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As we break into 2013, one thing can be said for certain: we live in exciting times. As the gladiators of gaming begin to suit up again and enter the colosseum that is the world, it is finally true that a new gaming generation is upon us. While those that have competed in the past are here again with shiny new systems, a stranger to the console wars has announced itself. Considering how the big three consoles have been relatively unopposed (those being Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo), the addition of a new face may be just what consoles need to bring up the standards and force true innovation simply to stay alive. But the question on most minds still seems to be this: What is the Steam Box?
For those new to computer gaming, Steam may still be foreign. However it revolutionized the way games are bought and traded by doing the entire process digitally, causing a wave of followers repeating this process through Xbox Live Marketplace, Playstation Network, and so on. However Valve (the creators of Steam, as well as the well known Half Life series), placed themselves in an inconsistent playground. There is no unification behind desktop computers, and unlike consoles, whose basic purpose is for gaming, computers can have other intense purpose. Because of these multipurpose machines, Valve could never control family gaming like Nintendo, Microsoft, or Sony could. Consoles have a certain appeal to them that computers lack, although it is hard to pinpoint exactly what is that appeal. This is where the Steam Box enters the ring.
The Steam Box has been rumored for a while now, and was only fueled by Valve posting open job positions on their website for hardware engineers. This, along with Big Picture mode in Steam led many to believe a console was in the works, which is known now to be true after a CES announcement recently. However this is where things get interesting: The Steam Box is not a singular device. Rather it is a Linux-based OS that will power any range of gaming computers. Some of these gaming computers have already been announced to work well with the Steam platform, most notably Xi3's Piston, with backing from Valve. However taking this approach, a Steam Box could come in many shapes and sizes.
Other things have been hinted at by Gabe Newell, most notably the idea of performing on multiple screens. Currently, you would need multiple consoles to get a large group of people playing the same game. However the Steam Box OS could, in the future, manage up to 8 separate screens off of a singular device, making games like Left For Dead 2 completely possible on a LAN level. This may open up many other games to being played in a similar fashion, and with portability appearing to be a big factor for the hardware of Steam Boxes, LANs may become more of a TV problem than a console problem. In many ways, it will make computer LANs much more simple and open to new groups of people.
While we are still very far away from knowing the ins-and-outs of the Steam Box and all it may be capable of, it is definitely something to keep an eye on. Opening up the hardware market for a system will drive competition and produce better products, and while it has not been done quite this way in the current market for consoles, it might make things a bit more difficult for Microsoft and Sony. If the price is right for a good Steam Box, and the advertising is there to bring it to the masses, it may only be console exclusive games that keep Valve competitors alive. Considering how well they can control the PC market, Valve's venture into consoles may be one of the most important things to happen to the console world in a very long time. It may also open up the PC gaming culture to the masses. While time will only tell, even if the system doesn't outsell Microsoft or Sony systems, it will at least make a statement worth hearing.