Valve certainly hasn’t disappointed in making three groundbreaking announcements this week, first with the unveiling of their new Linux-based SteamOS, followed by an entire lineup of Steam Machines coming to retail next year. The third bombshell has finally dropped, and the anticipated Steam Controller is sure to turn a few heads.
Utilizing a pair of digital trackpads in place of traditional analog sticks, and based on a brand new button layout, the new controller promises the precision and controls of a keyboard and mouse, but designed specifically with couch gaming in mind.
Word had circulated (once the first two announcements had been made) that Valve would likely be constructing their own take on a controller to make the most of the suddenly-spawned Steam living room ecosystem, but which direction they would attempt to progress was unclear. Since common knowledge has claimed that traditionally PC-focused game genres – Real Time Srategy, 4x Space Exploration, etc. – were too complex for a standard gamepad’s inputs, it looks like Valve is out to prove that they’re trailblazers in the hardware arena as well as the digital marketplace.
The most prominent feature on the Steam Controller (or lack thereof) is the two digital trackpads, which Valve claims in their official announcement are designed with minimal latency and maximum precision. With resolution approaching that of a desktop mouse, absolute position control is more feasible than ever. Trackpads are sure to put some people off, but given just how much Valve has riding on the prototype, we’ll assume that they know just how responsive and impressive the stick-substitutes need to be to win over skeptics.
Since the new controller is being positioned as a no-brainer for PC users who prefer a gamepad – a field largely dominated by the Xbox 360 controller or third-party peripherals – Valve has also implemented a “legacy mode” which doesn’t just make the Steam Controller compatible with any controller-supported game, but allows it to be read as a keyboard and mouse for those that are not. That point alone shows not only how much of a game-changer the Steam Controller may be, but how comprehensively Valve has managed to condense mouse-level precision into the trackpads.
Each pad also functions as a button, adding to the overall total of 16 – laid out symmetrically, meaning left-handed gamers won’t be forced to adjust to a right-handed control scheme. But the most intriguing button is that placed between the twin trackpads; like the PlayStation 4’s controller, the center touchpad can be clicked like a button, but unlike the PS4’s version, the small square is also fitted with a high resolution screen. But that’s not where the potential stops:
When programmed by game developers using our API, the touch screen can work as a scrolling menu, a radial dial, provide secondary info like a map or use other custom input modes we haven’t thought of yet.
In order to avoid forcing players to divide their attention between screens, a critical feature of the Steam Controller comes from its deep integration with Steam. When a player touches the controller screen, its display is overlayed on top of the game they’re playing, allowing the player to leave their attention squarely on the action, where it belongs.
The biggest drawback of digital trackpads – or digital input of any kind, really – is the lack of haptic feedback; the user might be changing direction, but their eyes are the only thing that confirms the output has been read. That’s an issue Valve knew they’d need to deal with in a lasting way, and while Microsoft has attempted to add feedback with additional rumble functionality, Valve has gone a different direction:
As we investigated trackpad-based input devices, it became clear through testing that we had to find ways to add more physicality to the experience. It also became clear that “rumble”, as it has been traditionally implemented (a lopsided weight spun around a single axis), was not going to be enough. Not even close.
The Steam Controller is built around a new generation of super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators. These small, strong, weighted electro-magnets are attached to each of the dual trackpads. They are capable of delivering a wide range of force and vibration, allowing precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement.
That level of haptic feedback can reflect gameplay elements like speed, terrain, resistance, simple action confirmations or even function as speakers. To handle that amount of information, the developer claims that the Steam Controller sports a “higher-bandwidth haptic information channel” than any device they know of.
Since the Steam Controller will be shipping out to 300 Beta testers with the Steam Machine prototype, it’s also been designed with the same emphasis on open source architecture – in other words, it’s been “designed from the ground up to be hackable.”
More information will likely be coming soon (particularly on how the buttons will work in tandem with mouse-level precision) but for now, what do you think of the new Steam Controller? Share your thoughts in the comments, and be sure to check out the full announcement on Valve’s website.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.