Steam Controller – the Last Piece of Living Room
Just as Bobfish (and many other people) expected after the announcement of Steam machines, Valve has just announced a new gamepad, called Steam Controller. It is hard to argue with Valve, that while having a special OS and the hardware for games that a means of control are needed and wireless keyboard and mouse are not a universal solution for the living room. The surprising part is how different SC is from currently common gamepads and how wide its aims are.
The design of the Steam Controller has some familiar features on the large scale, but the details are very different. Instead of two thumbsticks, SC has two large clickable circular trackpads on the prime spots. Valve says that those offer more precision compared to the thumbsticks and should approach the resolution of a mouse. On the latter part I still think that thumbs alone cannot compete with the whole arm when it comes to having both precision and speed at the same time. Unlike thumbsticks, touchpads usually provide little tactile feedback, so SC compensates for that using advanced haptic technology.
There are two linear resonant actuators (one under each circular trackpad) which work similar to speakers and provide a wide range of different responses. They not only function as the replacement for thumbstick feedback, but can be used by game developers to deliver much more feedback back to the players' fingers than conventional rumble ever could.
The central stage of SC is something of a merger between a Wii-U gamepad and DualShock 4 – the high resolution touch display. It is included to make SC much more versatile, allowing many additional bindings for the games requiring them. To make it more usable in fast action without making errors, the screen is clickable, so you will not do an action just by touching it. Game developers can use it as an additional information display and control method.
It also looks like Valve was looking at Wii-U criticism and the SC's integration with Steam is used to overlay the image from the gamepad's screen over the game on the main display during its use. That allows for seeing your actions clearly without having to switch attention between different screens. However, we will have to wait more before hearing about this part of the experience from the lucky 300 beta testers, as those units will include the wired version of SC with 4 buttons in place of the central touch screen.
The layout of physical buttons is non-traditional, as Valve aims to maximise accessibility without sacrificing comfort. The most recognisable are 4 shoulder buttons, just like in all other gamepads. Two big buttons on the back of SC can be accessed easily without lifting fingers from the trackpads as well. The popular quartet of ABXY is located between the screen and trackpads, now relegated from the main role to the supporting one. The complete symmetry of the SC should be very comfortable for left-handed people as it works equally well mirrored.
As Steam Controller comes from PC space, Valve promotes its openness from the get go. While there will be default bindings for games that support gamepads natively, the ability to remap controls will be open in all Steam games. Gamers will be able to share their own configurations over Steam Community for other players to use. That customisation also extends for games that only support mouse and keyboard natively. Steam will remap controller inputs into mouse and keyboard commands before sending them to games, just like Xpadder and other similar programs. Valve claims that the improvements in their controller, compared to the traditional gamepad, make even RTS and 4X games comfortable to play with SC. Finally the openness of Steam Controller is not with the software alone at the moment. Valve plans to take a lot of responses from users about the hardware design of the controller as well.
This has been the last flashy announcement from Valve about their push into the living room, to compete with traditional consoles while offering the benefits of PC space. Any further information will be shared in Steam Universe community group, starting with the detailed information about SteamOS prototype next week. They also plan to post the design history behind the current announcements.
Overall this week's news from Valve is very interesting in regard to future prospects. The optimisation of Linux specifically for gaming, the plans to offer simple to set-up gaming PCs for living room gaming and the interesting reimagining of gamepads. In a curious turn of events that somewhat reminds first Microsoft's plans during the original Xbox design – a console running Windows on PC hardware and playing PC games. That did not work out 15 years ago, but now Valve pushes something similar, just without Windows and it seems to have a much brighter future.