As I was going around my press reviews for what was written about the Steam Deck in Japan after the Tokyo Games Show, I came across this exclusive interview given by Lawrence Yang and Pierre-Loup Griffais during their stay in Japan, just before the Tokyo Games Show 2022 started. I have prepared a translation below so that you can all enjoy making sense of it, but the original article (from Nikkei X-Trend) is here and should be considered the better source if you can read Japanese. If you reference the English translation please link to this page as well.
Interviewer: What is the aim and background behind the new handheld gaming platform that you have been developing for PC games?
Pierre-Loup Griffais: Steam and Steam Deck have one thing in common. Steam has always aimed to provide a better experience for its users by offering them smooth access to the latest titles and the ability to update them. The same is true with hardware. If we can own our own hardware and pursue a better gaming experience, we can offer high value without waiting for third-party companies to respond.
As PC gamers ourselves, we have always been looking for ways to improve the experience on the PC platform for all kinds of games, including new genres. Furthermore, we have always had the goal of expanding where games can be played and connecting them to more use cases.
There is great value in PC gaming, and there are many game genres that exist only on the PC; game innovations like MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online), free-to-play, and battle royale were born on the PC. On the other hand, PCs for gaming require high performance and have historically been used primarily on desktops.
We have developed controllers for Steam and “Steam Link,” which allows a PC game screen to be output to a TV over the Internet. As we worked on the hardware, our goal was to bring a rich gaming experience to the living room, to travel, and to other places. We have developed technology to make input methods compatible with games that are not designed to be controlled with a controller.
Steam Deck takes this expertise and turns it into a completely independent form factor. It is available as an all-in-one package, including games of various genres and software as a PC for productivity.
Interviewer: What is the target audience for Steam Deck, including age groups?
Lawrence Yang: There is no specific target. To be honest, we want as many people as possible to play the game. From a hardware design standpoint, we’ve done a lot of testing to make sure it’s as comfortable as possible for kids and adults of all sizes, and from a UX (user experience) standpoint, we’ve tried to make it as accessible as possible for people who have been using consoles and are not used to PC gaming. We tried to lower the barrier to use as much as possible. We have tried to make it as comfortable as possible for people to play the game, including how to get the game and how to operate updates.
Griffais: Until now, game fans needed to have a certain amount of experience and knowledge about what kind of hardware to buy and what kind of maintenance to do in order to comfortably enjoy games on their PCs. Steam Deck solves these problems and provides an environment where even beginners can enjoy playing games right away.
Yang: About 15 years ago, when I once purchased my first PC, I was also torn. Laptop or desktop? If it was a desktop, should I assemble it myself or buy the whole set? Steam Deck is an all-in-one solution that allows you to start playing games right away, and I hope it will help people who are interested in PC gaming but think it might be too difficult to take the first step.
Griffais: Of course, people who are already using Steam and have a lot of games are also a strong buyer segment. Those who have changed their lifestyle after starting a family and don’t play PC games as much may be able to reconnect with PC games through Steam Deck.
Yang: For those who are avid PC gamers, they enjoy modifying their games using mods (short for modification, which is data used to modify a game, such as adding maps or items). We also have a forum where users can download mods, and you can have that kind of fun on Steam Deck. It’s a PC, so you can also install Windows.
Interviewer: Tell us about the sales of Steam Deck. What games are popular among Steam Deck users?
Yang: We can’t give you specific numbers on how many games have been sold. However, we have received a lot more interest than we expected.
Griffais: We have received a lot of feedback from people who have become distant from PC games due to the changes in their lives caused by the spread of the new coronavirus infection. With Steam Deck, they can sit on the couch, go to different places in the house, and play with their family. This is one example of how Steam Deck is changing people’s gaming habits.
Yang: Steam Deck’s top 10 most popular titles were recently featured on Twitter. It’s interesting to see the mix of indie titles in addition to AAA (Triple-A, well-known games that have become very popular) like “The Elden Ring. Some games are a bit older, like “Grand Theft Auto V”. The device can meet a wide variety of demands, from the latest titles to older titles, from famous game makers to indie titles.
