Valve might control gaming on the desktop, but now its gaze is fixed on another room in the house. The three announcements the company made at the end of September – SteamOS, Steam Machines and Steam Controller – reveal its plans to pry open the traditional console’s grip on the living room. The lines between the two are clearly drawn: the closed console against an open-source operating system built on Linux and optimised for gaming; hardware made from standard PC components that owners will be able to chop, change and upgrade at their leisure; and a controller unlike its console peers.
“I can certainly see that for many people [the controller] will be the silver bullet that tips them into sticking a PC under their TV,” says Rob Bartholomew, brand director of the Total War series at The Creative Assembly, who has used a Steam Controller. It’s a key part of the ‘Steam Box’ concept: the bridge between the mouse-and-keyboard game and sofa-bound players, and it’s the first developmental leap forward for the controller since Wii’s Remote.
Steam Controller certainly has a lot of responsibility resting on its familiar-looking shoulder buttons. It takes the basic form set by Sony’s first DualShock in 1997 of twin grips and thumb-based directional controls, but as well as being recognisable, it needs to offer flexibility and fidelity of control that at least matches a standard 104-key keyboard and 800dpi mouse, while feeling comfortable in the hands. Or, framed in other terms, it needs to allow a Dota 2 player to be competitive against desktop opponents. As Valve’s Greg Coomer told us last year, “That’s one of the cases we’re looking at: how can you deliver an even better play experience than people have sitting at a desk? We want to accomplish it with a traditional gamepad.”
Valve’s solution is dual trackpads in the place of thumbsticks, and a configurable touchscreen. The trackpads are evidently sensitive to gaming’s haptic demands. Concentric ridges in the pad help inform you where your thumb is in relation to the centre, while a subtle range of buzzes from dual linear resonant actuators provide a sense of interaction, force and the bounds of control. “Personally, I initially thought it all sounded a bit [like a] novelty and I couldn’t see how it would compare to thumbsticks if you were playing an FPS, for example,” Bartholomew says. “Having used it, though [for Counter-Strike Global Offensive and Total War: Rome II], it really is surprising how much the haptic feedback motors make a profound difference. No, it’s not exactly the same, but it very much won me over.”
Fredrik Wester, CEO of Paradox Interactive, agrees, having played a thirdperson action game with it: “Once you start playing, it’s not that different from console gamepad joysticks; it felt natural after five minutes, so I didn’t think that much about it, to be honest.”
If the trackpads provide precision, the touchscreen delivers flexibility. Specific actions can be mapped to and displayed on it, and like DualShock 4, the entire surface is a button, allowing for the likes of radial menus in which you touch, hold and press to confirm your selection. Less elegantly, Steam can overlay the screen on the main display so you don’t have to glance down to see what you’re hitting.
The screen’s programmable nature raises the question of how much optimisation games will require from both players and developers. The controller will support all games out of the box, and players will be able to bind the commands they want to it. However, as Wester says, while first- and thirdperson games won’t need much attention, “for the grand strategy series we need to do some thinking.”
“Rome II was controllable, if not exactly playable, straight away,” says Bartholomew. “But jumping in and out of the settings to tweak the config rapidly resulted in something more playable, and we’ve no doubt that something very usable indeed would be possible within an hour.”
Anyone can drag a PC into their living room; how you control it is the challenge. The game maker which became a platform holder is now an industrial designer, another development in this extraordinary company’s history. Steam Controller’s success will be proven by feedback from the 300 beta testers who will get their hands on it later this year. If they’re positive, Valve could be set to expand PC gaming another order of magnitude further.