Valve’s Steam Controller has the potential to change games in the living room

Steam Controller

Finally some substance. Something you can hold in your hands. That you can, for the time being, only look at.

The Steam Controller is arguably the most important part of the Steam in the living room concept, because it deals with interface; the thing you touch. It’s also the bit that Valve has never done before. Steam and Big Picture prove it can do software and service, so that covers Steam OS. It can make partnerships to make computer hardware – that’s reasonably straightforward. But industrial design? That’s new. And difficult. Especially when you’re trying to invent a whole new way of interacting with games on a TV.

At first glance Steam Controller is shaped like controllers have been since Sony’s Dual Shock – two lower spurs to hold onto, face and shoulder buttons. But instead of twin joysticks, it’s defined by two circular trackpads. Valve claims these enable a fineness of control that approaches that of a mouse and is far in excess of that of existing pads’ joysticks, which is entirely possible – we’re all familiar with the subtlety of input possible on an iPhone screen.

The challenge, of course, is that such an approach lacks inherent haptic response – the resistance of a joystick that gives a sense of how far it’s being pushed. But Valve’s ahead of us here, claiming that its trackpads are powered by a “new generation of super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators”. That’s a long way of saying that little motors generate a resonant buzz to emulate the sense of response.

Valve goes on to say its controller features “higher-bandwidth haptic information channel than exists in any other consumer product that we know of,” suggesting it’s capable of a wider range of buzz frequency than the little zizz that Android users are used to experiencing. Jury’s out on this one, but once again for this series of announcements, the potential is great. Hey, it can also play sounds!

The centre of the controller is given over to a touchscreen which also acts as a button. What the screen will show appears to be down to the game, but it’s designed to offer further interaction methods, like radial or scrolling menus, with the button-click the eventual selector. To avoid having the player need to glance down at it and away from the TV, Steam will also overlay the touchscreen in a window, which sounds like it might lead to unfortunate visual clutter.

One of the strangest decisions is perhaps the positioning of the four ABXY buttons around the controllers middle section. The trackpads themselves are also buttons, so you could see it as kind of mutant heir to GameCube’s beautiful big-green-A design, but still, those used to easy one-thumb access to all four face-buttons (like, everyone) are going to find a lot to have to get used to.

Steam Controller is the first of Valve’s three announcements that we can actually see. And yet it’s still a complete mystery because its secrets are all in the feel of it. Certainly, the touted year in development so far seems a short time considering the two and a half years and $100 million that Microsoft has invested in designing Xbox One’s controller, which simply builds on an existing model.

Also uppermost in my mind is the fact that the controller seems to express something of the fact Valve is squeezed by its need to support a catalogue of over 3000 existing games, happily designed for mouse and keyboard and traditional controller. The touchscreen seems something of a hack required to allow complicated PC-like commands that will differ between every title. The need to display its interface on the main screen is inelegant. And only Valve knows how good its haptic actuators really are until the hardware beta – the controllers will be shipped alongside Valve’s box – goes out. At the same time, the Steam Controller also expresses the struggle hardware designers have had in making a better controller for a TV than a traditional pad, just as Kinect, Move and even the Wii controller have done, too.

And what of Valve’s overall Steam box campaign? Despite dangling so much promise in listing three announcements, there’s still no Half-Life 3 and many people are disappointed. But then again, Valve can’t announce anything without swathes of fans getting disappointed it’s not Half-Life 3. Valve doesn’t work like Rockstar or Microsoft. It doesn’t prepare a hotly-anticipated property and blast it out in one coordinated effort. With every passing year, Valve becomes more and more an iterative company that derives huge value from trickling something out, getting feedback, adjusting, reacting. The cost is that it usually disappoints expectations.

Perhaps Valve could’ve been more sensitive about invoking the magical ‘3’, and perhaps it is cashing in slightly on greater attention set by it. But this is still a significant set of announcements with the potential to change the nature of playing games in the living room. It’s a shame, though, that Valve hasn’t shown off more – the OS in action, the hardware specifications, people playing with the controller in recognised games – so we can assess how successful they will be. The result is that right now, Steam in the living room is only a miasma of potential, and nothing harder.