Interviewer: Reservations are now being accepted in the Asian region. The company aims to ship first from Japan by the end of 2022. What is the reason for this?
Yang: Because there are many fans of PC games in Japan. There is also a lot of interest in portable game consoles in Japan, and we believe that Steam Deck is likely to please them.
Griffais: I feel that the presence of PC games in Japan has been growing rapidly over the past two to three years. Steam Deck should be a boost to that business as well.
Interviewer: What are the advantages of Steam Deck compared to other console game consoles such as the PlayStation 5 (PS5)?
Yang: For example, if you play a game on Steam Deck and have another PC, you can cloud save the game and share the game’s progress on that PC as well. We are building in a way that takes advantage of the open PC ecosystem.
Griffais: One of the other great strengths of PC gaming is the ability to connect and play with any type of controller, rather than being limited to a specific controller. There is a wide variety of peripherals available, including steering wheels and flight simulator controllers. However, we are not aiming for differentiation, but rather to make the gaming experience as simple as possible, removing as many barriers as possible and providing a comfortable gaming experience. We don’t expect developers to offer exclusive features or content that only exists on Steam. We just want to provide the best experience for everyone.
Interviewer: You announced that the problem of the shortage of semiconductors is being solved. Can you give us more details?
Yang: All hardware companies are currently facing supply chain challenges. It is a combination of many things, from component shortages to logistics issues to the effects of the war going on in Ukraine. Naturally, one missing component is enough to prevent a product from being made. To solve this problem, we need to find different suppliers of parts and work with people to improve the overall obstacles and bottlenecks. We are not trying to solve any one thing, but rather we are steadily building on our ongoing efforts to improve and secure our supply.
Griffais: We have announced that we will be shipping the Steam Deck to everyone who had signed up for a reservation by the end of ’22. We are now able to shorten the long queues.
Yang: We are now able to start pre-orders in Asia because we now have the prospect of being able to supply enough for those who have been waiting for a long time to pre-order.
Interviewer: Related to semiconductors, the Steam Deck has the same architecture CPU (central processing unit) and GPU (image processing semiconductor) as the PS5 and Xbox series. What are the performance differences compared to those consoles?
Griffais: As you pointed out, they have exactly the same architecture, but with half the number of CPU cores and fewer GPU units. However, the processing power required is also different when playing at 1440p, sometimes 4k at 60 frames per second (fps) on these platforms, versus 800p resolution and 40 fps. Considering the size of the screen and the on-the-go experience, the power required on the platform is sufficient. The same features are available for graphics representation, such as ray tracing and variable rate shading.
Yang: Balancing power usage is also important. Performance versus power is always a trade-off when making a portable device. It is only recently that we have been able to strike the right balance with the processor we developed with AMD in the US. With conventional ones, battery life would have been very short.
Interviewer: Portable devices are important for thermal control as well as battery management. How are you improving this?
Griffais: Power and thermal handling have been at the core of the project since the beginning. For power, we have a number of features that control battery life at the OS and hardware level, allowing us to lower the frame rate or reduce the graphic presentation if the game is played for a long period of time. We’ve also added seamless sleep and resume processes so that you can resume your game without problems after you’ve paused it. Thermal processing is also important. For highly processed games such as “Elden Rings” the Steam Deck has sufficient cooling and thermal capacity to keep power consumption low. Even in terms of design, the processor developed in collaboration with AMD, the mainboard design, SSD selection, input component design, and sound architecture are all designed to consume as little power as possible.
Yang: Heat is generated in the center of the main unit, and a fan is designed to blow it away from the exhaust port on the top of the main unit. The design prevents the handle area where your hands are from getting hot.
Griffais: Steam Deck’s goal was to have a battery that would last at least two hours, even when playing intensive games. With more low-intensity games or by adjusting the settings, we can extend this to 8 hours. We will continue to make improvements in this area. In addition to hardware improvements, we will continue to add software updates. We have already made a number of updates since the product was shipped. For example, we have added the ability to change the screen refresh rate from the default 60Hz to 40Hz. This function can be used to extend battery life.
Interviewer: What was the most difficult part of the hardware development?
