Steam Link – The Past, Present, and Future

Emily Galic
October 23, 2019

Game streaming is not a new development in technology, but it is an element which is yet to achieve its full potential. Over the years, many services and systems have attempted to gain a foothold in this market, with Valve’s Steam Link being one of the more successful and famous. So, what exactly is the Steam Link, where did it come from, and what might it mean for the future of gaming?

The Basics

Released on November 10, 2015, the first Steam Link was a combination hardware and software package developed for PC gaming. When paired with a user’s Steam account, this system would allow users the stream games from their computer to any connected video device via a network connection.

This technology aimed to allow users the ability to play their PC games anywhere in their home, not just at their gaming desk or workstation. Though the primary benefit of this would be to couch players, it would also allow play on smaller devices such as tablets or even smartphones.

Playing these games would require input devices to be linked to the system, whether these devices were gamepads, keyboard and mouse setups, or Valve’s Steam Controller.

While similar feats to what the Steam Link could accomplish would theoretically be possible with a combination of long cables and converters, this approach streamlined the process. Steam Link made it easier, gave a greater range, and, all things considered, was usually a cheaper alternative.

The only real issues of this device came down to those of bandwidth and latency. Too little bandwidth would mean image quality would suffer, whereas too high latency would make real-time gameplay unpleasant or impossible.

Development and Evolution

The Steam Link was, at the time, a very popular product among Steam’s library. While direct numbers aren’t available, it was popular enough to sell all of its produced units, up until physical devices stopped production in November 2018.

This might appear counterintuitive, to stop production of a popular product, but Valve had a good reason. Over the three years which the Steam Link was offered, it had quickly become out-dated.

What used to require this dedicated hardware box can now be accomplished through apps on mobiles and smart-TVs. With the hardware focus unnecessary, Valve abandoned it and adopted a more modern approach.

This new system would also grow to be more expansive than the last. In March of 2019, an update called Steam Link Anywhere allowed games to be streamed over the internet, and not just to a home network. These types of connections are more problematic with bandwidth and latency, but this is a problem which will be further mitigated with future technological progress such as 5G and more widely available fibre connections.

The Future Among Streaming

As it now stands, the Steam link is poised to hold a steady position in a world increasingly turning to internet streaming. AAA gaming can be a little behind in this regard, but this direction, as shown by others in the entertainment industry, is all but assured.

Netflix and Hulu were, in the beginning, extremely limited by both bandwidth and latency concerns. Over time these have become such a non-issue that this form of content access has rapidly become preferable for many users.

According to a Nielson survey, 63% of American homes had a streaming subscription as of quarter three, 2017. The same time the following year, this proportion had risen to 68%. During the same period, traditional cable had dropped from being in 80.1% of homes to 76.4%

This isn’t just the case for television, either, as mobile-focused entertainment has also seen significant levels of growth. As a platform, mobile gaming has seen around $13.2 billion of growth in the last year alone, with an additional $29 billion expected by 2021. 

A significant contributor here is the quantity of PC or even physical games which have found a home on mobile devices, with AAA video games like Epic’s Fortnite pushing the traditional gaming market on this front. In entertainment more generally, we’ve seen many advances also through iGaming operators offering live streaming variants of classic games alongside their standard offerings, with Betway being one such example of how streaming has been innovating within a new space.

For music, the likes of Spotify have again pushed the success of streaming. Offering more choice for less money and requiring slower connections than gaming or video alternatives, this has been perhaps one of the more predictable areas of growth.

Returning to game streaming, it is Google’s Stadia which is currently poised to be the next breakout hit. Set for launch on November 19, 2019, this next step up in-game streaming takes it a step further than the Steam Link. Rather than using a home computer, this system will offload the calculations to Google’s server system.

The result of this is that players should be able to enjoy games at maximum quality settings, which would only otherwise be possible on computers costing close to £10,000.

Looking ever further into the future, it’s difficult to tell just how far game streaming could go. There is no doubt that, once the infrastructural technology catches up, it will take an enormous part of the gaming pie. That said, the call and desire for at-home games are never going to vanish. Even the best internet connections will never be perfect, and because of this, we would assume a future of cooperation rather than domination.

Regardless of what ends up happening, you can be assured we’ll be watching closely.

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