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Making Sense of Valve’s Steam Living Room

What is Valve's real focus for SteamOS, Steam Machines, and the Steam Controller?

By Mike Williams. Published 6 months ago

So there we go. Valve is three for three and has released their final announcement, the Steam Controller. Altogether, Valve's expansion towards televisions and your living room consists of an operating system (SteamOS), some PC hardware (Steam Machines), and proprietary controller (Steam Controller).

Like the marketing says, Valve has presented a "different kind of gamepad" for its Steam Machines. The Steam Controller tears down most of the ideas that have become standard over the years - analog sticks, D-Pads, the familiar diamond of face buttons - and replaces it with something new. High resolution trackpads replace the dual analogs, and the four face buttons now take up the inner edge of those trackpads. You have four shoulder buttons like most normal controllers, but there are another two paddles on the back of the controller. In the center of the screen is a touchscreen like the Wii U's GamePad - but capacitive, not resistive hopefully - that also doubles as a clickable button, like Sony's DualShock 4.

There are situations where I can envision it being superior to a standard console controller: strategy games and 4X games come to mind. But when I think about 2D precision platformers and fighting games, my mind throws up a ton of warning signs. Trackpads aren't great in a lot of situations - I personally hook up a mouse to my laptop to get real work done - so much of the experience here relies on Valve's haptic feedback.

On the bright side, some developers have reported that Valve got the feedback part right.

"The haptic feedback was neat. You forgot that you weren't physically ticking things over after a while," Dejobaan Games founder Ichiro Lambe said on Twitter about his experiences with a prototype controller. "It feels like you're moving your thumbs over a rough surface, though it's all virtual. Simple example: you move your finger one inch up, and it ticks 10 times. You flick it up, and it starts ticking, like you've spun a wheel."

"For FPS cameras, Steam Controller over gamepad, hands-down -- you can slide your thumb to the right or make minute adjustments, and the camera follows instantly, stopping where you stop your thumb," Lambe told USgamer over email. "There are some things gamepads do really well -- when I've pegged an analog stick fully to one direction, I know I'm throwing it as far as I can go. The trackpads on the Steam Controller don't offer the same type of resistance (I can physically overshoot), so it took a bit for my thumbs to recognize where the boundaries were. But man, playing with the controller was just fun."

"It worked really, really well. I was really impressed with the mouse imitation. It doesn't feel like a trackpad," The Cave designer and writer Chris Remo told Gamasutra. "It sounds like there's actually a mechanical device in there, which really makes it feel mechanical, but not in a clunky way. It just feels really high-tech and precise. I can't stand trackpads on laptops, and this felt really good to me. There was almost no learning curve as far as accuracy goes."

The way we sort of think of it is sort of 'Good, Better, or Best.' 'Better' is to have a dedicated CPU and GPU and that's the one that's going to be controlled.

Valve president Gabe Newell

The big problem I'm seeing is the comfortability curve. People hate change: they tend to over-value the loss of familiarity and under-value whatever new innovation you're bringing them. So, Valve has a high mountain to climb with this controller. It barely looks like anything mainstream consumers are used to. This is a product that - if it works as well as advertised - you have to physically put in players' hands for them to get onboard with your idea. Probably for an extended period of time.

The controller will work with any version of Steam, so there's a chance that Valve's new controller could replace Microsoft's 360 controller as the de-facto standard PC controller, if pricing is reasonable. Like the Steam Machines, this is a seeming threat to the PC market, not the console one.

Except when you add another bit of information to the picture. Valve was - and perhaps still is - planning to have three different specifications for Steam Machines. In an interview with The Verge, Valve president Gabe Newell outlined the basic idea.

"The way we sort of think of it is sort of 'Good, Better, or Best.' So, 'Good' are like these very low-cost streaming solutions that you're going to see that are using Miracast or Grid. I think we're talking about in-home solutions where you've got low latency. 'Better' is to have a dedicated CPU and GPU and that's the one that's going to be controlled," he explained.

