in every one of its handheld consoles from the Game & Watch through the Switch. Valve asked, “¿Por qué no los dos?” Now we’re free to find out.
It was one thing for Sega, then a console manufacturer, to compete with Nintendo in the handheld segment in the 1990s. It’s another thing for Valve, until recently a software company with no stake in the console wars, to invite comparison of the Steam Deck and the Switch in 2022. The Switch, both portable and dockable, isn’t a secondary product for the handheld market. It’s the star console for Nintendo in the eighth generation. It travels well. It connects its display to a television. It’s got a slim profile with detachable controllers. It runs The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. What more could you want? Well, for one, you might want a handheld console that doesn’t burst into flames upon contact with the internet. Online, the Switch sucks for any use case more complicated than buying games from the Nintendo eShop. The Switch isn’t really built for all this recent talk about “the metaverse.” It’s not about that life. So what if the Steam Deck doesn’t eventually live up to the commercial comparison with the Switch? Someone has to challenge Nintendo and bring handheld gaming into the 2020s. Maybe that’s Valve.
The Steam Deck is an open-ended question about the future of video games on PC. It’s still a bit tough to articulate what “bringing PC gaming to a handheld console” even means. Aren’t “PC” and “console” mutually exclusive terms? Yes and no. It’s complicated. Windows is a platform and Xbox is a platform, but “PC” is a culture and so is the “console.” PC gaming is a culture of customization, variety, a certain level of fussiness, and freedom. Console gaming is a culture of standardization, curation, ease, and order. Though firmly rooted in the first column, Valve has always wanted to have it both ways. Now the Steam Deck docks smack-dab in the middle of these distinctions.