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Ten Minutes With The Steam Controller…

Have you heard of Valve and their future plans to build hardware and an operating system optimized for Steam? It's true. The maker of iconic titles like Half Life, Portal and Left for Dead announced a few months ago they would produce some type of PC based console, a controller, and a Linux based operating system. I'm not really here to debate the many questions that arise when you consider why Valve would attempt such an unprecedented and debatable initiative.

If you know nothing about me, know this... I am Valve fanboy. I don't know why I am, I just know I am. Besides having all of the games and playing them (or trying to play them all again), I follow a lot of the other programs and initiatives they are involved with. They are a fairly private organization, but I read and watch whatever I can find about them. They've done so much for PC gaming and the video game industry and they've made a lot of money doing it. But they reinvest a lot of their profits back into the machine to keep it running. To illustrate how much of a Valve fanboy I am, on a rare occasion I had the honor and privilege of meeting some of the Game Informer staff members, and one of the things Andy McNamara said to me was a comment about the Aperture Laboratories shirt I was wearing...something along the lines of, "How did I know you would be wearing something Valve related?"

So, why do I tell you any of that? Well, I think it's only fair for you to understand upfront my bias for Valve and their future project.

I had the opportunity to sit down and use the Steam Controller a few days ago. It was one of the ones given to those attending the Valve dev-days conference held last week. Apparently attendees were given a bag with the controller, a USB thumb drive containing the Steam OS, and one of the non-Valve Steam boxes manufactured by Gigabyte (I don't know if that makes it a Steam box or not, but you get the idea). It's my understanding Valve gave out about 1200 of these packages.

I'll tell you the details up front, and then share my personal perspective.

Steam OS: I didn't get to see the Steam OS at all - the system I was able to play only had a game running and I didn't want to try and exit just to mess around with the OS. I have a dual boot configuration set up on my gaming rig at home with one drive dedicated to an install of Ubuntu Linux (what some are saying is the foundation for the Steam OS). On this drive, I have Steam installed, and a number of Valve games. Suffice it to say, Steam running on Linux seems to run okay and I look forward to being able to tinker with the Steam OS version...my guess is they're very similar.

Console: As I mentioned above, the console was manufactured by Gigabyte. It has a very small footprint and definitely looks more like a console than a PC. The shiny black finish is not unlike some of the other consoles and the unit has a single button with a blue LED to turn the device on and off. It has a couple USB ports on the front and back, a headphone jack on the front, and a power connector, a couple HDMI ports, and an Ethernet port on the back. I have no idea about the internals other than the sticker on the front indicating it has an Intel Core i7 processor and an Intel Iris Pro graphics chip. I couldn't tell you anything about the internals like the hard drive or RAM. I'm sure you can read all about the system specs online if you're interested.

Controller: Apparently Valve dropped the touch screen on the center of the controller and replaced it with buttons. This controller adopted a shape similar to other current generation console and third party controllers. It replaces the thumb sticks with a control that Valve is calling a trackpad. Not counting the buttons built into the trackpads, by my count there are 11 buttons on the top of the controller and two buttons on the bottom side of the controller. Then of course you have what most gamers familiar with modern controllers call the left and right trigger, and the left and right buttons.

Okay, so my thoughts.

The game that was running was a Half-Life 2 mod called Estranged. It is a free to play adventure game...it seems kind of creepy, like the beginning of Bioshock.

Estranged tells the story of a lone fisherman, whose ship is stranded on a mysterious island during a violent storm. Explore the rich environments and meet the curious inhabitants of the island as you find a way back to the mainland.


As soon as I saw my character holding a hammer in a fashion strikingly similar to Gordon Freeman's crowbar, I had a hunch it was based off of the Source engine. The game didn't look spectacular but it wasn't horrible either. Watching the trailer on my home PC looked far better than playing the game on this system.  The game seemed a little laggy and the graphics weren't as crisp. I hit a load point and after what seemed liked several minutes of waiting, I thought the system might be locked up. Not a very good first impression. I waited a bit longer and it finally loaded. While PC gamers are more familiar with long load times than console gamers, inordinately long load times can be a showstopper for many gamers. I didn't know whether to blame the game or the console (or both), so later that night I downloaded the game on my gaming rig (on the Linux drive even) and tried it again. It ran a bit better but still seemed to suffer from long load times.

I was impressed with the size of the computer. It is by far the smallest "gaming" computer I've seen. Seems like a few years ago, compact computers being carted to LAN parties were becoming the latest trend. This thing is very tiny as you can see in the picture of it next to the controller. If this is indeed being marketed as a "living room gaming console" alternative, it will take up far less space than any other console you might own. The fan seemed kind of noisy and the device felt and smelt kind of hot. I'm sure they've been tested for that sort of thing, but I've been handling electronic equipment for decades now both professionally and as a hobby and that was my impression.

The controller. Hmm, the controller. This is what Valve had to say about the controller.

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.

My problem wasn't the trackpads. I embrace innovation in technology and even though this is a non-traditional approach, I'm okay with it. Maybe my hands were too big or too small, but with the exception of the trigger buttons, I thought most of the other buttons were awkward to press. It may be true you can access them without lifting your thumbs, but it didn't feel as comfortable or natural as what I'm used to. I consider myself a PC gamer, so I'm used to the keyboard + mouse. But I'm quite familiar with Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo controllers and there is something about the layout of the Steam controller that doesn't feel right. The big buttons in the center that replaced the touch screen look really out of place - like maybe they're supposed to be keyboard keys? There are two buttons on the bottom that remind me of the gas and brake paddles on my racing wheel. They are sort of elongated buttons. An interesting approach and place to add buttons.  The trackpads take some time to adjust to. I do like how you can jump forward or backward with the trackpad - it would be like using the W key to move forward, but if you pressed it down hard enough it would jump forward. The same is true of the S key and jumping backward. Overall, my biggest complaint with the controller was the quality felt kind of cheap.  I realize these are just prototypes and will likely change before they are officially released. But Valve has a reputation for not showing their cards until the last hand, and they have to know people are analyzing every little detail, so my fear is that it won't change much.

It may sound like I'm disappointed, butI don't know if that's the right word. I'm used to everything Valve laying its hands on turning to gold and being epic. Perhaps I'm just being reminded this is why I don't like betas and prototypes before the final product ships. I think we learned a couple important lessons from the Ouya, with perhaps the most important being gamers aren't necessarily looking for a cheap alternative to play their games. I'm not suggesting that is what Valve is shooting for with the creation of Steam based hardware and operating system, but my fear is that is how it will be received.

 

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