Valve fans rejoiced at the news of the planned release of SteamOS, a brand new Linux-based operating system, penned for a 2014 release. The announcement of Steam machines, only days later, then sent them into rapture. This bonanza of gaming-related news was neatly topped off by the unveiling of a brand new Steam Controller, based around “super-precise haptic feedback.” But, we ask whether Steam’s radical new controller could redefine console gaming?
A True Next Generation Controller
Some could argue, with the new haptic feedback controllers, Valve is the company that is attempting to push true, next-generation gaming technology. Microsoft and Sony seem to be going along the avenue of developing more powerful gaming setups, whilst Valve are looking towards interjecting a radical shakeup in the way consumers play their video games.
The new controller is the third recent announcement made by Valve, in a bid to provide “keyboard and mouse gamers” the option to move their gaming habits into the living room.
Defining the Steam Controller as “A new way to play your entire Steam library from the sofa,” Valve is requesting the Steam gaming community hop aboard their hardware beta and help the company in moving forward.
In a time when the console giants are making very subtle changes to their controller systems, Valve has elected to do away with conventional design. The company boldly states that they already knew how to build both an operating system and a gaming machine, but were then left with one of their biggest hurdles – how to create a new and improved form of input technology.
After experimenting for over a year, Valve believes they are finally able to deliver the goods. They boast the device to be capable of supporting their existing catalogue of video games. In addition to this, they pledge that the controller will enable customers to play “past, present, and future” Steam titles. The team say they have “fooled” older games into thinking they are being operated by a mouse and keyboard.
Valve goes on to contrast their newfangled technology with traditional console gamepad design. They maintain these devices force the consumer to accept compromises. On this basis, they have made a concerted effort to enhance both resolution and input fidelity, offering low-latency performance.
Haptic and Dual Trackpads
Looking at the controller, the most glaringly obvious features are the symmetrically aligned trackpads. Both the of these large zones incorporate highly sensitive trackpads that are driven by each of the user’s thumbs, and also serve as pushable buttons.
Bettering the traditional gamepad design will prove fundamental to ensuring the full range of Steam games are compatible with the Steam Controller. Real-time strategy games, for example, require great precision using a normal mouse. Valve confirms that first-person shooter titles are now even more accessible, harnessing the gamepad’s improved accuracy and position control, alongside a number of other genres that were originally shackled to a mouse and keyboard.
Meanwhile, in developing their new trackpads, Valve has been able to explore the applications of haptic technology. Valve appears to be attempting to move the goalposts in the world of gaming, here. Rather than simply sticking with the rudimentary “rumble” effect that most console controllers use, Valve is developing much stronger feedback effects, delivered by “weighted electro-magnets,” affixed at each of the trackpads.
Ultimately, the new haptic system should provide the player with much more information about the gaming world that they are traversing, and will deliver information relating to the following:
- Action confirmations
Touch Screen and Button Layout
Another innovative addition centers around the inclusion of a touch screen, centered on the controller. Again, this screen is no gimmick, and will be fully compatible with the entire hoard of Steam games.
While specific details on the screen remain scant, Valve say the feature will allow the player to perform various discreet actions, reducing the number of physical buttons needed on the device. To confirm a particular selection on the screen, it must then be clicked; this prevents any mistakes being made when, for example, the player is swiping through action pages. The screen can also double as map, a radial dial and anything else a developer can think of.
Valve engineers have already spent some deliberating over the controller’s layout, with button placement having been well-considered. The device sports 16 buttons, with half of them available to players without even needing to remove their thumbs from the all-important trackpads.
But, what if a player isn’t satisfied with the layout? Valve states they have thrown in a legacy mode, enabling gamers to customize their button layout to suit their own personal preferences.
300 lucky beta testers will be afforded the controller device to test, later this year. However, preliminary versions of the controller will be wired and will not support any touch screen functionality. Meanwhile, Valve is also working with a number of partners in the development of Steam consoles.
So, what do you think to the controller devices. Will they improve the new Steam machines, and offer a viable alternative to traditional consoles, or is Valve out of their depth?
Update: Producing a blog post on Gamasutra, Tommy Refenes, a video games designer and producer, described his impressions of playing Super Meat Boy using the Steam Controller; Refenes worked on Super Meat Boy, therefore, is able to provide an interesting angle on how the new device performs.
He describes the Steam Controller as “strange,” before going on to explain the layout and its various merits. The controller that Refenes was given was a 3D printed prototype, with a weight that he approximates to be comparable to that of the 360 controller.
When first starting to play Super Meat Boy, the game was apparently very laggy. However, after tuning his television to its “Game Mode” setting, the problem immediately resolved itself.
Once he was off the starting blocks, he described the configuration settings as “simple enough.” The left trackpad served as the directional buttons, whilst the right trackpad behaved as a giant jump button. He then went on to explain one of his major qualms:
“The big problem with touch pads/ touch screens is you never know when you are actually over a button or pressing it. Valve has tried to rectify this by having some adjustable haptic feedback fire when you press one of the circle pads. Throughout my play session the haptic feedback helped with the problem, but wasn’t enough to solve it.”
He elaborated a little further about the input, stating that movement could still occur when resting his finger upon the trackpad, and when pressing it, which presented slight problems. He pointed this out to Valve engineers, and they immediately updated the firmware so that movement was only based upon button presses, which seemed to do the trick.
Ultimately, once all these quibbles had been resolved, Refenes said he was able to play Meat Boy “… the way Meat Boy can be played on an advanced level…” despite having been a little rusty.
Next up, he investigated another great indie gem, Spelunky, which requires a greater number of button presses. Refenes said that the team configured the device to mimic that of a normal Xbox 360 Controller. Again, the illustrious game developer played through much of the game without any issue.
In summarizing his thoughts on the Steam Controller, Refenes said that he would use the controller. However, when asked to choose between the 360 Controller and the Steam Controller, he said he would plump for the 360, based upon “… comfort of familiarity,” after having already used the 360 device for many hours. He also expresses his interest in seeing how the new controller progresses.
By: James Fenner