October 01, 2013, 6:00 AM —
Of the three announcements I thought the Steam Controller was the most interesting. Valve has taken the basic shape of an Xbox or Playstation gamepad and replaced the analog sticks with circular trackpads. Between these is a touchscreen. Both trackpads and touchscreen are clickable. Around the touchscreen are 4 face buttons, with 3 more in a horizontal row below the pads and screen. There are four shoulder buttons in the traditional locations you would find them, and finally two buttons on the bottom of the controller where your pinkie, ring and middle fingers rest when holding the controller. Sixteen buttons in all.
When I first saw this design I was slightly horrified at the idea of using trackpads but since then I've read a few hands on posts from game devs that have re-assured me that these aren't trackpads like you'd find on a laptop. They're apparently more sensitive and are backed by (as Valve says) "super-precise haptic feedback" that "provides a vital channel of information to the player."
So what does that mean? Over at Kotaku Dejobaan Games' Ichiro Lambe said this about using the pads:
"This sounds weird, but it's almost like rolling two weighted trackballs that are too large to actually fit into the controller," Lambe said as he tried to explain what it's like to have one's thumbs on those two trackpads. "For camera controls, slide one thumb to the right, and you'll feel this ticking, like you're turning a physical control. Flick your thumb quickly, and this imaginary physical thing reacts like something with weight to it—the 'trackball' continues to roll for a bit, eventually coming to a rest. And since it's all controlled through the software, the same trackpad then becomes more like a mouse or a laptop trackpad when you're navigating through menus. Dynamic!"
The idea behind this controller seems to be to bring game genres to the living room TV that don't currently work well with a traditional controller. Genres like real-time and turn-based strategy games, or party-based RPGs.
I have two thoughts about this. First, I have a PC hooked up to my living room TV, and my problem with playing these kinds of games isn't controlling them (I just use a wireless mouse and keyboard). It's seeing them. These games tend to have text-heavy UI's that are hard for me to read from across the room.
Of course future titles could be designed to compensate for this problem. But games like the latest XCOM demonstrate that strategy games can be designed to work very nicely with a traditional controller.
My second thought is that there's something to be said for really mashing analog sticks in the heat of battle. Since sticks can only be pushed so far, you hit that wall of resistance and know you're as far as you can go. With a trackpad, you're going to push your thumb to the edge and just hold it there, I guess? I'm not sure that'll feel as good.
But, that second thought is more of a concern with action titles, and it may be that most living room PC gamers will just have two controllers hooked up: a traditional gamepad for action games, and a Steam Controller for games that require precise, complex input.
I'm curious to get my hands on one of these things and see how they feel. I'm not 100% sold, but let's just say (mostly based on what game developers have been saying) I'm cautiously optimistic.
What about you?
Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.