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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
t.

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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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By kilkennycat on 10/1/2013 12:08:28 AM , Rating: 2
I own a very high-performance PC networked to my living room TV and I multiboot 3 operating systems on that machine. No problem adding a 4th Steam-OS partition, assuming that Valve provides a multiboot-friendly installer. Presumably the just-announced Steam Controller will be able to interface with my computer via USB or wirelessly over my network ( a la nV Shield).

However, what is all this drivel from Valve/Gabe about Steam Box versions of varying HARDWARE performance capability?

I use the aforementioned computer for many purposes including FPS gaming and high-performance video editing. Would somebody explain to me why I would need another "Steam Box" set of duplicate-function hardware just for gaming (and no doubt restricted to SteamDRM ports to Steam-OS)?

If I wanted another stand-alone gaming box (or focused living-room hub), I would likely purchase a PS4 or XBoxOne.

The Steam Controller itself might be a useful device, but is the "Steam Box" a solution looking for a problem?




By spaced_ on 10/1/2013 2:51:46 AM , Rating: 2
It's not a product aimed to be sold to you in the near future. You already have your own equivalent to a steam machine albeit perhaps very noisy.

I know countless people who don't have a very-high-performance PC, let alone any PC right now and would potentially buy one. Personally I've never put down money on a console because I feel the experience is mediocre compared to PC gaming. If they can pull off mouse-like precision on this new controller I'd almost certainly get one for my living room.

In several years to come your very-high-performance PC might become very-mediocre and a very-high-performance steam machine might be a more inexpensive solution to all of your problems. After all Steam OS is free and it would come pre-loaded on a steam machine.

It all depends how well Valve executes. Hell if they hire some Apple marketing execs it could be the next big craze in the living room.


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