Valve are software gods. I doubt you’ll hear many dispute that fact. When it comes to online service, engines and actually games, Valve rarely takes a misstep. It’s the reason why they’re so darn trusted, and why after nearly a decade fans can still think that Half-Life 3 will be all that and a slice of cheese when it finally (read: if ever) releases. Thing is, this type of trust has to be earned when it comes to their latest entry in to hardware market. And on that front, it’s been a mixed week.
SteamOS was a brilliant first announcement, with the arrival of Steam Machines smelling less of innovation and more of an Alienware X51 rehash, in Valve colours. Now, the final of three announcements, is probably the worst of the three. As expected, Valve announced a new controller that will complement their Steam Machine, and I’m immediately off put by it.
First off, the controller has a rather glaring lack of buttons of analogue sticks. Instead, Valve has incorporated two circular trackpads, which loosely translate to the hardware manifestation of all those virtual sticks you’ve been playing with on mobile phones and tablets. According to Valve, this decision was made so that a wider variety of natively keyboard and mouse games could be played in the living room on their console, with the trackpads offering more precise control than actual sticks.
“Driven by the player’s thumbs, each one has a high-resolution trackpad as its base. It is also clickable, allowing the entire surface to act as a button. The trackpads allow far higher fidelity input than has previously been possible with traditional handheld controllers. 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.”
Even First-Person Shooter fans will have something to love about the controller, according to Valve.
“In addition, games like first-person shooters that are designed around precise aiming within a large visual field now benefit from the trackpads’ high resolution and absolute position control.”
Now let’s think for a second; what is the single, greatest downfall of virtual thumbsticks? No tactical feedback. How will Valve combat this on their controller? Well, for starters, the pads themselves will feature some pretty hi-tech haptic feedback that can inform players of movement limits, boundaries and thresholds. It’s so advanced, that the pads themselves can even be used as speakers, given the correct frequencies.
“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.”
“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.”
In addition to these two pads will be a central touch screen that will allow games to make use of more than a few inputs without having to tone it down in fear of not being able to support a controller. Valve again chose this approach to hopefully enable the entire Steam Library to function with this very controller. The touch screen itself will also be clickable, and will display an overlay on the screen itself when touched so that players won’t have to shift their focus.
“The whole screen itself is also clickable, like a large single button. So actions are not invoked by a simple touch, they instead require a click. This allows a player to touch the screen, browse available actions, and only then commit to the one they want. Players can swipe through pages of actions in games where that’s appropriate. When programmed by game developers using our API, the touch screen can work as a scrolling menu, a radial dial, provide secondary info like a map or use other custom input modes we haven’t thought of yet.”
The controller as a whole will feature sixteen buttons, half of which can be accessed without having to lift a finger off the trackpads. Valve provided an example of who a game like Portal 2 could easily be played with the new controller, key bindings and all.
Much like their previous announcements this week, the new controller has been designed to be hacked and ripped apart by developers to chop and change what they love and discard what they don’t. Valve has planned “to make tools available that will enable users to participate in all aspects of the experience, from industrial design to electrical engineering. We can’t wait to see what you come up with.”
The new controller will be included in the recent announced hardware beta for the Steam Machines, although the prototype won’t include the main touch pad and will be wired via USB. Valve will also make the controller’s API available later this year for developers to get working with ahead of its release next year.
And while I might sound overjoyed about all of this new Valve shared today, I’m still not liking it. Hell, I had a whole second chance to think about it while typing this, and the idea of two trackpads still doesn’t still well with me. And if you take a trip over to a lot of other websites reporting the same story, you’ll find that I’m not alone.
Like I said, Valve still has to prove themselves hardware-wise. I’m in no way counting them out yet, but this isn’t exactly a good first impression by my books.
However, Valve is one of those companies that just loves proving people wrong.
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