The lights are on
As we reported on Wednesday, Valve has developed a controller intended for use with SteamOS (and Steam on other platforms) and the Steam Machines coming in 2014. The Steam Controller isn't exactly like a console controller, though.
Instead of thumbsticks, the Steam Controller features track pads. There is a touchscreen in the middle, and the four buttons found on standard gamepads (Xbox 360 controller and DualShock 3) are placed around the trackpad.
Valve's selling proposition is that the Steam controller is designed to work with the entire Steam library, even those games that don't support gamepads. It accomplishes this by including a legacy mode that mimics keyboard and mouse functionality. Valve claims the fidelity approaches that of a high-end gaming mouse.
The Steam Controller also contains more sensitive and nuanced haptic feedback (rumble). The controller is fully "hackable," though, which means that users will be able to configure the hardware and the keybindings (and share them) however they please. Selection for the Steam Controller beta will be handled via the same process as the Steam Machines beta.
Our TakeThis week has seen a trio of related announcements that herald Valve's push to bring PC gaming into the living room. An operating system, a variety of hardware configurations, and now a controller that Valve believes is better suited for the PC than Microsoft's Xbox 360 gamepad (a favorite of many) could be a powerful combination, but we won't know for sure until next year.
This week has felt more like a series of teasers than anything substantial. There are no screenshots or mockups of SteamOS as an interface and no idea of how even the prototype Steam Machines are configured. The controller, while possibly better suited to titles that aren't playable with traditional controllers doesn't look comfortable or feasible for precision-based shooters. A lack of elevated thumbsticks seems like it would decrease precision.
I'm interested in trying this controller for myself, but I think there is going to be a lot of skepticism until gamers try it out. Moving the buttons around is going to mean relearning muscle memory, and the track pads need to be markedly better than the other flat-surface control mechanisms we've come to loathe for precision gaming (tablets and phones).
Until there is some evidence that developers are jumping aboard the SteamOS train, the operating system remains best conceptualized as a streaming box that requires another PC (or Mac) for content. I'm not convinced that SteamOS fills a need or solves an existing problem. I'm also not certain why developers would invest in a Linux/SteamOS version of a game that is simply going to be free via SteamPlay and garner no substantial funds.
As for the Steam Controller, I'm not sure that anyone is going to choose to play an RTS on this rather than with a mouse and keyboard. Traditional PC shooter fans likely won't abandon their control scheme of choice for this. I'm really not sure who this controller is for yet.