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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

It’s a shame Steam Deck’s launch won’t be much of a launch

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Remember lining up to buy things?

What a strange ritual that was: Years after it was possible to shop online and have stuff shipped to our doors we were still lining up for 12 hours to buy new game consoles at midnight, either because it was the only way to get one or just to have it in our hands at the very first possible second. I’m not going to say I’m nostalgic for those midnight launch waits—when my friend and I went to pick up Halo 3 at a GameStop in 2007 and saw a line of people stretching across an entire parking lot, we went to IHOP for pancakes and came back at 12:30 am. If I ever have a choice between pancakes and a line, I’ll choose pancakes.

But there is something to the communal spirit of the launch day event, whether that’s bonding with other people sitting on the cement or seeing your whole social network crackle in anticipation of that singular moment—the package out for delivery, the preload on Steam unlocking. Even if it’s now mostly online, we still get to experience some version of that concentrated hype with digital games and the Covid era. The Steam Deck deserves to be that kind of event, and I’m disappointed that it probably won’t be.

The Steam Deck is the most significant thing to happen to PC hardware since the arrival of the first VR headsets in 2016. It’s not the first handheld PC, but it’s poised to make handheld PC gaming a thing, turning Steam into a console-like experience without sacrificing the openness of the PC. Valve is likely going to sell millions of them. But the reality is that most people won’t be getting one when the system “launches” at the end of February. Hell, you might not even be able to get one this year.

The last couple years have been rough for electronics. Covid impacted manufacturing in 2020. Postal services struggled to handle the massive spike in demand. Shipping prices skyrocketed. Chip production can’t possibly keep up with demand now: It’s way, way up across the board, which is why it’s still hard to buy a PlayStation 5, an RTX 3080, or a new car. This is the new normal, but it still stings to see it affect what should be such a big moment for PC gaming.

Supplies were scarce when the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X arrived in late 2020, but they still had proper launch days, with online orders available for pickup at stores and millions sold in the first month. Trying to buy one was awful if your timing wasn’t lucky: Wario64’s in-stock alerts could only take us so far. Valve’s approach with the Steam Deck is more practical and also less exciting. Anyone can pre-order a Steam Deck right now, and Valve will start sending out emails on February 25th to those who ordered first (pre-orders started last July), giving them the option to pay up and secure their system.

You’re guaranteed to get one, no luck needed. But the communal line isn’t quite as fun when you don’t know how long it is, where your spot is, or how many months it might take to reach the front.

How many people who pre-ordered last year will actually see their Steam Deck ship out on February 28? Valve isn’t selling through any retailers like Target or Best Buy, so we don’t even have a sense of how many units will be in stock, or even which day they’ll start showing up in the mail for the first buyers. March 3, perhaps?

Could the current vague availability window of “After Q2 2022” mean a Steam Deck you order right now doesn’t show up until next year? Possible. Maybe even likely.

We’ll surely see some of the earliest Steam Decks pop up on Ebay at exorbitant prices, but Valve limited pre-orders to one system per Steam account and at first pre-orders weren’t available for new accounts. Those rules hopefully prevented nefarious resellers from scooping up more than their share. Reserving a Deck through Steam really will be the only practical way to get one.

Frustrating as the wait may be, it certainly still beats following a Twitch channel for stock alerts or paying Best Buy $200 just for the privilege of maybe snagging a graphics card. And none of this is going to matter for the Deck’s long-term success.

Still, I’m going to miss seeing the flood of photos on Twitter from people getting their Steam Decks on the same day. Of being immersed in that one-time everyone-talking-about-the-same-thing bubble. It’s rare for a platform as open as the PC to have that kind of unifying moment, but we’ll have to make do without it. Maybe by the time Valve makes the Steam Deck 2—or just starts selling this one in more colors—the supply chain will have caught up to demand and we’ll get another shot at it. They’ve got to make one in Companion Cube colors eventually, right?

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