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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: I, for one, am excited
By inighthawki on 9/30/2013 11:35:51 PM , Rating: 2
There's actually a potential downside which is platform fragmentation. We already have console exclusives whcih tend to piss of PC gamers and make them feel neglected. Now imagine if there are Linux vs Windows exclusives and now you require two OSs just to play all your games. I know I certainly don't want that.

RE: I, for one, am excited
By Ammohunt on 10/1/2013 10:25:52 AM , Rating: 2
Linux vs Windows exclusives and now you require two OSs just to play all your games. I know I certainly don't want that.

Me neither! lets hurry up and get all PC gaming moved over to Linux so that won't happen. The only reason i run Windows is for gaming and for iTunes which i plan on migrating my iTunes library over to a mac mini connected to the TV. Otherwise i would run Linux for everything else.

Steams idea of creating their own distro eliminates the biggest problems when developing for Linux that being which distro to support. This will allow them to focus on one thing making great games for one distro, SteamOS. Because its open source a lot of their effort will trickle back to mainstream linux win win.

RE: I, for one, am excited
By inighthawki on 10/1/2013 11:23:05 AM , Rating: 2
That doesn't make any sense. Having gaming on PC is never going to move over the existing library of tens of thousands of windows games. Exclusives will only further fragment the ecosystem. It is a lose-lose for everyone, especially those who don't want to use Linux.

RE: I, for one, am excited
By Ammohunt on 10/1/2013 11:41:12 AM , Rating: 1
That doesn't make any sense. Having gaming on PC is never going to move over the existing library of tens of thousands of DOS/Windows 95/Windows 98 games. Exclusives will only further fragment the ecosystem.

Little history lesson there

RE: I, for one, am excited
By inighthawki on 10/1/2013 12:22:17 PM , Rating: 2
It's interesting getting a history lesson from someone who seems to have failed it pretty miserably.

RE: I, for one, am excited
By Ammohunt on 10/1/2013 12:54:38 PM , Rating: 1
I actually lived through it instead of read about it in high school last year.

RE: I, for one, am excited
By inighthawki on 10/1/2013 1:02:30 PM , Rating: 2
And what makes you believe I didn't?

Apparently you are ignoring every game that has been released in the past decade that is based on DX9 or above, and many newer games that are even DX11 only, and require Win7 as a minimum.

I just don't understand how you could possibly ignore this. I would go as far as to say that probably 95+% of the games played today on Windows PCs likely can't run at all on anything less than Windows XP.

RE: I, for one, am excited
By Ammohunt on 10/1/2013 2:02:08 PM , Rating: 2
Don't have such a myopic view of gaming. What i am trying to convey is that this could be a total shift in gaming platforms the dependency on windows is entirely artificial.

If games are good enough they will be ported plain an simple. How many console titles have been ported to PC and visa versa? How many console exclusive eventually had to bust of of the confines of one platform so that they could be profitable on others? Final Fantasy come to mind.

RE: I, for one, am excited
By inighthawki on 10/1/2013 2:18:11 PM , Rating: 2
Developers do not typically port previously released titles. The vast majority of those existing tens of thousands of games on Windows now will never be ported.

Platform fragmentation is a very real issue. Consoles have tons of games that never make it to PC, many of which I would buy right away if they did. Plenty of fun multiplayer games I would love to play with friends. Many even end up being xbox exclusives and still not ported despite the fact that the xbox SDK is basically Win32+DX9 with some tweaks.

Linux is different enough from Windows that there are games that would just never be ported back and forth, plain and simple. Big AAA titles based on big name engines like Unreal likely won't have much issue being ported since the engine is maintained to be platform independent and there is little work to republish to a new platform, but nonetheless this is still not always the case.

If anything, I would think it's you who has a very myopic view on gaming. Windows is a pretty great platform these days, and despite the shortcomings of Windows 8, Windows 7 still exists and Windows offers an excellent gaming platform combined with backwards compatibility for applications that most people use. There isn't much of a benefit to trying to convince people to fragment the game community further and add the potential for platform exclusives. It hurts everyone. The Linux gamers who hate Windows still need to dual boot Windows to play older games and "Windows Exclusives" but now Windows gamers will need to dual boot Linux as well to play "Linux exclusives." It also means that developers need to maintain multiplatform versions of their games and libraries, and development costs go up. Development costs is one of the number one reasons why games are often not ported to other existing platforms (PC->Console and vice versa).

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