Coming on the heel’s of Valve’s other big reveals this week, including the SteamOS and the Steam Machine, Valve made their final announcement today. To no one’s surprise, it’s not the impending release of Half-Life 3. Rather, in keeping with their goal of bringing Steam into the living room, Valve has revealed the Steam Controller. It’s an ambitious goal, transitioning PC gamers from their familiar keyboard and mouse setup to a handheld input technology that, at least in shape, resembles an Xbox controller.
But Valve promises “a different kind of gamepad,” one that doesn’t compromise the resolution and fidelity of input for the comfort of playing from your sofa. “Built with high-precision input technologies and focused on low-latency performance, the Steam controller is just what the living-room ordered.”
The first thing you notice about the Steam Controller is its dual trackpads, positioned where traditional gamepads have analogue sticks. Each thumb hovers over a high-resolution trackpad that is clickable, so functionally the entire surface is a button. According to Valve, “The trackpads allow far higher fidelity input than has previously been possible with traditional handheld controllers.”
Impressively, “The Steam Controller’s resolution approaches that of a desktop mouse,” which means that entire genres of games previously playable only with a keyboard and mouse can now be enjoyed from the comfort of your living room. I’m still uncertain that I could get the same APM (actions per minutes) in a real-time strategy game with a controller as I can with my keyboard and mouse, and I’ve no doubt that RTS progamers will continue to use a traditional keyboard-and-mouse setup (hell, most of the eSports tournaments are partially sponsored by companies that make “gaming peripherals,” like Razer).
But for non-professional fans of strategy games, and other previously unplayable genres, this opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Valve hints at “4x space exploration games” like FTL, and mentions Euro Truck Simulator 2 by name. Remarkably, the Steam Controller will function with every game in the Steam catalog, “past, present, and future.” This includes older titles and those without built-in controller support. Apparently, Valve “fooled those older games into thinking they’re being played with a keyboard and mouse,” which is a pretty cool concept in and of itself.
This brings us to haptics. Unlike thumbsticks, or a mouse and keyboard for that matter, trackpads are what Valve calls “light touch” devices. They don’t provide the same sort of visceral feedback that more traditional input technologies do. “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.”
Sadly, a “rumble” pack wasn’t gonna cut it. The Steam Controller features state-of-the-art “super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators.” For the record, I’m not really sure what that means either. Basically, from what I’ve gathered, tiny weighted electro-magnets are attached to each of the trackpads, and they deliver a range of force and vibration, which allows “precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement.” And apparently they can function as speakers? Yeah, bitch! Magnets!
At the center of the Steam Controller is a high-resolution touch screen which is also clickable. This touch screen, depending on the game, can function as a scrolling menu, a radial dial, or even a secondary mini-map.
Finally, the buttons. There are a total of 16, three being clickable touch surfaces. Using “legacy mode,” you can create your own bindings as you would on a keyboard. These can be shared within the Steam Community, and you can even choose from a list of the most popular configurations. As an example:
The Steam Controller will be part of the same beta as the Steam Machine. You can find details on how to sign up for the beta here. That said, the Steam Controller will function with any version of Steam, and can be used with your PC or Mac.
Valve promises to talk specifics at their Steam Universe community group. Detailed specs should be arriving over the next few weeks. I’ve no doubt Valve will soon be announcing a new engine, Source 2, and maybe even sequels to popular titles like Left 4 Dead and Portal. Just don’t get your hopes up for Half-Life 3.