Yang: Everything was challenging. Both operability and heat treatment affect each other. If you change the operation in a certain direction, you have to change the thermal management as well. It’s like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. We tried to create something that felt great, looked great, and worked. We spent a lot of time on thermal management, but we also spent a lot of time on ergonomics and usability, such as where to put the buttons, how big they should be, and what shape they should be. We went through many iterations to determine the standard shape, which I will show you later in the prototypes and mockups.
Griffais: Once the components and system configuration were almost solidified, in March of 2008, when the new Corona was beginning to spread, we began working on the controller design using an ergonomic approach. Normally, we would have many people hold the model, get feedback, and make improvements. However, during the lockdown, we were unable to conduct any such experiments. In order to stay on schedule, we had to switch to a more flexible approach that could be executed remotely, such as sending the model by mail. Although the Jan Steam Deck weighs 669 grams, people sometimes say it feels lighter than they expected when they hold the real thing in their hands. After repeated experiments, we arrived at a shape that fits everyone’s hands, which makes it feel less heavy.
Interviewer: The Nintendo Switch is a portable gaming console with a similar shape.
Yang: We don’t consider the Nintendo Switch to be a competitor. Steam Deck is a PC and can do different things. We have a Nintendo Switch, we play on it, and we think it’s great. Other handheld consoles may come along, but this category is very interesting and we look forward to expanding the market and allowing more game fans to enjoy PC gaming away from their desks.
Griffais: Nintendo Switch has been on the market for about 5 years now. Of course, the Steam Deck uses the latest architecture and has a natural advantage in terms of performance. However, Nintendo Switch is smaller, consumes less power, and has differences in that game titles are tuned for Nintendo Switch, so a simple comparison cannot be made.
Interviewer: What are your sales expectations in Japan and what do you plan to showcase at the Tokyo Game Show 2022?
Yang: We have outsourced our Asian sales to Komodo (Musashino City, Tokyo), a game development and distribution company, so we do not have any figures we can disclose. However, we have great expectations for the expansion of our sales territories. At the Tokyo Game Show, a large part of our booth will be a hands-on area where people can experience Steam Deck. We will have a large number of Steam Decks available for people to try out.
Griffais: We think it is important for people to actually try them out. Many people seem to think “this looks heavy” or “it might be difficult to operate” just by looking at the pictures. But when they actually try it, they will realize that it is easy to play. We received such feedback from game developers early on, even before the announcement. We have also heard the same feedback from users countless times. We want to make sure that people who experience the game show will be able to tell their friends that they had a great time.
Interviewer: Elon Musk has announced that he will be able to run Steam games in his Tesla car. How do you see Steam evolving in the future, including in this regard?
Yang: We believe that the more ways and places people can access and play Steam games, the better. The inside of a Tesla is one of those places.
Griffais: Our goal is to make Steam available in as many places and on as many form factors as possible, and I think we will see many examples of being able to run on different platforms, not just Steam Deck and Tesla cars. For example, we are working with Google to run Steam on Chrome OS. A prototype version of the software has already been released. Currently, only Chromebooks with high-performance Intel-based CPUs are supported, not ARM-based products. It is unclear what those limitations will be in the future, but we think it’s great that Steam will be available in a variety of locations and people will have a choice.
Yang: One of the great things about Steam and the Steam library is that you can click on any device, launch Steam, and all the games are there. When a new generation of consoles comes out, sometimes the old games you had before are not compatible and you can’t play them. It’s important to be able to provide an environment where when you buy a new Steam Deck or Chromebook, the games you bought on your old PC are there.
Interviewer: Finally, what are your next goals for Steam Deck?
Griffais: The “docking station” which can be used to connect a TV or external display, was announced at the same time as the Steam Deck, but due to logistical and production constraints we were unable to ship it at the same time. The dock is finally being prepared now. It can also be connected to LAN cables and storage devices, making it possible to use the Steam Deck as a gaming console or even a full-fledged PC. We expect this peripheral to open up new possibilities. Once we have completed the rollout in the countries we are currently considering, of course, we would like to expand it to more countries so that more people can use it. Even in countries where we already sell the product, we will expand production so that more people can get their hands on it.
I hope you liked the above interview, it’s not very often that we see Valve representatives actually commenting in an official capacity.