Late last month, Valve finally released their upcoming plans to improve the living room experience for Steam. Their September 23rd post described their Steam Operating system, built on Linux. The following Wednesday, a post detailed their plans for hardware including third-party and first-party Steam boxes. With one final announcement scheduled for Friday, speculation ran wild. Could it be Half-Life 3? It’s never Half-Life 3; we should have learned that by now. No, Valve saved its final announcement for their internally developed controller.
Wait. What’s that thing? Am I supposed to play games with that? Gamers across the net reacted with a mix of cautious optimism and skepticism over the controller’s design, and I don’t blame them. It forgoes many convention controller standards and utilizes unproven technology to promise high fidelity control. Valve believes this controller will assist players in RTS games, cursor-based games, strategy games, and other primarily keyboard and mouse titles. Whether or not they can deliver remains to be seen, but I’m excited to see what they come up with.
Now, I’m not excited simply because it’s Valve, nor am I tantalized by the controller’s new technology. I want the Steam controller because it is unlike any controller I have previously used. It is a take on game control that runs counter to conventional standards, and reminds me of my reaction to the Wii controller announcement. I have a hard time imagining playing a game with this device, and that excites me.
To understand why I believe the Steam controller is a breath of fresh air, we have to travel back to the ‘90s, back to the controller design for the Super NES and Super Famicom. Game pads were taking over as the primary controller layout, and Nintendo managed to perfect design with this device. Your left hand rests on the Directional pad for movement as your right hand manages input with the diamond-spaced buttons. More complex games use the top two shoulders buttons as well, which gamers’ hands naturally rest on when holding the controller. It is an iconic design that is instantly recognizable, even to someone who has never picked up a SNES controller.
I say Nintendo perfected controller design in the ‘90s for a reason. Take a look at the next generation of controllers below. You may start to recognize a theme across the three devices, and some similarities to the Super NES controller. Each controller has a D-pad accessible to the left hand. Each controller has buttons in a diamond configuration accessible to the right hand. Finally, each controller contains a set of shoulder buttons ahead of the additional triggers. Though the inclusion of analog sticks and shoulder triggers differentiate the new-gen controllers from its retro brethren, it’s clear that every one of these devices owes heritage to a single ‘90s controller design.
Now let’s look back at the Steam controller. It does contain shoulders buttons and 4 similarly named face-buttons, but the similarities seem to end there. The buttons are split apart and surround a touchscreen in the device's center. There are additional buttons where the left and right fingers lay while holding the controller. Finally, and perhaps most notably, there is no D-pad or analog stick. Instead, the controller utilizes two haptic feedback trackpads. Regardless of its success or failure upon release, Valve has put together the most unique controller this generation by a longshot.
Unique products are slowly becoming a rarity in the gaming industry. The unfamiliar is risky and difficult to produce, especially for a high-budget industry like gaming. This is why Steam’s controller is great news. Perhaps they’ll crack the code on delivering keyboard and mouse fidelity through a controller, or perhaps it will be another in a long line of mediocre PC game pads. Only time will tell, and even if you hate the design, you have to respect their willingness to try. After all, there’s a new generation of controllers following the status quo to fall back on.