The lights are on
Valve’s new Steam Controller is weird. It eschews traditional thumb sticks in favor of touch-based trackpads that incorporate vibration to give players a more tactile experience. Valve also says the controller will work with every game in the Steam library. The company’s odd gamepad is unusual, ambitious, and alien to most gamers. But that’s a good thing.
My gut reaction to Valve’s announcement of the Steam Controller was hesitation. The trackpads reminded me of iOS games I’ve played which have attempted digital analog sticks to ho-hum results. But trackpads are not touchscreens, and most of the tech Valve is implementing is either new or foreign to most gamers. Valve says it’s incorporating new form of haptic feedback, which is a fancy way of saying this isn’t your daddy’s Rumble Pack. These trackpads will offer more precise sensations to players’ thumbs give them something tactile in place of a thumbstick. In all my years playing games, I’ve never had my hands on anything that sounds even remotely similar to this. This is new technology and a new idea for a controller, and it’s hard to form an idea of how it will feel until we try it. There is really nothing that is a basis for comparison.
Valve has been clear that this controller is not a required replacement for a mouse and keyboard. Your favorite genres and series will still support other input devices, but the Steam Controller holds great potential for those that would rather play games on their TV. Once Valve’s Big Picture mode entered beta, I hooked my PC up to my HDTV, plugged in my wireless 360 controller, and never looked back. I still reach for the mouse and keyboard for certain games, but with my set up, I prefer holding a comfortable controller rather than fumbling with mouse pads and cords. Sure, I could spend money on an expensive wireless keyboard and mouse, but Valve is working on a solution to this. The company wants all the games in the Steam library to support its controller. Will this work well for every game? Probably not, but I’m excited that the company is brave enough to even attempt this task.
The house that Half-Life built has earned a rabid following over the years. Droves of fans joke about pouring the contents of their wallets into Steam sales, and Half-Life 3 is arguably the most anticipated game of all time. Valve earned its reputation by creating quality software, fostering an awesome relationship with its community, and making a revolutionary digital platform. The doubt swirling around the Steam Controller reminds me of Steam’s unpopular inception. The company has a track record of surprising and impressing gamers, and we don’t have a reason to believe the hardware will be a different story.
Valve is a savvy company that doesn’t have a history of making stupid, hasty decisions. In the past I doubted unique hardware designs like the Nintendo DS and Oculus Rift at first glance, but I’ve learned that the boldest decisions can come with the most satisfying results. Since 1997 the PlayStation DualShock has been the basic template for dual analog stick controllers, and most companies have chosen to refine this design rather than innovate on it. The Steam Controller’s odd aesthetic and tech is something I’ve never seen before, and that’s worth getting excited about.