Will Valve’s New Steam Controller Revolutionize Video Game Play?

Valve unveiled its thumbstick-free Steam Controller, but will the crazy device revolutionize video game play?

It’s been a big week for Valve, the video game developer monolith behind Half Life, Portal, Left 4 Dead, and others. What Valve may be best known for, though, is their Steam software, which is a digital storefront mixed with all kinds of social systems for like-minded gamers. It’s hugely popular, and for many, Steam is PC gaming. Now, Valve is trying to expand that reach. On Monday, they announced a new operating system; on Wednesday, a series of hardware boxes running said operating system which would essentially act as game consoles; and today, a new controller.

It’s called the Steam Controller. I mean, look at that thing! Huh? Where are the analog sticks that have been on pretty much every single game controller since Nintendo popularized them with the N64 back in ‘96? Is that a screen in the center? What were they thinking? That’s totally insane, right?

Eh… maybe not.

As expected, initial reports were met with cries of “Stupid!” and “That looks so uncomfortable,” but this is a case of “don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.” It doesn’t look quite like any other controller out there, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s not as different as it may seem. And even if it were, this upcoming generation is going to be seeing very different controllers from each of the manufacturers, and it’s not just the placement of buttons or sticks. No, there’s nothing quite as outlandish as the Wii Remote, but things are undoubtedly different.

The most obvious new design is the Wii U Gamepad. The 6.2” touch screen at its center allows for extra in-game information like maps or inventory screens or even the ability to play games on the controller as though it were a handheld. Putting both its analog sticks above the buttons is strange, but in practice it’s not particularly problematic. In fact, the Gamepad is extremely comfortable to use, despite what early naysayers want to believe.

The PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 looks a bit like a Dualshock 3, but it now has a touchpad at its center (as well as some other improvements). It’s not a screen, though, more like the trackpad on a laptop. It certainly doesn’t go as far as the Wii U does, but it allows for some interesting new ideas… which will all but certainly be used for gimmicky additions to gameplay rather than anything actually meaningful. It also has a low-quality speaker (like the Wii U Gamepad and the Wii remote as well), a light bar up top (which the system’s new camera, the PlayStation 4 Eye, can track), and a “Share” button, mentioned in our Xbox One/PlayStation 4 rundown last week.

The Xbox One’s controller is the most similar to the old norm. The Xbox 360 controller is excellent, so good that Lifehacker readers called it the best PC controller out there (beating, among others, Sony’s DualShock 3, so the team at Microsoft has a great base to work from, but nonetheless there are more than 40 changes from the old to the new, most notably a better d-pad (the one on the Xbox 360 controller is notoriously bad), an extra set of rumble motors in the back trigger buttons to increase feedback, allowing for gunfire (or car crashes or whatever) to be felt more directly.

And then there’s the Steam Controller. It isn’t quite a mouse and keyboard killer (Valve’s Steam hardware will be mouse and keyboard compatible, as will, you know, regular computers), but is intended to be a serious replacement in the way other controllers are not. Currently, developers have to implement controller support in PC games, but the Steam controller will trick games into thinking it’s a keyboard and mouse, so developers won’t have to do anything (although they can develop for it, of course).

In some ways, the Steam Controller is the logical extension of many of the things mentioned above. In the center of the controller is a small touchscreen, like the functionality on the Wii U Gamepad with the profile of the DualShock 4’s touchpad. It’s being pitched as a way to solve the whole “this controller has 16 buttons and not the 100+ found on a keyboard” problem that I’m sure some of you were thinking of. It’s too early to say how it’ll work out, but developers will also be able to use it for extra menus, maps, or other information/inputs, much as the Gamepad’s screen is now.

Then there are the buttons, of which there are 16, as I said—four around the touch screen, three below it, four on top of the controller, two on the back hand grips, and then the two trackpads (we’ll get there) and touchscreen themselves, which are all clickable. Although from the three beneath the screen (which are similar enough to the “Start,” “Select” and “Home” buttons found on the other consoles) and the four up top (like the bumpers and triggers found elsewhere), the other six are bizarre. The A, B, X, Y configuration has been around for decades (since the Super Nintendo), but the configuration on the Steam controller matches that of the Xbox 360/One controller rather than the one on Nintendo’s controllers (which is just annoying, as is Sony’s set of four disparate shapes).

Their placement, though, is unlike any other controller out there, and it seems like the upper buttons may require a bit of a reach to press. Only time will tell whether that’s an acceptable placement for them, but it sure is strange. Less controversial, I suspect, will be the addition of buttons behind the grips, assuming they aren’t too sensitive. Having buttons at the tips of fingers that are normally doing nothing during play is kind of genius (formerly those could only be found on modded hardware or expensive third party controllers like the Razer Sabertooth, but there’s always the chance that overeager players may accidentally hit them while getting into the game. Generally, though, I think it’s a cool idea.

Haptic feedback, more commonly known as “rumble” or “force feedback” has been around in arcades forever and on home consoles since the Nintendo 64 Rumble Pak controller add-on (it’s worth remembering just how many controller innovations we have today based on designs from Nintendo). The Xbox One’s triggers have extra feedback and the DualShock 4 has made some strides in that area as well, but what Valve has done goes so far beyond that. What makes Haptic Feedback interesting is that it can be used for a lot more than just vibrations.

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The Novint Falcon, a truly bizarre looking PC peripheral released back in 2007 uses its haptic feedback to replicate the feelings of resistance and texture in a way that most controllers can’t. The Steam controller is closer to that product, and Valve promises that the controller’s “haptic capability provides a vital channel of information to the player - delivering in-game information about speed, boundaries, thresholds, textures, action confirmations, or any other events about which game designers want players to be aware.”

Usually I have a basic understanding of the technology behind these things, but honestly, that kind of sounds like magic to me. Their technical explanation does nothing to help:

“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… It is a higher-bandwidth haptic information channel than exists in any other consumer product that we know of. As a parlour trick they can even play audio waveforms and function as speakers.”

Yeah… definitely magic.

And that brings me to the most obvious, and bizarre, change of them all: the dual trackpads. Analog sticks are great, but they’re not great for everything (they’re great for third-person shooters, not so much for first-person ones), and Valve is trying to bridge that gap. In a way, it would be like replacing the two analog sticks on the DualShock 4 with circular versions of its center touchpad. Theoretically, they allow for greater precision as the thumbs can slide around at will. It also lacks a directional pad, the first controller to do so since the concept was introduced by Nintendo way back with the Nintendo Entertainment System. This means that fighting games will be all but impossible to play on the controller, but people who seriously play fighting games buy arcade sticks anyway, so as long as those continue to function, that’s not necessarily a loss. How developers will account for that going forward, however, will be interesting to see, as the three main consoles all have them.

The Steam Controller is both familiar and foreign. It has taken bits and pieces from the controllers put together by other companies and molded them into a Frankenstein’s Monster-esque contraption. Whether or not people will buy into it, along with Valve’s living room domination hopes and dreams, remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: an already fascinating console market just got a bit more interesting.