The Deck will NEVER see mainstream success

HeyCori

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Mar 1, 2011
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Did you fall for my clickbait blog title? Sorry about that. Ultimately, it’s way too early to declare whether the Deck will be a mainstream success or not. In many ways, despite the history of the handheld market, we’re in uncharted territory with the Deck. We’ve finally reached the point where APUs can play modern (i.e. recently released) PC games at acceptable frame rates, and do so at close to a mass market price. Previous attempts to enter Nintendo’s arena have largely failed to catch on and stick with everyday consumers. But for now, I’m only giving the Deck a slim chance and my reasons might surprise you.

I think the Deck has everything necessary to be a very popular, well selling… niche. The hardware is mostly a success (although I have concerns about the eMMC model). The price is good, not great. $399 is still a hefty chunk of change for the cheapest model and the most expensive model screams hobbyist only. That said, the cheapest model is still close to the Switch OLED while offering up vastly more power and versatility. That might be enough to entice those that are even slightly tech savvy. So, at the moment, I'm willing to give Valve the win on pricing.

IMO, the biggest hurdle to the Deck finding any sort of mass market success will be - and hear me out - the games.

I understand that it runs SteamOS and has access to thousands of Steam games. And, unlike Stadia, you're not "renting" games from a service but downloading and playing games directly from your account... and that's the problem.

Go look at advertisements for the Deck. What do you see? Games that are already available on other platforms and have been for years. That's great, it really is, but where's the killer app? Where's the "Only on Deck" exclusive that's going to convince a casual consumer to spend $399 on a portable Steam system where the most popular games are readily available on multiple platforms?

Both Steam and Stadia have the same problem; they're trying to sell a non-exclusive catalog of games. "But Steam has countless PC titles that aren't available on other platforms!!!" you say. Yeah, and how will people hear about them?

Remember, I'm looking at this from the angle of mass market success. Let's say Valve gets ambitious and releases the Deck in numerous physical stores. A consumer walks into Walmart/Target/GameStop/Best Buy etc, and sees a Steam Deck. On the box is a picture of Doom, Control, Hades and... well nothing. Unlike the Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch, there won't be any physical presence for Steam games. The casual consumer won't be able to walk into a store and browse the catalog of “Deck” games.

More than likely (especially in America) the Deck is going to be locked up behind some case. And even if the clerk opens the case, I’m guessing the back of the box won’t showcase any “unique” Deck games.

What most consumers will see is a $399 portable that only offers the same games they’ve played on other platforms. And what are the chances that Valve will spend money on in-store adverts to highlight a curated list of Steam only games? I’d say slim to none. Furthermore, what are the chances that stores even dedicate significant shelf space to a console where the store can’t then sell the games as well? Again, I’d say very slim.

I suspect the bulk of sales will come from online users; people that are already invested in Steam and would love to play their games on the go (or even upgrade from their dated PCs). That alone is enough to garner millions of sales for the Deck. Perhaps a drop in the bucket compared to other competitors, but as I said, enough to successfully fill a niche. However, that isn’t without its own set of problems.

If Valve is selling every Deck at a loss, then how does Valve recoup that money when the (likely) majority of Deck users are going to use it to play their existing library? Console manufacturers sell their consoles at a loss because the profits come from selling games on the platform. What happens when buyers already have a pre-built library? Microsoft solves this problem with Game Pass, but how will Valve show that the Deck itself can be used as a vehicle to increase profits?

Valve is a massive corporation with very deep products, yes, but Valve is still a business and ran like one. There’s a reason Steam Machines, the Steam Link, and Steam Controller went the way of the dodo – because they weren’t making money.

It will be interesting to see how Valve makes the Deck itself profitable, again, assuming they’re selling it at a loss. If profits remain flat years after the Deck’s release (i.e. it’s not costing them Valve a significant amount money but also not making them significant money), then discontinuing the Deck would be the more financially beneficial option since that time/money/resources can then be used for something else.

And there’s just one more issue that I’d like to touch on…

Disclaimer: I don’t have any information regarding what level of quality control Valve will do with the Deck. My guess is little since they position it as a PC that you can do anything with. But hey, maybe they plan on tightening up standards once the Deck is released. And with that out of the way…

…sometimes PC gaming sucks.

Games have bugs. Games have game breaking, progress wiping, throw your controller out the window bugs (see Fallout, Skyrim, Cyberpunk 2077, etc etc). But you know what you don’t have to do on a console game? Manually modify ini or other config files.

I understand that scenario doesn’t pop up like it used to, but a big game with an unstable release could quickly lead to poor word of mouth for the Deck. Casual gamers don’t want an Aliens: Colonial Marines situation where they’re modifying the ini to activate the AI. If a casual gamer buys a Deck over a Switch, gets it home, and realizes that his game won’t work without first Googling config files, there’s a good chance that system is going back to the store.

Even if it’s not the config files that need to be fixed, there are definitely graphics that need to be fixed. Some people just want to play. The amount of time they want to spend adjusting graphic settings to achieve acceptable frame rates is zero. Now, a lot of games are already good at automatically adjusting graphic settings so this might be a moot point, but if word on the street is that the Deck is awesome but needs to be babied to get good frame rates, then I can see a lot of people being turned off by that. Again, the disclaimer, maybe Valve already has a solution that can make this process more seamless. We won’t know until release.

None of this is to say that the Deck will fail, or that I want it to fail. But without knowing Valve’s expectations for the device, I think “success” for the Deck will be very hard to measure. I like to think I don’t have a dog in the fight since (currently) I’m not a mobile gamer. However, the proliferation and continued evolution of APUs is important for both gaming and non-gaming reasons. Fingers crossed this isn’t just another piece of plastic in Valve’s growing graveyard.

Full Disclosure: This blog started life as an article comment until I realized it was tl;dr so there exists a shorter version out there.
 
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