Out of all of Valve Software's announcements about bringing Steam to the living room, today's Steam Controller was the only one that anyone could really get their eyes on. And once you get your eyes on it, you realize immediately that this is a different kind of controller. Weeks ago, select developers were actually able to get their hands on this odd-looking, stickless wonder. And according to developers we've heard from who've actually used the controller, it's different with a purpose. Dan Tabar is an indie game developer at Planetoid Pioneers studio Data Realms, and he was one of several indie developers who had hands-on demos with the controller at Valve's Bellevue, WA headquarters on Labor Day this year. What he described was an extremely flexible, mappable controller -- perhaps the most flexible control option this side of a keyboard and mouse setup -- that offers generous tactile feedback.
"[Valve is] really trying to think things through," said Tabar. "They're asking, 'Do we really need thumbsticks? Why are the fingers on the back [of the traditional controller] not doing anything? Why not have paddles there?' The thing I find most exciting is that Valve is just rethinking it. We're totally going to be making Planetoid Pioneers with this controller in mind," he said.
During Valve's demo to him and several other indie developers, he was able to play Gearbox's Borderlands. "It hasn't been optimized, and wasn't actually built for [the Steam Controller]," he said. "Its controls were just mapped onto it. The haptic feedback was going crazy, but I'm sure they'll address that. The controllers we were using were literally fresh off the 3D press."
So far, Tabar has no word on when game developers will be able to get their hands on Steam Controllers so they can start making optimized games with them. But he did explain what he found out about it while there.
He said areas on the trackpad can be configured to have multiple button inputs. For example, the very top edge of a trackpad can be mapped to the keyboard's Shift+W, making your character in a first-person game run.
Tabar said the configuration map for the controller allows you to do "pretty much anything." For example, developers can slice up a pad into quarters, each one representing a different input, or even into eight radial sections, again, each section representing whatever you want, mapping to key combinations, or to the mouse.
The most prominent, and for some developers and players off-putting feature of the controller are those circular trackpads. But developers who we spoke with essentially said to drop your expectations of what a trackpad is capable (or not capable) of.
"These are not like laptop trackpads," Tabar said. "Everyone is like, 'Oh we're replacing thumbsticks with trackpads, oh shit.' [laughs] But this is not at all like a laptop trackpad. It just feels good. It's a challenge to verbally describe it.
"When [your thumb] moves toward the outer zone of the trackpad, you can feel that. [The zones on the trackpad] are independent of each other," he added.
Other notable features of the controller include the shoulder and trigger buttons, and the paddles on the back side. There's also that touch screen in the middle of the controller.
"As a gamer, I don't know if that touch screen is exciting, per se. But as a developer, it's really cool. You can swipe and do gesture motions on the little screen." That screen is a physical button too, offering a tactile "click" for players, an advantage over typical touch screens and pads.
Remo said the controller has a tiny speaker in it that offers audio feedback – a subtle "tick" sound that increases and decreases in speed (he compared it to the Wheel of Fortune wheel's sound), depending on how you use the track pad. If you "fling" your thumb across the trackpad – if it's mapped to the mouse – the ticking increases in speed, and slows down as the virtual momentum of your action slows.
"It sounds like there's actually a mechanical device in there, which really makes it feel mechanical, but not in a clunky way," Remo said. "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."
On Twitter, Ichiro Lambe with AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! developer Dejobaan Games also said the haptic feedback of Valve's new controller was a highlight of the device.
"It feels like you're moving your thumbs over a rough surface, though it's all virtual," Lambe said. "From a tech standpoint, think about something that can click whenever you tell it to... Simple example: you move your finger 1 inch up, and it ticks 10 times...You flick it up, and it starts ticking, like you've spun a wheel."
Remo added that he doesn't really consider the pads to be "trackpads," which, to players and developers, often represent poor feedback. "This is just the opposite of that," he said.
"I don't know if this would necessarily be my first choice for a first-person shooter, because I'm such a mouse-and-keyboard guy normally, but I'd also really like to try it," he said.
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Select game developers used the Steam Controller. Here's what they said
We talk to developers who've actually used Valve's upcoming stickless wonder. From its flexibility to its haptic feedback, people who make games are optimistic about the Steam Controller.