Valve Steam Deck Is a Game System Built for Frenzied Parents
Despite some flaws, the device is a cool toy for busy gamers.
On a recent Sunday, I had just put my 2-year-old down for a nap and sat at my office computer to play the sublime, new game Elden Ring. It took about 10 minutes before my daughter started screaming to get out of her crib, which would ruin any shot I had of getting in some gaming that day.
Or would it? With the Steam Deck, a new portable video game system from Valve Corp. that I've been testing for the past few weeks, I was able to move to the living room with her and pick up where I left off in the game. Elden Ring didn't look quite as good and the frame-rate wasn't as steady as it is on my desktop PC, but the portability was worth the compromise.
Players like me are the target audience for this new hardware from Valve, the privately owned company best known for operating Steam, the biggest online store for computer games. The Steam Deck looks like a super-sized Nintendo Switch and comes at a super-sized price of $399, or $529 or $649 for a version with a solid-state drive with a decent amount of storage. The device allows players to take their Steam games on the go. But unlike the Switch, which runs on a proprietary operating system from Nintendo Co. and can only play games that Nintendo approves, the Steam Deck is an open garden that can run just about anything that can be played on a computer.
The Steam Deck consists of a small screen flanked by joysticks, buttons and two trackpads that operate sort of like a computer mouse. It runs many Steam games effectively, with more becoming compatible every day. It feels like a mid-range PC capable of running games with heavy-duty graphics, like Sony Group Corp.'s 2018 gem God of War, at a stable 30 frames per second. Lower-impact games I tested ran perfectly, from critically acclaimed platformers like Hollow Knight to niche role-playing games like the Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. You can either download games directly to the device's hard drive or stream them from another computer.
The machine is surprisingly comfortable despite its heft. It has a solid array of controls, including back buttons, and pretty much everything is customizable. And while portable gaming may not be as pivotal in an era where many office workers have limited or eliminated their commutes, the Steam Deck is ideal for those of us who have small children and need to be constantly moving. With the ability to save game progression in the cloud, I could switch back and forth between a desktop PC and the portable machine without losing an inch of progress.
It is flawed in some ways. The battery life is wildly inconsistent. It was particularly noticeable in God of War, during which I was able to get about an hour and a half of unplugged play time. Some titles can be finicky to get working at all. Early testing suggests that this is a platform geared toward computer-savvy gamers, who will get the most out of its open operating system and customizable nature. Folks who want to simply pop in a game and play may be disappointed that sometimes things don't work as intended. During our weeks with the system, Valve was putting out new updates and fixes on a near-daily basis, so the machine may be more stable in the weeks and months following its release.
For a certain group of players, though, that openness is part of the charm. Over the next few months, I suspect we'll see Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky videos full of tips for how to get just about anything running on this machine, from retro emulators to, I don't know, Microsoft Excel. On Thursday, the day before the Steam Deck's debut, Valve designer Lawrence Yang sent out a list of updates that included a one-click install for the Google Chrome browser.
Any time a new game has come out over the last few years, a common refrain among gamers is: When will it come to Switch? Indie developers are frequently bombarded with requests to bring their titles to the Nintendo machine. The Steam Deck could render that question unnecessary for many people. Although Valve's machine may not keep Nintendo executives up at night—the Steam Deck doesn't have Mario or Zelda—it does come closer to posing legitimate competition than other attempts, thanks to its comfort and portability. And those of us with small children may benefit most.