Valve's third major announcement in a week of big news was perhaps the most predicted of all: a new Steam Controller which promises to offer gamers something that no one else has - compatibility with every PC game. Ever. Or at least, on Steam, which is almost the same thing. I say that the controller comes as no surprise, because it's something that Valve has rather publicly (for Valve) been working on over the last year. It became most talked about when one of the employees brought on to head up such a project...parted ways with the company unexpectedly.
Calling it "a different kind of gamepad," it's clear that Valve has wildly different ideas about where to take a gaming controller than do companies like Microsoft or Sony. Instead of filling the face of the controller with buttons, dual joysticks and directional pads, the majority of the device is taken up by two large, circular trackpads. The trackpads won't physically move around like a joystick or d-pad would, but they will be clickable, each acting as a single button.
It's an interesting direction to take with a controller, and one that might let them succeed where even the PC version of the Xbox 360 controller (currently the clear winner for PC gamers looking to use a gamepad) has failed - Valve is promising support for every single game on Steam, even the games that have zero controller support currently built in.
This will be accomplished by emulating the keyboard and mouse on the controller, something that the dual trackpads will likely accomplish with a great deal of fidelity than a series of discrete buttons could. Certainly in terms of emulating the mouse, at least. Some of this help will be managed by using a clickable touchscreen display embedded into the middle of the gamepad. This auxiliary screen could let gamers scroll through PC menus and settings for the game that would ordinarily require a keyboard.
The bindings can be configured - and shared - through a special keybinding tool that operates the Steam Controller in a special legacy mode.
With games that already support controller input, the transition should be mostly seamless, as the Steam Controller can emulate an Xbox controller even more easily than a keyboard and mouse. It's with future games, however, that things get interesting.
Valve, with Steam, will be actively courting developers to take advantage of their controller support to add the functionality to games that might not otherwise have it. Additionally, their Controller APIs will offer access to functionality like the touchscreen, letting developers use it for things like secondary map displays, additional gameplay, or something else entirely - much like the screen on the somewhat daunting Wii U controller.
Another major departure from traditional gaming companies comes in terms of Valve's openness with the project. The company plans to make available tools and information "that will enable users to participate in all aspects of the experience, from industrial design to electrical engineering." It seems like the company isn't completely set on how the Steam Controller will work, if the current design is set in stone, or if it may ship with a larger - or smaller - feature set.
Valve is promising not to ever leave keyboard and mice users behind, however, and it's nice to see them put that in writing - mostly because after the previous announcements this week, many have taken to the feedback pages and complained about the very nerve of using a controller with their beloved PCs.
Even, or perhaps especially, within gaming, there are always those that think their way is the best or only way to accomplish something.
If you're looking to get your hands on the Steam Controller sometime soon, we have some bad news. It's highly unlikely that we'll see anything concrete come out before the next six or seven months. For those so inclined, however, Valve will be shipping prototype controllers to the 300 lucky gamers participating in the Steam Hardware beta (read more here!), so if you just can't wait, I'd recommend applying now.
The beta controller won't be shipping with a touchscreen, just a few buttons in the middle - likely both as a cost-saving measure and because Valve hasn't entirely figured out where they're going with the secondary display just yet. Prototype controllers - called beta hardware - won't be wireless, either.
There's no word just yet on what we can expect the Steam Controllers to cost, but I'd wager something around the $79 - $99 price point would be likely, with discounts given for those users buying them with a Steam Machine (though perhaps Valve will require manufacturers to sell them as a bundle).
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