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New controller is like Dual Shock + WiiU tablet merged into one controller

On Wednesday and Friday, Valve Corp. unveiled some of its plans for living room console dominance that began with the unveil of a Linux-based operating system designed to cater to home-theater PC (HTPC) and console gaming fans.

I. The (Non)Launch of Steam Boxes Adds to Mystery

On Wednesday, Valve teased Steam Boxes and announced a beta testing program, which will give away 300 free consoles to testers who complete a basic set of requirements involving the Steam game distribution network and assorted paperwork:

Steam Box

Notably Valve did not show off any actual hardware on Wednesday, despite being rumored to be working with 15 to 20 top PC makers on Steam Boxes.  This is not entirely surprising, given that Valve's intention for some time now has been to ship the Steam Boxes sometime in 2014.  Valve writes:

Entertainment is not a one-size-fits-all world. We want you to be able to choose the hardware that makes sense for you, so we are working with multiple partners to bring a variety of Steam gaming machines to market during 2014, all of them running SteamOS.

The biggest mystery is what exactly is in the some 15 to 20 Steam Box designs Valve has commissioned.  Quasi-CEO Gabe Newell had previously told The Verge that hardware would be split into "good" (~$100 USD), "better" ($300+ USD), and "best" hardware tiers, with the top level having no cap on the allowed hardware or price.

Some of the commissioned devices are rumored to have a fourth generation Intel Corp. (INTC) Core i7-Series processor, an undisclosed NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) graphics processing unit, and 8 GB of DRAM.  But Valve shed no further light on the specifications mystery at its somewhat vaporous Wednesday "unveil".

Steam Box

SteamBox back
A reported Steam Box prototype [Image Source: Polygon]

Regardless, we should get solid information on the spec shortly as units trickle out to beta testers at the end of next month.

II. A Gamepad for RTS? Valve Thinks So!

On Friday Valve showed off something a bit more substantial -- the Steam controller.  Rumored for months via Valve's patent filings, the new controller toes the line between a Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) Xbox One controller and a Nintendo Comp., Ltd. (TYO:7974) Wii U controller.

Steam Controller

One highlight of the controller is its twin "trackpads", circular thumb areas which are clickable.  

Steam Controller

Valve claims the trackpads rival the resolution of a gaming mouse -- a pretty impressive feat for a gamepad, if true.  The trackpads also feature a unique form of force feedback.  Valve explains:

Trackpads, by their nature, are less physical than thumbsticks. By themselves, they are “light touch” devices and don’t offer the kind of visceral feedback that players get from pushing joysticks around. As we investigated trackpad-based input devices, it became clear through testing that we had to find ways to add more physicality to the experience. It also became clear that “rumble”, as it has been traditionally implemented (a lopsided weight spun around a single axis), was not going to be enough. Not even close.

The Steam Controller is built around a new generation of super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators. These small, strong, weighted electro-magnets are attached to each of the dual trackpads. They are capable of delivering a wide range of force and vibration, allowing precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movemen

Valve claims that the controllers are so responsive they can even act as tiny speakers.

Steam Controller

The controller also features, as hinted at above, a central touchscreen, which Steam says will allow unique functions via an API it's offering developers (think hotkeys).  The controller has four other hardware buttons on the front face, and two "portal" buttons on the shoulders, which typically execute a mouse click action.

Steam Controller

Valve is seeking beta testers for early wired versions of the controllers.  Later versions will be wireless.

III. Developers Praise Controller, Remind it's Still a Prototype

Developers who tested the controller seemed relatively pleased with its design in interviews compiled by Engadget.  Fredrik Wester, CEO and president of Paradox Interactive, said in his brief time with the controller, he found it very easy to learn, relating, "I have used the controller for about 20 minutes for a third-person game and it took me about five minutes to learn, and then it felt natural."

And Ichiro Lambe, Dejobaan Games president, comments, "It feels comfortable, yet different from anything I've used before...Within five minutes of picking it up, I went from newbie to controlling an FPS camera better than I'd ever done with a gamepad."

RTS gaming
Game developers are unsure whether Valve's vision of gamepad RTS gaming are practical.
[Image Source: DailyTech LLC]

One minor gripe he has is the lack of hard physical limits to your motion.  He remarks, "I think analog sticks are better at defining boundaries -- for instance, I can mash a stick forward as far as I physically can, and I know I'm going to walk forward as quickly as I can. I just can't push it forward any further. The trackpads require more finesse; my thumbs will have to learn where to stop."

