Valve Software on Friday made the third and final announcement regarding its living room initiative this week. The firm introduced a universal gamepad designed with all types of video games in mind. The game controller, which took over a year to develop, features two trackpads, buttons, touchscreen and haptic feedback.
“We set out with a singular goal: bring the Steam experience, in its entirety, into the living-room. We knew how to build the user interface, we knew how to build a machine, and even an operating system. But that still left input – our biggest missing link. We realized early on that our goals required a new kind of input technology – one that could bridge the gap from the desk to the living room without compromises. So we spent a year experimenting with new approaches to input and we now believe we have arrived at something worth sharing and testing with you,” a statement by Valve reads.
The Steam Controller is designed to work with all the games on Steam, even the older titles in the catalog and the ones which were not built with controller support.
Trackpads Enable All Game Genres
The most prominent elements of the Steam controller are its two circular trackpads. 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.
Thanks to trackpads instead of D-pads/directional buttons, whole genres of games that were previously only playable with a keyboard and mouse are now accessible from the sofa. RTS games, casual, cursor-driven games, strategy games, 4x space exploration games, simulation titles and many others. According to Valve, games like first-person shooters that are designed around precise aiming within a large visual field now benefit from the trackpads’ high resolution and position control.
Haptic Feedback Reinvented
Trackpads, by their nature, are less physical than thumbsticks. By themselves, they are “light touch” devices and do not offer the kind of visceral feedback that players get from pushing joysticks around. Valve had to find ways to add more physicality to the experience. It also became clear that “rumble”, as it has been traditionally implemented (a lopsided weight spun around a single axis), was not going to be enough.
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.
In the center of the controller is another touch-enabled surface, this one backed by a screen. This surface is claimed to be 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.
Every button and input zone has been placed based on frequency of use, precision required and ergonomic comfort. There are a total of sixteen buttons on the Steam Controller. Half of them are accessible to the player without requiring thumbs to be lifted from the trackpads, including two on the back. All controls and buttons have been placed symmetrically, making left or right handedness switchable via a software config checkbox.
In order to support the full catalog of existing Steam games (none of which were built with the Steam Controller in mind), we have built in a legacy mode that allows the controller to present itself as a keyboard and mouse. The Steam Community can use the configuration tool to create and share bindings for their favorite games. Players can choose from a list of the most popular configurations.
The Steam Controller was designed from the ground up to be hackable. Just as the Steam Community and Workshop contributors currently deliver tremendous value via additions to software products on Steam, Valve believes that they will meaningfully contribute to the design of the Steam Controller. Valve plans to make tools available that will enable users to participate in all aspects of the experience, from industrial design to electrical engineering.
Valve’s SteamOS operating system, Steam Controller and Steam Machines will all be available in 2014.