Steam Deck
Photo: Valve

Valve’s Steam Deck might succeed by being everything the Nintendo Switch isn’t

Protocol Entertainment

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Tuesday, we’re looking at the release of Valve’s Steam Deck handheld and how it stacks up against the Switch, the video game industry's response to the war in Ukraine and the wildly successful launch of FromSoftware’s Elden Ring.

Valve’s Steam Deck is the antithesis of the Nintendo Switch

Valve’s latest piece of hardware is its most ambitious yet, even if it’s years away from reaching its full potential. The Steam Deck, reviews for which dropped last Friday alongside the first batch of order confirmations, is in many ways the antithesis of the Nintendo Switch, even as it emerges as one of the most viable new competitors in the handheld market.

But for Valve, it’s less about challenging Nintendo’s handheld and more about laying the groundwork now for a future paradigm shift for PC gaming. That is if the Steam Deck, like the company’s ill-fated Steam Machines and VR ambitions, doesn’t fall by the wayside in the next few years.

The Steam Deck is a work in progress. Unlike Nintendo’s handheld, which arrived fully formed in early 2017 equipped with a new Zelda game, the Steam Deck is more of an experiment that doubles as an invitation to rethink the traditional trade-offs of PC gaming.

  • Many prominent reviews of the Steam Deck have lauded its impressive specs and the device’s potential while also highlighting severe drawbacks.
  • The Verge said “it’s not ready” and a “glorious mess,” and prominent PC gaming enthusiast YouTube channel Linus Tech Tips called it “incomplete” and “unfinished.”
  • Many of the concerns center on the Steam Deck’s compromises. It’s pricier than a Switch, but not quite as powerful as a higher-tier PC. Its battery life is abysmal and compatibility with Steam’s library is far from where it needs to be.
  • Valve told IGN the device will only get better over time as PC components improve and that future versions might introduce pricier but more performant configuration options.

The promise of a portable PC is tantalizing. Gaming companies have been trying for years to achieve the sweet middle ground Nintendo struck with the Switch, but for the PC gaming crowd.

  • Devices like the Aya Neo and OneXPlayer have clocked similar performance, but they cost almost twice as much.
  • The Steam Deck’s biggest draw is that it nails the price point, at between $399 and $649, while also offering solid performance that covers indie games and an impressive slate of modern console titles, like Sony’s God of War PC port and the newly released Elden Ring. Plus, your games aren’t locked to the Steam Deck; they move across screens, mirroring the promise of subscription and cloud gaming.
  • Valve is also in the unique position of operating the most popular PC gaming marketplace in the world, with more than 120 million monthly active users and billions in annual sales.
  • Creating a portable device linked at the operating system level to Steam feels like Valve finally flexing its muscle in forward-thinking fashion.

Valve’s handheld has huge potential. Where Valve is poised to succeed is in the level of customizability and freedom it gives Steam Deck owners. The device runs Linux, and early owners are already calling it one of the best emulation machines ever made.

  • The Steam Deck can run alternative operating systems, too, and the modding community is enthusiastic about figuring out the extent to which it can be turned into something Valve never predicted, especially after Valve released the CAD files for the device.
  • “I don't really see the value of locking people into anything. And strategy, you know, there's a core part of your strategy: Start from openness and then build from there,” Valve co-founder and president Gabe Newell told Rock Paper Shotgun.
  • Much of what makes the Nintendo Switch such a solid, reliable system is also what makes it boring and inconvenient. Indie ports can often take months to years to arrive, and Nintendo still charges high prices all while treating emulation and third-party software as a direct threat to its business.

The Steam Deck is by no means a slam dunk for Valve. Most consumers won’t have their device until the summer, and it’ll take many months for the company and its developer partners to create a more comprehensive list of compatible titles. Even then, much of the work in testing the limits of the handheld will come from the PC gaming early adopters who buy in early without any guarantees Valve will support it well into the future.

But that’s exactly what Valve appears to want its portable PC to be: a kind of community project and collective rethinking of PC gaming, from rigid form factors and pricey components to something entirely new, exciting and — at least for now — a bit janky. Nintendo may never treat the Steam Deck as a viable Switch competitor, but another entrant in the portable market will undoubtedly push us forward toward a future where it’s even easier to play the games we love in whatever context we like.

— Nick Statt


“Women have been harassed, bullied, marginalized, held back in their careers, paid less, and much, much less. These are real stories, real human beings, and this is going on in companies in our industry … leaders who fall short of basic standards must go." —Laura Miele, Electronic Arts’ chief operating officer, addressed the video game industry’s reckoning around rampant sexual harassment and discrimination during her keynote address at the 2022 DICE Summit.

"The problem is that a lot of the actors who are in that space are not people you want interacting with your customers. We had problems when we started accepting cryptocurrencies as a payment option. 50% of those transactions were fraudulent, which is a mind-boggling number. These were customers we didn't want to have." —Valve co-founder Gabe Newell addressed Steam’s cryptocurrency and NFT ban in an interview with PC Gamer, saying the technologies have promise but are rife with scams.


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In other news

Game Freak refuses to slow down. Two new Pokémon games, versions Scarlet and Violet, were unveiled over the weekend, and they’re coming in late 2022. That means developer Game Freak and its partners will have put out five games in roughly 12 months by the end of the year.

The success of Elden Ring. FromSoftware’s latest action RPG is doing big numbers, shattering viewership and gameplay records on Twitch and Steam and selling far faster than prior Soulsborne releases in the U.K.

Knockout City shifts to free-to-play. Velan Studios' competitive dodgeball game is the latest game to shift its business model post-release. The developer is also parting ways with EA to take over publishing rights.

Sony’s Game Pass competitor starts taking shape. Spartacus, the codename for Sony’s subscription gaming service, will have three tiers spanning $10 to $16 per month, but it won’t include first-party releases on launch day, VentureBeat reported last week.

Executive shuffle at Activision’s King. The leadership is changing at the maker of Candy Crush, with Humam Sakhnini stepping down as president and co-founder Sebastian Knutsson leaving his role as chief creative officer.

TikTok extends video length to 10 minutes, after previously embracing 3-minute clips. That’s a long time to dance!

When Netflix removed “Friends,” piracy spiked. Torrentfreak has a closer look at the effect the removal of the show had on piracy in the Netherlands.

Instagram has no plans for an iPad app. Over a decade after the release of the iPad, Instagram still doesn’t have a native app for Apple’s tablet. That’s not going to change anytime soon, according to Instagram head Adam Mosseri, who said on Twitter this weekend the iPad user base was “just not a big enough group of people to be a priority.”

The game industry reacts to the war in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week inspired many in the overseas game industry, which is scattered throughout much of Europe and Asia, to speak out against the conflict and call for humanitarian aid, donations and other forms of support for the Ukrainian government.

Poland’s CD Projekt Red, the developer behind the Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077, said, “We cannot remain indifferent in the face of such injustice and we ask everybody to join in and help in any way you can.” The company is donating more than 1 million PLN (about $240,000) to the Poland-based humanitarian organization Polska Akcja Humanitarna. A number of other game-makers, including 11 Bit Studios and Bungie, are also donating proceeds from game sales and charity drives to similar humanitarian efforts.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 developer GSC Game World, which is based in Kyiv, made a more direct plea to fans on Twitter, asking them to donate to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. “Through pain, death, war, fear and inhuman cruelty, Ukraine will persevere. As it always does,” the company’s statement read. One of Ubisoft’s two studios in Ukraine is also located in Kyiv, and the French publisher said it was “fully mobilized” to support its employees in the country.


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