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PC Gamers, gods bless ‘em, are truly the most cynical sons of bitches on the planet. I say this because when I saw Valve’s attempt to build a controller for its upcoming Steam Machines, I, like all other PC gamers, just snickered and ran as quickly as I could to a web-based memegenerator so I could create and post something derisive and snarky under one of the five pseudonyms I use to troll the Internet with. Alas, I was already beaten as those cynical PC gamers had already beaten me to it.
The Steam Controller, as it’s called, is a key element of Valve’s plan to bring PC gaming to the living room with its Steam Machines and I am highly skeptical of it. You see, there’s some things that can’t be done. For example, you can’t make an Aliens vs. Predator movie and have it not be so horrible that it’s not even worth watching for free on Netflix. You also can’t make Almond Joy actually enjoyable either.
It’s with this attitude that I got to wrap my dry-chapped hands around a prototype of the Steam Controller. If you’re looking at the still image of it, it’s about the size of a standard console game controller but rather than a joystick, joy pad or other thumb controllers, the Steam Controller features two circulator trackpads which can also act as buttons. There’s also a set of buttons on the bottom as well as the front of the unit.
To most people the puzzling part are the two gigantic Pikachu-eyed trackpads. People just can’t wrap their heads around the concept of these two trackpads and how they could possibly work. Neither could I. For my preview of the Steam Controller I first tried Borderlands 2—a popular first person shooter. To move, I used left my left thumb to simulate the usual WASD movement of forward, backwards and left and right. The right trackpad acted as free look on a mouse. There’s a subtle feedback through the “dual linear resonant actuators” in the controllers–basically super-precise haptic feedback.
The final build of the controller will feature a touchable LCD display between the two trackpads.
Valve plans for the shipping controllers to also feature a touch-sensitive high-resolution screen in the center of the controller as well, but the prototype unit featured just four physical plastic buttons.
In game, the dual trackpads work surprisingly well. Again, I went into it expecting to be underwhelmed by Valve's attempt to tilt windmills, but was surprised. After a minute adjustment, I was running around the set of Borderlands 2 jumping off objects by using the buttons on the underside. It was as natural and as close as I’ve ever gotten to a keyboard and mouse experience—without a keyboard and mouse. One of the most important moves that I’ve never been able to easily do on a game pad is circle strafe, so on the Steam Controller I found an object and easily executed a text-book circle strafe. In fact, it was fun picking a rock and circling and shooting it without having to try to rewire my mind the way I have to with a typical game console controller.
The back of the controller features two buttons.
Not everything worked for me though. Besides FPS games, PC gamers also love their RTS games. And trying to replicate that experience is also something Valve said it burned a lot of brain juice on. Rather than the left trackpad being WASD and the right trackpad being a mouse free look, Valve decided to make both trackpads act as the mouse. The Idea, Valve said, was to make it easy and effortless to replicate the insane miles of mousing that RTS gamers execute. On Civ 5 though, it just didn’t click the way it did for me with Borderlands 2. I’m admittedly more of an FPS gamer than an RTS gamer which may contribute to it, but the transition wasn’t as effortless and easy as it was in Borderlands 2. I think with more time, I might have picked it up, but my interest in RTS games didn’t justify it.
The Steam Controller itself is still pretty early. We know it likely won’t come out until next year when Valve is expected to make the big push with its living-room gaming Steam OS. For Steam Machines to actually get any traction, the Steam Controller will have to work. From what I’ve seen, it at least has a fighting chance.
The unit we played with will be the same as what the 300 beta testers get.
Again, I’m admittedly an anti-console gamer. I can’t nor have I ever wanted to play games with a console controller because it’s mouse and keyboard or nothing at all for me. The Steam Controller, however, is the closest I’ve ever come to being mildly satisfied with a console controller. It’s not a full-fidelity replacement for a keyboard and mouse combo, and I doubt it ever will be. Afterall, how could any controller ever match a 6,400 dpi mouse, ribbed for your pleasure mouse pad, and a $150 mechanical keyboard?
I’ll reserve full judgment until I grab onto a production Steam Controller but I will say that if anything is ever going to convince me to try to play shooter in my living room instead of my office, the Steam Controller has the best shot.