Valve’s Steam Deck

Valve seems to have set their sights on Nintendo’s handheld console market with the Steam Deck, a handheld gaming PC that lets you play your Steam library on the go. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a bigger, chonkier Switch. They are even selling it at a comparable-ish price point: $399.

Surely this is a game-changer, a console that can play real triple-A games in the palm of your hand. Right?


Look, I’m going to give it a fair shake here. Its specs are alright. You can view them all here if you want the full breakdown. The short version is that, yes, this is powerful enough to play some modern-day games. Not at high-spec, mind you — this isn’t going to replace your desktop or gaming laptop any time soon — but you’ll hit the recommended framerates for most modern-day titles. That’s probably good enough for a small screen like this.

Instead of giving you an excruciatingly deep dive into the specs and numbers (you can find plenty of that elsewhere), I’m going to give you my primal, instinctual reaction to the Valve Steam Deck.

UGH! – Button Placement

Valve’s Steam Deck

Journalists who were invited to the closed door demo keep saying that you’ll get used to it after a while. I don’t care how many times this line gets repeated; this is very bad button placement.

The core of good controller design is to put all the major controls where your thumbs and fingers would naturally rest. You might notice that this is not at all the case with the Steam Deck. All the buttons are placed high up on the unit, with some buttons actually curving over the side.

Why is this an issue? Because it will make the whole unit a lever. Every button press will make it wobble in your hand. There are also some games that will cause major hand cramps with this button setup. Think of platformers that make use of the D-Pad and face buttons. Think of how your thumb will have to contort to be where it needs to be while also holding the device stable.

The D-Pad is a crime. Just by looking at it, you can tell that it’s the kind of low responsiveness, squishy, center-rocking D-Pad that went out of style with the Xbox 360. Plus, it’s also situated in the corner, way up in Fingercramp Town (population: me). It’s also so close to the left thumbstick. I can imagine getting accidental presses by either nudging the stick or accidentally hitting the D-Pad when you are only trying to use one or the other.

There’s one style of game this was clearly designed for, and that’s the shooter. With extra assignable back triggers and massive squishy shoulder triggers, along with trackpads where you would expect the main controls would be, this would be a fantastic device to play shooters on…

… But why would you play a shooter without a keyboard and mouse?

WOOHOO! – Tournament Applications

Valve Steam Deck

As a tournament organizer myself, I can vouch for the fact that the most difficult thing to manage at any tournament, whether local or major, is the tech. Do you know how much effort it takes to lug full PCs or consoles and monitors around, set them all up around a venue, and make sure they are all operating properly? It’s expensive. It takes a lot of time and labor. It usually requires a lot of compromise at the local level, which often causes errors. And this makes people complain. It’s a whole complex mess.

But a Steam Deck, if the price point holds, is only going to be $400, and each one comes with a built-in screen. You could fit a whole tournament’s worth of setups in a backpack — a backpack, for crying in the tournament hall! Sure, there might be a little extra overhead if you want to, say, provide everyone with a keyboard and mouse, or hook up every Steam Deck to a monitor, which makes this concept work better for some genres than others. However, it’s still cheaper than getting a gaming PC.

My main tournament-organization experience is in fighting games, and in the fighting-game scene you bring your own controller. Do you know how freeing it would be to just set these up in a bunch of docks before a tournament? Do you know how life-changing it would be to hook up the Twitch streaming setup to one dock? You could just have people bring the whole Steam Deck over and drop it into the dock to immediately get them on the Stream feed.

EWWWW! – Hidden Costs

Valve Steam Deck - Scrooge

This all looks cool, but if you dig into the Steam Deck website, you will notice that it’s not an all-in-one package. The lowest storage model (presumably the $400 one) only has a 64 GB eMMC for storage. That will barely fit one game, if you are lucky. To get real storage. you have to upgrade, but even then, the highest you can go will be a 512 GB high-speed NVMe SSD. Anyone who wants a robust library will have to add microSD cards on top of that! That’s $649 right off the bat.

The dock is also sold separately, and it’s one of the major selling points. When all of this is put together, you might be pushing $800+ just to get it operational, and if you don’t like the built-in controls (I don’t think you will) and want to play on a low-latency monitor, you’ll have to spend even more than that.

HUH? – Does this even work?

Valve Steam Deck

Finally, there’s one thing that I’m very confused about. Here’s a blurb right from the official Steam Deck website:

Once you’ve logged into Steam Deck, your entire Steam Library shows up, just like any other PC. You’ll be able to find your collections and favorites – exactly where you left them.

So… do you have to be logged in to access your library? If so, does that make this really portable? There’s no cellular connectivity in it (and no one would take advantage of it if there was — I’m looking at you, PlayStation Vita.) So do you always have to be at a Wi-Fi access point to play your games? Can this actually run in offline mode?

If it can’t, well that’s a major problem. The whole point of portable gaming is to be… you know… portable?

Then again, you can play most Steam games in offline mode on your PC, and if it works the same way a PC does, then one would assume you can connect and have access to your library — so long as something wonky doesn’t happen with your login credentials.

I’ll admit, maybe I’m being just a tiny bit paranoid here, but I’ve seen dumber attempts at DRM. I just wish Valve were a bit clearer about this in their official marketing copy.

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