"Not because our goal is to control it; it's been surprisingly difficult when we say to people 'don't put an optical media drive in there' and they put an optical media drive in there and you're like 'that makes it hotter, that makes it more expensive, and it makes the box bigger.' Go ahead. You can always sell the Best box, and those are just whatever those guys want to manufacture. [Valve's position is]: let's build a thing that's quiet and focuses on high performance and appropriate form factors."

Valve future hope for Steam Machines: five of them hooked to one TV.

Without that key information, SteamOS and Steam Machines look exactly like long-term plays by Valve to supplant Microsoft's Windows PC market. Linux, do-it-yourself machines, and a ton of configurations, don't scream "mainstream". Valve playing in the PC market in the beginning is a solid move, because SteamOS-native titles won't be as plentiful as Steam PC, Xbox One, and PS4 games. Valve needs time to bring PC gamers over to SteamOS, which will bring developers and publishers over to SteamOS. Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford told GamesIndustry International that SteamOS is merely a "curiosity" without a big game to get fans excited about the platform.

"Ultimately, without that must-buy product driving us all towards this stuff, I expect that the industry at large will watch curiously, but remain largely unaffected by anything Steam does along this vector of OS, machines and controllers over the next two or three years," said Pitchford. "If the must-buy product appears driving us there or sufficient time goes on where an installed base starts to emerge, more and more folks will move from being curious to being investigative with the possibilities."

Without that must-buy product driving us all towards this stuff, I expect that the industry at large will watch curiously, but remain largely unaffected by anything Steam does.

Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford

With Valve bringing something big to the platform, there's visibility and a reason for larger publishers and developers to make SteamOS titles. Smaller developers who have found success on Steam already are in a better place to port to SteamOS and Linux, due to platforms like Unity. The Unity environment and others like it provide a quicker way to bring games from PC and Mac to Linux already. Assuming Valve is serious about this, I'd expect them to work with Unity to improve the Linux side of its platform even more.

"Porting one of our games to Linux (and therefore SteamOS) has become almost trivially simple," Lambe admitted to me when I asked about bringing Dejobaan's games to SteamOS. "Whereas before, we'd have to re-write huge parts of a game for a new platform, tools like Unity and Haxe make it a nearly push-button affair."

While a Better Steam Machine from Valve might fall with a dull thud in the mainstream market this holiday season or next, four or five years down the line might be a completely different story. Five years down the line could see strong SteamOS support, with titles coming to the platform day-and-date with console versions. A cost-effective Better Steam Machine would likely be more powerful than the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and enthusiast users would have time to get used to the Steam Controller. All that adds up to much better position for Valve to change the PC and console markets.

"If people embrace SteamOS, it'll mean we can reach millions of new gamers who are just waiting for our brand of crazy fun," added Lambe.

Change is good, and Valve has the clout and history to shake things up big time. I suspect that right now isn't the right time for Steam Machines to take off, but I'm excited for future possibilities.

The best community comments so far 8 comments

  • metalangel 6 months ago

    I am very, very interested to try that controller.

  • docexe 6 months ago

    It certainly makes more sense to see this as a long term investment on Valve’s part, given that Linux gaming is still a very small percentage of the market and that is not going to change overnight. Now for the irony: Something like Half Life 3 could be the killer app that Steam OS needs to take over the world by storm, but who knows if they will ever release that game.

    As to the controller… I’m conflicted and will be conflicted until I actually try one. I’m not as opposed to change in gaming controllers and interfaces as many other people are (I would not enjoy Nintendo’s many quirky controllers otherwise), but in this case I honestly don’t know what to think. If the haptic feedback works as well as many developers say it does, the trackpads might prove to be a better option than the traditional analog thumbsticks. But I honestly can’t picture myself playing a fighting game or beat’ em up ala Devil May Cry/Bayonetta on something like this.

  • AxiomVerge 6 months ago

    I guess you can say I'm a bit skeptical. How can these be precise when your thumb doesn't come to a precise point? It seems like at best it would be like a touchscreen?

    Also I like how it feels to move a physical object with my fingers.

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