The visible and eminently tactile part of the Steam hardware experience is the controller. Steam took a leap and designed something significantly different from the standard twin stick/d-pad “standard”.
The fundamental reason for doing this is that Valve is designing a controller for their platform and not for a subset of games that are already suited for controllers. This is a tall order, and needs to take in FPS games, adventure games, strategy, racing, and everything in between. And it kinda almost works.
I tested a few games to see how it worked.
It’s easiest, though perhaps unfair, to compare to the well known (and loved) Xbox 360 controller.
The Steam Controller has an overall totally new tilt. It is designed so that your thumbs are in place to float over the touchpads, instead of the A/B/X/Y buttons. The shape is more concave than convex, like virtually all other gamepads. The grips of the controller sit nestled in towards the palm/heel of your hand.
Out of the box, the controller feels rather light, when you add the batteries it feels better, more balanced. It is still lighter than most gamepads, but probably partly because of the different style of haptic feedback,rather than weighted “rumble” motors.
Since the touchpad is central to the operation, the buttons have been bumped down and to the left. Unfortunately this requires a reach, instead of them being instantly available, and locatable by touch. Another side-effect is that the bottom left edge of the touchpad is a dead zone to prevent hitting there when you use the B or Y buttons.
There is no D-pad at all, though the left side can work as one. Since it is a touchpad, though, you can slide up and down (for things like mouse wheel actions), amongst it’s many configurable layouts. This offers a lot more ability, if a little finicky. Both touch pads can be clicked.
The trigger buttons are analog with two “steps” of pull. You can half-pull them for one action and pull all the way to perform another (there is a slight click). There are digital shoulder buttons above that, and a wonderful “squeeze” button under your middle and ring fingers.
Above all of that, there is apparently a gyro inside (motion/tilt tracking, not the delicious Greek food). To wrap all of that up, there is naturally a clickable analog left thumb stick, as well as a few ancillary buttons.
The most powerful part is the software. Without any third-party add-on drivers or utilities you can make extremely fine customizations to the functions of every control, from mouse-vs-joystick type controls, to haptic feedback, to sensitivity. You can configure an outer ring for each trackpad to a different function. You can use a key as a mode switch, to double the number of commands. It is certainly possible to program the controller to handle all but the most complicated and confusing keyboard and mouse scenarios.
You can set up a configuration for each game (and download community-created ones too), and one “Desktop configuration” that can be used to make the controller a general purpose input device, so you can play games without running through Steam. That being said, I haven’t figured out a suitable Minecraft setup yet, and yes that makes me sad.
With that ability comes the caveat. You will need to customize it. You will need to spend time playing with the settings instead of playing with the games. By now, thanks to the preorder and early release, there are the above-mentioned community-provided profiles for pretty much any game. It’s easy to pick one that looks reasonably familiar and tweak it from there.
Nevertheless, it is a totally new design of a controller. You can only pick it up and be instantly familiar with it for some games here and there, maybe like some racing games, platformers and so on, but anything else needs you to relearn what a controller feels like and can do. It will take some time. F1 2013 was instantly comfortable, Portal Stories: Mel took a little getting used to, some various RTS games were and still are a big challenge for me. Tomb Raider Anniversary was tremendous.
I think it has a lot of promise, and I am still not totally comfortable with it. Valve can easily influence game authors and publishers to build controller support in to the games, and in fact they may already have done so.
We as gamers are not totally strangers to innovation, but maybe we usually expect it from Nintendo. PC gamers are perhaps more locked in to their keyboard and mouse mindset, but this controller is definitely not designed to completely displace the desktop input devices. Will it displace traditional gamepads? Time will tell. Perhaps version 2 or 3 will be even more devastating to them.
Bottom line is, there’s a entirely new niche of game controllers that has been created, and it is currently occupied solely by the Steam controller. It can control all of your Steam games, and that’s a pretty impressive resume.