Valve looks to rethink the PC gaming controller with a wireless replacement for your keyboard and mouse.
The Steam Controller is a key part of Valve’s attempt to extend its cloud-based PC gaming business to the TV screen, more directly challenging platforms such as the Xbox, PlayStation and Wii.
Licensed versions of Valve’s Steam Machine PC gaming platform already feature HDMI output, and the operating system includes a Big Picture mode that optimises the experience for your television.
After some delay, the controller joins this line-up, primarily as a wireless replacement for the keyboard and mouse. It is all about the ergonomics of dropping yourself comfortably on the couch and getting at least as good a gaming experience as you would in front of a PC workstation-based set-up.
To that end, the Steam Controller incorporates two highly sensitive and responsive haptic pads that are intended to do much of what a mouse has traditionally accomplished, as well as a single joystick and series of programmable buttons. Front-mounted dual triggers also feature.
However, TV gaming is not the limit of Valve’s ambitions. In addition to novel haptics - more of those in a minute - Valve has designed its controller to be highly configurable. You can reassign buttons, alter the sensitivity of the haptics and more. The company wants customers to create their own controller configurations for different games and then share them with other members of the Steam community, which already claims 35 million ‘active users’.
What is at first glance a relatively straightforward hardware design therefore hides a great deal of complexity, most notably in terms of what it asks of the user.
Let’s look at the hardware first. The iFixit teardown team has gone inside a number of earlier Valve designs, including the original Steam Machine reference design (see E&T April 2014, bit.ly/eandt-teardown1403).
It has found that for the Steam Controller, as before, modularity and a dependency on off-the-?shelf (COTS) components are to the fore. Even the innovative haptic touchpads appear to be COTS parts from touchpad specialist Cirque. The main microcontroller is a standard part from NXP Semiconductors, Nordic Semiconductor provides the Bluetooth/2.4GHz wireless combo from its catalogue, and the gyro/accelerometer is a familiar Invensense device.
Disassembly and reassembly do need to account for a couple of uses of glue rather than screws, and some ribbon cable that lurks beneath the controller’s motherboard. But repairs are viable.
“Replacing a single component will be a simple task,” iFixit notes, scoring the controller 8 out of 10 for its maintainability.
The £39.99 UK retail price is higher than that for many rival controllers but still looks like good value given the options Valve has added.
However, two years after we looked inside the original Steam Machine, its sister controller poses the same question we asked then: “Just how much customisation do gamers want?”
New generations of console have emerged in that time from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, but, according to Jon Peddle Research (JPR), hardware sales for PC gaming reached $21.5bn (£14.9bn) in 2014 and have continued to grow since - unlike every other branch of a very commoditised market.
Importantly, JPR estimates that 44 per cent of those sales ($18.3bn) are to ‘enthusiasts’, a group “much like sports car owners”. You would therefore imagine that those enthusiasts, at least, would welcome the Steam Controller with a veritable Twittergasm.
But when Valve lifted the review embargo on its controller last November, the verdicts from hardcore gamers were mixed.
Some criticised a cheap, ‘plasticky’ feel to the case, but a more common complaint was how difficult it was to get used to the device - and was it worth the effort. Had Valve committed that most foul of engineering sins: reinventing the wheel?
The functions of the haptic pads can be split so that one controls the direction and speed of movement as well as firing, while the other changes the viewing angle. All sorts of issues arise for hardcore gamers, including how their existing muscle memory now needs to adapt to a more responsive and unfamiliar controller.
And yes, what button should do what? Muscle memory again. Re-educating your digits can be a right pain.
Even at a basic level, the controller’s physical design means that it feels heavier in the hand than, say, the Xbox alternative. Although ironically this probably is not the case. Rather, the Steam’s larger-than-normal hand grips result in a different weight distribution. Both clock in at about 285g.
Valve is asking more of users than, say, changing from a car with reverse on the left to one where it is on the right. Some have embraced that, taking the time to master the different feel the advanced haptics bring and juggle the different options. This group loves Valve’s innovation.
Even though the split reaction might suggest it, we should be careful before seeing the Steam Controller as simply an over-engineered and over-complex device or one that is just ahead of its time.
The Steam Controller is a challenging product. Every reviewer agrees on that. But from a design point of view, Valve deserves kudos. It has created something that does push the envelope but within a budget and philosophy that will give the market time to realise its value.