Valve is claiming that the controller with open up gamepad real-time strategy (RTS) -- an ambitious target that's never been fully achieved on the PC.  Sega (Sammy Holdings Inc. (TYO:6460)) VP John Clark, has perhaps the best advice of all, reminding the masses not to get too worked up and judge the controller prematurely -- be it good or bad.  He comments, "[Remember], it's a prototype and the purpose of the beta is for the developers to experiment."

Valve -- who gets most of its revenue from PC gamers -- has indeed stoked the interest of the anti-Windows 8 crowd who are eyeing this Linux as a possible alternative.  But there are still more question than answers -- "Where's Half Life 3?", "What's the hardware in the boxes?" "How many premium game developers will use Valve's Steam Controller API?"

Valve Half Life 2
Wed. and Friday brought no Half Life 3. [Image Source: Valve]
Hopefully the answers will come over the course of this holiday season, as the Steam Box ecosystem creeps closer to product form. 

Sources: Valve [1], [2], Engadget, The Verge

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RE: What am I missing?
By UNHchabo on 9/30/2013 6:26:15 PM , Rating: 3
Answering your questions the best I can from the info Valve's given out:

Can I play non-steam games on this?
The hardware comes with SteamOS, but you can install any OS on it you want. If you're inside SteamOS, maybe you can play other Linux games, but we don't know yet.

Will all Steam games currently available work?
Those available on Linux will work as-is. Those only supported by Windows will use the streaming service.

I still need an actual computer, right?
Only if you want to stream games.

Can SteamOS do anything other than stream games from my PC?
They've announced music/movie streaming, as well as the above-mentioned native Linux capabilities.

Why wouldn't I just get an HDMI cable?
This is a normal PC, with an OS custom-tuned to work well with games. If you want to hook up a PC to your TV with HDMI today and run it in Big Picture mode, you'll get largely the same experience.

Does the streaming work via WiFi? What kind of bandwidth is needed so FPS games aren't choppy/shitty?
Nvidia recommands a dual-band 802.11n router, though they list 11a and 11g as supported; I imagine the requirements will be similar for this.

How many hotkeys can you bind to the controller?
Valve says there are 16 buttons.

While we're at it, why do people think controller offer more control than a mouse/keyboard?
They're offering their controller as an alternative, for people who play mouse/keyboard-centric games, but want to do so from the couch. They're not saying this is better than a mouse/keyboard, just that it might be "good enough".

Am I the only one who likes watching TV while I game?
I know some people who do that; I sometimes play a game while [i]listening[/i] to TV; I can't watch it while playing with my current setup.

What is Valve's target market for this?
People who want to play PC games from the couch, and don't want to (or don't know how to) set up a normal gaming machine next to their TV.

If this costs more than an HDMI cable, will anyone care?
Unless you overpay for HDMI cables, so does every other gaming machine. I think you wrote this under the assumption that this machine can only stream games.

All in all, I see this venture as a way to get more marketshare, not as a way of replacing the way we currently play games. You can buy a "Steam Machine", load it with Windows, and use it as your everyday PC. Or you can take your older computer, load SteamOS on it, and play games on the couch with your 360 controller.

RE: What am I missing?
By Mitch101 on 9/30/2013 11:07:58 PM , Rating: 3
I think Steam is onto something here I already have an HTPC although the graphics are weak for gaming its perfect for home theater. Im in the market for a new Video card I can easily take my 6870 and dump it into my HTPC. My 6870 runs 3 screens at 1920x1080 now so driving a single 1920x1080 screen will be easy for most games especially the ones that have been ported to linux however they should make it easy for the consumer to boot straight into Windows and to the steam desktop and controllable from the valve controller. If they make a video player add in web streaming services like netflix/hulu/amazon and all easily controllable they really have something special. The biggest headache of an HTPC is controlling the HTPC. Its meant to be a PC not a gamepad style controlled device. It wasnt overly complicated to take Windows PC add XBMC and an X-Box controller to it for control but it still has quirks. If Steam can make it that much more controllable and functional they have something worth looking at. Im interested in this but if its just linux that could either drive linux gaming or make steam a well its ok but not great item. Time will tell.

RE: What am I missing?
By daveinternets on 9/30/2013 11:16:59 PM , Rating: 2
Ok, so that makes a little more sense, games that work with Linux won't need to be streamed. Still looks like non Steam games are a no-go.

In the end it seems to boil down to how much I want to play PC games on the couch. I gotta say, I don't mind escaping the wife and kids to play some games in my 'man cave'. Last thing I'd want is my kids running up and turning off the TV during a game.

"Game reviewers fought each other to write the most glowing coverage possible for the powerhouse Sony, MS systems. Reviewers flipped coins to see who would review the Nintendo Wii. The losers got stuck with the job." -- Andy Marken

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