Valve’s design shows us that they really are trying to help their current PC gamer user base to transition to the living room. I can understand this line of thinking, because even though I have been playing games for 30 years now, I still much prefer the 1:1 accurate control response of a mouse over the sometimes clumsy controls of a thumbstick controller.
Dual analog sticks have been replaced by dual touchpads, in a symmetrical design. If you’ve ever tried to play games on an iPad with ‘virtual thumbsticks’ you are probably rolling your eyes right now. However Valve has taken the lack of visceral feedback into mind when designing the Steam Controller.
As you can see, the pad itself is textured, and has ridges that provide touch feedback to let you know where your thumb is sitting. This is the major thing missing from usual touch controls. Additionally, the Steam Controller will provide haptic feedback to give the brain even more input to work with. These aren’t a couple of weights that spin around in place though:
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.
This 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. 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.
If Valve can get around the issue that has existed for touch controls forever, this could be a hit.
However because the trackpads are so big, there isn’t much room left over for buttons. Here’s a look at what Valve expects to be a typical controller binding setup:
The two main ‘mouse buttons’ are replicated by triggers, with some more touch pads in front of them that replicate the scroll wheel. The touchpads themselves are also clickable buttons. That gives you four main buttons that are easy to access, with four more for less commonly used controls. These buttons are placed reasonably close to the trackpads, but using your left thumb to lift off the movement trackpad may take some getting used to.
We haven’t even gotten to the touch screen in the middle. That’s right, it’s an actual touch screen which can be used for displaying information from a game, like the Wii U Gamepad that no developers ever put to use. More likely it will be used in a similar way to the Playstation 4 controller, with four different areas that can be mapped to controls, or as a control input itself. This could be a very interesting feature, or it could be what makes this controller too expensive to consider. We’ll have to wait and see what game designers do with it.
I can’t say until I get my hands on one, but to me it seems like this is the gamepad that PC gamers have been waiting for. Clumsy thumbsticks have finally been replaced by precise, mouse-like touchpads. This may actually make first person shooters feasible on a gamepad, something that I never thought would be possible.