Valve Makes the First Controller Innovation in 16 Years with the Steam Controller
In 1997, Sony completely changed the way that controllers were designed and console games were played with the launch of the Dual Analog controllers. From there, we’ve seen some tweaks to controller design but very little in meaningful controller innovation outside of the recent move to motion controls.
While Valve’s announcement of Steam Machines was a bit underwhelming, their third announcement was a definite game changer. Their new Steam Controller looks to be the first big change in controller design in the last sixteen years.
The Steam Controller forgoes the now common dual thumbstick configuration for a dual trackpad setup. The trackpads are clickable which allow them to also act as buttons. In addition, Valve says that they are high-resolution trackpads with control precision coming close to that of a mouse and beating the precision of thumbsticks.
As a result of the two large thumb-driven trackpads, the button layout isn’t like that of your standard controller. Valve says that there are sixteen buttons on the controller. The center of the controller has a touchscreen which will can act as four different buttons depending on the quadrant of the screen you touch. There is also a button at each corner of the touchscreen. Shoulder buttons are the same as you are used to with a bumper and a trigger on either side of the controller. There are two buttons on the underside of the grips which would make for another new control feature for the Steam Controller.
To combat any issues of running off the trackpad or returning to neutral, the Steam Controller will employ the use of haptics. Haptics is a term referring to any sort of tactile feedback. The Steam Controller will use electromagnets under the trackpad to provide gamers vibration and feedback as they play.
When you think about it, going full trackpad on a controller is sort of a logical next step for game controllers. We’re seeing controller already heading in the trackpad direction. The PS4’s controller has a trackpad on the front. The PS Vita has the touchscreen on the front and a trackpad on the back. And the Wii U’s giant GamePad also has a touchscreen. That leaves Microsoft as the odd one out when it comes to touch input controls rather than Steam and Valve doing something completely out of left field with controller design.
While the Steam Box announcement wasn’t a world-changing announcement and we won’t know if SteamOS will be a game changer until we see it in the wild, the Steam Controller certainly seems to be a be step forward in controller design and PC gaming input. If the controller is priced competitively with the Xbox 360 and PS4 (which is supposed to have plug-and-play support for PC) controllers, this could be the key to bringing PC gaming to the living room. After all, playing with a controller is a lot more living room friendly than a mouse and keyboard.