Steam Controller

Valve's Steam Controller brings mouse and keyboard precision to the gamepad

After a week of hype, a game-oriented operating system, and home console hardware, Valve’s third and final announcement on Friday was…wait for it…a gamepad! Feel free to print out this article and use it as a handkerchief to cry in, all you Half-Life 3 faithful.

Okay, now that you’re over your disappointment, let’s talk about what this thing is.

While Microsoft and Sony’s upcoming consoles use refined versions of their previous dual-analog stick controllers, the “Steam Controller” looks to be a completely different experience. Rather than sticks for movement and camera control, Valve’s gamepad employs dual high-precision trackpads.

Steam Controller
Cross-section of the new Steam Controller

“Steam gamers, who are used to the input associated with PCs, will appreciate that the Steam Controller’s resolution approaches that of a desktop mouse,” says Valve’s announcement page.

Behind each trackpad resides an electromagnet, which supposedly provides more precise haptic feedback than gamepads have sported in the past. “As a parlour trick they can even play audio waveforms and function as speakers,” says Valve.

Steam Controller
The Steam Controller features haptic feedback behind each touchpad

“The Steam Controller is designed to work with all the games on Steam,” claims Valve. “We’ve fooled those older games into thinking they’re being played with a keyboard and mouse, but we’ve designed a gamepad that’s nothing like either one of those devices.”

A keyboard obviously has more inputs than a gamepad, though, which in the past has caused developers to radically simplify control schemes when porting games to consoles. It’s also prevented some genres which require a lot of inputs (like strategy games) from succeeding on consoles.

To solve this, Valve placed a high-resolution touch screen in the center of its controller. The touch screen allows players to scroll through a list of commands before clicking the screen in to make a selection—without actually taking their eyes off the screen. “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 screen can display practically any information developers want, from a scrolling menu to an in-game map.

Steam Controller
An example of how the Steam Controller maps keyboard and mouse controls to the gamepad

As far as physical buttons go, the traditional four face buttons—labeled A, B, X, and Y on the Steam Controller to match Microsoft’s Xbox controller—are arranged in a pattern around the center touchscreen. Then there are three additional buttons arranged in a row horizontally under the touch screen, four triggers, and two buttons on the back of the pad. There's no D-pad.

But how does it feel?

We’ll wait to get our hands on this thing before making any judgment calls. While it’s definitely an intriguing device and it’s cool that every game in the Steam catalog will work with it, I have some reservations—particularly about the four face buttons.

For example, the X and Y buttons are next to the left trackpad—the standard place for movement controls. If a game sets the X or Y button to “jump,” is it even possible to hit the button and move forward at the same time? Will games allow you to remap the controller to different inputs?

These are questions we probably won’t have answers to until hardware is in our hands.

For now, if you haven’t already signed up for the Steam Universe beta group and you want to get your hands on this hardware, what are you waiting for? Get over to Steam and join. The beta controllers will substantially differ from the final product—Valve says the first 300 beta units won’t include a touch screen, instead sporting four physical buttons—but you’ll at least get to test it out.

And check back next week—Valve promises to release detailed specs of the Steam console hardware so we can get an idea of their intent.

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