It's been a solid decade since we've made any significant advances in gamepad design. The last major innovation was Sony's DualShock for PlayStation, released in 1997, which had all the pieces we now consider standard: two clickable analog sticks, rumble feedback, four triggers, four face buttons, D-pad, Start, Select.
There have been refinements. We've renamed some of the buttons. But nobody has fundamentally reimagined the controller and had it stick. Nintendo's Wii and Wii U tried, but neither of those has found success outside of their original platform.
Enter Valve's interesting Steam Controller, which is an integral part of Valve's ploy to push PC gaming into the living room via console-like Steam Machines.
Unlike the Wii and Wii U, the Steam Controller is meant to replace the "hardcore" controllers — the Xbox 360/One and the PlayStation's DualShock. This is aimed squarely at a core games market, emulating the feel of the now-traditional gamepad while improving on a few less-than-optimal aspects and simultaneously wooing diehard PC gamers sworn to a keyboard and mouse.
I spent some time with the original Steam Controller prototype recently and then got my hands on the second version of the Steam Controller at GDC last week. Here are my thoughts so far on Valve's (still evolving) design.
Version two of the Steam Controller turns an incredibly radical design into something a bit more familiar (and perhaps a bit more palatable), though it still revolves around the two circular, haptic-enabled trackpads that are Valve's replacement for analog sticks.
Those trackpads are the key difference between a dual-analog stick system and the Steam Controller. Valve wants to win over mouse-and-keyboard diehards with something a bit more precise than an analog stick. The pads act like a cross between a laptop trackpad and a graphics tablet. You aren't really swiping your fingers across the surface, as you would on a laptop, but the controls don't really map 1-to-1 on the screen as they would a graphics tablet.
Basically, the farther you move away from the central circle on each pad, the faster your character/the camera/your cursor moves in that direction.
The main issue with this control scheme — and one I don't know how Valve will solve — is that only the central circle is a dead zone. The rest of the pad is active. You have to keep your thumb rigidly within that circle or else risk stray movements. I played Left 4 Dead 2 on the controller earlier this month and kept unintentionally walking off ledges. I'd lift my thumbs for a second and then put them back down in the active zones by accident. It's also hard to change directions quickly, as it requires you to move your thumb all the way across a fairly large area with a high degree of precision.
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