Valve's Steam Deck faces an uphill battle against cloud gaming

Steam Deck Control Promo
Steam Deck Control Promo (Image credit: Valve)

Services like Stadia and Xbox Game Pass for Android have made games more accessible than ever, seemingly making dedicated gaming handhelds obsolete — the Nintendo Switch notwithstanding. That hasn't stopped Valve from making waves today as it announced the Steam Deck, a mobile gaming handheld meant to deliver a PC-quality experience. There's a lot to love about this handheld, especially considering it's much more than what it appears to be, but it faces an uphill battle against cloud streaming nonetheless.

It faces an uphill battle against cloud streaming.

PC-quality games can already be played on mobile devices, so Valve isn't doing anything new here on that front. The most compelling reason to purchase it would be to play your existing Steam library, and that begs the question as to why Valve didn't just make an app similar to Xbox Game Pass. Valve clearly thinks there's value in the Steam Deck that cloud gaming can't provide, but I just don't see it.

You're paying at minimum $400, potentially all the way up to $650, for a device that's limited by its internal hardware. I'm not saying that because I'm some big fan of cloud gaming — I have mixed feelings about it — but that's something that every dedicated mobile gaming device contends with; just look at the Nintendo Switch.

Fallout 4 Xbox Game Pass Android Hero

Source: Jennifer Locke / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jennifer Locke / Android Central)

Where Valve hopes to differentiate the Steam Deck from the likes of handhelds like the Nintendo Switch is billing it as a device in the PC space. It isn't just a mobile gaming handheld. According to Valve developer Pierre-Loup Griffais speaking with IGN, "It can pretty much run anything you can run on a PC."

Valve designer Lawrence Yang also told IGN, "we don't think people should be locked into a certain direction or a certain set of software that they can install. If you buy a Steam Deck, it's a PC. You can install whatever you want on it, you can attach any peripherals you want to it. Maybe a better way to think about it is that it's a small PC with a controller attached as opposed to a gaming console."

The Steam Deck was built with modding support in mind, and it's fully compatible with all of the features that Steam runs. That same type of modding support isn't usually found with cloud-based services, making it a huge boon for Valve's handheld. What the Steam Deck provides is basically the experience of a computer desktop.

Nintendo Switch Mario Kart

Source: iMore (Image credit: Source: iMore)

Cloud streaming makes the Steam Deck's specs irrelevant.

In some aspects, because it's almost designed as a portable PC with gaming in mind, it's close to a laptop. It can be connected to a monitors, keyboards, mice, even Ethernet. In my mind, being so similar to a laptop is almost to its detriment. I already have a laptop. Why do I need this?

Granted, the $400 price point is appealing for the specs it has, but again, I think that cloud streaming makes those specs almost worthless. Yeah, I could spend $400 to play Fallout 4 or some of the best PC games on the Steam Deck. Or I can stream it to my phone through Xbox Game Pass. With the rate that games are being added to Game Pass, I feel as if a lot of people would rather purchase that and play games on their phone than purchasing a device like the Steam Deck.

The whole point of cloud gaming is that people don't need to buy dedicated, powerful hardware to play these AAA games. You can conceivably play them on a weak Android phone or Chromebook. Now, that doesn't mean you still shouldn't use some of the best Android phones to stream them, but it does mean that you don't need to go out and spend that extra money. Just use what you already have.

Cyberpunk 2077

Source: CD Projekt Red (Image credit: Source: CD Projekt Red)

When Cyberpunk 2077 launched as a buggy mess on consoles and PC, we noted that Stadia was actually the best way to play it because it didn't have to overcome a lot of those technical limitations. Your mileage will obviously vary depending on your internet speeds, but the point stands that cloud streaming isn't hindered by your own hardware.

Cloud streaming remains a more accessible path to access these games, provided they come to the appropriate services. With GeForce Now and Steam Cloud Play, I don't see what the Steam Deck offers for most people.

As popular as the Steam Deck appears to be on social media right now, I only see it succeeding in a limited market. With competition from cloud streaming, cheaper entry points like the Nintendo Switch, and general laptops being available, I don't think it will find its footing — at least as a gaming handheld. What works in Valve's favor is that Steam is so massive, but as we've seen in the past, the Steam name alone doesn't guarantee success.

Jennifer Locke
Games Editor - PlayStation, Android, VR

Jennifer Locke has been playing video games nearly her entire life. You can find her posting pictures of her dog and obsessing over PlayStation and Xbox, Star Wars, and other geeky things.

8 Comments
  • I think what you're missing here is that a lot of us road warriors have a Switch or other portable gaming system to play when traveling, where internet is either not available or not strong enough to stream. Hotel wifi is garbage. Airplane wifi is barely good enough for emails. If this was your ONLY gaming system and it was primarily played at home, you're right, get a cheaper streaming setup. But, for people with a big Steam library that were waiting for a portable system strong enough to play them without shelling out $2k for a gaming laptop this is a long awaited option.
  • And that's fair, but I think the market of "people with a big Steam library that were waiting for a portable system strong enough to play them without shelling out $2k for a gaming laptop" is a very limited market given the alternatives out there.
  • True, it could be a very niche demand and I only have qualitative ideas about what that might be based on reading posts about people being excited for this launch or wishing a Switch Pro would have been released but so far it looks like the pre-orders have brought Steam's store to it's knees so I'd say that the initial response has been fairly strong.
  • I think you are dead wrong about thinking there are not many people out there with huge steam libraries.
    Steam has been around for over a decade and people have up to hundreds of games.
    Even if steam users dont want to play the latest triple A titles on the Steam deck they likely have dozens or more older games that they would love to play on this handheld.
  • I ordered for the best of both, most games I play are now streamed through stadia and it's awesome but still have some steam games that I like which are not available and as stated can be played when in areas of no or poor internet connectivity.
  • Cloud gaming is awful in my experience anything is better than it... However I'm not sure how many PC gamers will want to play their games on a screen this small...
  • Yes, game streaming is only as good as your Wifi connection.
    Also not very many games are available over streaming services, or they are exclusive to a service requiring multiple accounts (and monthly payments). As for Stadia, you have to buy the game just to play it there and possibly have duplicate game purchases if you want it on Steam as well.
  • I think the opposite of the headline: Cloud gaming is facing an uphill battle against local devices like Switch and Steam Deck. Offline gaming is crucial, especially in cities like New York where there isn't signal on the underground trains.