News, Views, and Reviews
Monday, Valve made one of three announcements: a brand new Operating System called SteamOS. I wrote a blog about it. I speculated that, among other things, it could become a rival to Windows OS, at least as far a gaming enthusiasts are concerned. Valve is boasting that it will reduce input latency, for example, as it dedicated to gaming instead of a broad operating system like Windows that has to accommodate many different types of programs and devices. SteamOS is also going to be free. This could push the price down for gaming PCs at least $100-150 alone, just because they wouldn’t have to include a version of Windows.
Wednesday, Valve made their second announcement: developing hardware that will take advantage of their continued efforts to expand PCs into the living room. These “Steam Machines” (I like that better than the rumored “Steam Box” name) could be manufactured by a variety of companies, have many configurations to choose from, and would use the SteamOS and any other OS as desired. Valve also announced that they are working on what they are calling “prototype hardware” so they can test the OS and games themselves, as well as give OEM’s an idea of what to shoot for. Combined with their Monday announcement, Valve emphasized that they want this to be a collaborative effort between consumer, and hardware and software developers. These Steam Machines should be easy to modify and upgrade.
Today, Valve made the final announcement: a brand new, revolutionary controller concept. Now we have the whole picture of what Valve intends for the living room. They aren’t just pushing PCs into the living rooms, they’re making games playable that normally can’t benefit from a couch, big TV, and a traditional controller. Console games made that transition years ago, but entire genres of PC-exclusive games like MMOs, RTS games, and MOBAs have eluded the couch-to-player connection. Until now. A picture can say 1,000 words:
The best word I can think of is hybrid. I think they’re trying to get the precision of a mouse into the comfort factor of a controller. This is taking a regular game pad design, removing the analog sticks, and replacing them with trackpads. The trackpads are touch sensitive, are as sensitive as a mouse or touch screen, and are lined with haptic feedback actuators. Those actuators are designed to give the user necessary feedback. From their website:
“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.
In the center of the controller is another touch-enabled surface, this one backed by a high-resolution screen. This surface, too, is critical to achieving the controller’s primary goal – supporting all games in the Steam catalog. The screen allows an infinite number of discrete actions to be made available to the player, without requiring an infinite number of physical buttons.
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.
In order to avoid forcing players to divide their attention between screens, a critical feature of the Steam Controller comes from its deep integration with Steam. 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.”
I like the position of the A, B, X, and Y buttons, as well as the addition of the two buttons on the bottom of the controller. I’m really excited about the trackpads and how they could revolutionize controllers. For years, PC gaming enthusiasts have boasted superiority over their console cousins, because of the amazing precision mice provide compared to analog sticks. I will concede that. But I’ve never been convinced that using a keyboard is more comfortable or more useful than holding a controller. Many games require analog pressure for movement, something a keyboard can’t replicate. For example, pushing the left analog stick up slowly makes the character walk or even sneak carefully, and pushing quickly or firmly makes the character run. That just can’t be accomplished by pressing the Up arrow or the W key on a keyboard. Some modern shooting games – the genre that mouse users claim superiority – require so much movement and character acrobatics, such as crouching, jumping, grabbing ledges, sliding under obstacles, vaulting over cover, etc. that it can be very challenging to perform those maneuvers with a keyboard. I’ve often thought that a good compromise would be holding something like a game pad in my left hand to control movement while using something like a mouse in my right hand for precision aiming. This new Steam controller takes that idea and makes it happen. Precision, feedback, sensitivity, endless configuration styles for any number of games or player preferences, this IS the future of PC gaming in the living room!