Sat. Feb 4th, 2023
When you tear open the Steam Controller and Steam Link boxes, you'll see these cool schematic scribbles hidden inside.

When you tear open the Steam Controller and Steam Link boxes, you’ll see these cool schematic scribbles hidden inside.

Sam Machkovech

As we sat down in the mock-up living room at Valve’s headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, earlier this month, hardware executive Erik Johnson handed us one of the first final Steam Controller models and then emphatically said, “we’ve got the most hardware left behind work now behind us.” That’s no small statement for a project like the Steam Controller, at least three prototype versions of which have appeared at expos and conventions over the years – meaning more have certainly been generated and tossed behind Valve’s closed doors.

A touchscreen came and went, as did a square grid of center buttons and even an odd arrangement of round buttons on the d-pad. Now the company has finally chosen a big, finished design (which we wrote about extensively today).

Of course we’re joking. Within minutes of Johnson’s statement, another veteran of the Valve design team, Robin Walker, informed us that the company’s “always in beta, always evolving” ethos did indeed extend to the Steam Controller, if not other products. like the Steam Link.

“The likelihood that any given controller design will suit all of our users is extremely unlikely,” Walker said at our meeting. “Our goal was to get to a point where hardware can be as flexible as software. We’ve learned over the years that when we build software and it’s in the hands of customers, they help us improve it. Customers who using a product always improve a product.”

What exactly does that mean for customers? Will the first wave of Steam Controllers be overshadowed by a more beautiful model in a few months? None of the Valve reps we spoke to were clear on that point. Johnson repeatedly referred to “a specific approach to how we manufacture the hardware”, including “a truly flexible automated assembly line” to push newer designs directly to customers.

The apparent Torx screws from the Steam Controller.
Enlarge / The apparent Torx screws from the Steam Controller.

Sam Machkovech

The duo then mentioned vague plans about releasing CAD files for users to play around with and 3D print their own designs or sell users “electronic guts minus the form factor” for similar purposes. Neither employee could clearly explain what their ideal roadmap to custom Steam Controllers would look like, especially for those purchasing a first-generation Steam Controller, which clearly lacks a modular design. The primary housing consists of two plastic halves, joined together by what appear to us to be Torx screws.

Is the Steam Controller still hiding secrets?

They also leaned heavily on the software side of the “unfinished” idea, especially because of the controller’s unique pair of trackpads – a feature the team struggled to include in the design, despite customers wanting more familiar controller elements like d-pads . (While Walker insists the d-pad’s shape was etched onto the left trackpad because “people are confused without it,” we found in our testing that it definitely didn’t replicate the comfort or usability of a d-pad.)

Valve couldn’t pinpoint a single game or experiment that used dual trackpads in an interesting or successful way; instead, Walker showed off the SteamOS keyboard system, which allows users to emulate two-finger tapping on a virtual keyboard by using each hand’s thumb pads and trigger button. We were able to type fast enough with it, but we were hungry for a demo that better tested whether we could use two thumbpads at the same time in a way as impressive as our first one, way back. Halo session done with double thumbsticks.

In contrast, what they did demonstrate was an interesting use of the controller’s rarely advertised gyroscope features. The Counterattack: GO development team created a custom Steam Controller configuration for their game, allowing players to control their target in both gross and fine ways: they can move their gaze quickly by pressing the right thumbpad, but they can also fine-tune their target by tilting the controller up, down, left and right. “Do your 180-degree somersaults on the pad, then use your gyro to line up clutch shots,” Walker said.

The design team did not mention any other hidden or underused features of the Steam Controller that they expect developers or users to use. Instead, they emphasized that they still have a way to go in terms of supporting and optimizing the use of the Steam Controller across different game genres. “The pad is just sending input to a system, right?’ Walker said. “It has been an enormous amount of work for us to interpret that input.” back to a different place, which raises different usage expectations than when users do the same with a trackball or mouse.

Walker and Johnson clarified that while Valve is very interested in how the community responds to and uses the Steam Controller, the company will not dig through the Steam Controller’s configuration files or other user data to improve the product.

“We’ve gone down the data rabbit hole, haven’t we?” Walker said. “We’ve connected as much data as anyone, and we’ve found that it never gives you an intent. It just tells you what’s happening. Maybe the best Rocket League player in the world has his lineup because he, let’s say, been used to EMACS all his life and his little finger stopped working. Or here’s someone who changed the configuration and quit 5 minutes later. Does that mean the configuration was bad? Maybe he just had to go to lunch!”

In the end, both representatives were convinced that the most enthusiastic users of the Steam controller, just like the most enthusiastic users of Steam, will make their wish lists and desires clear enough. “Our customers are very efficient at telling things in all sorts of ways, both passively and actively,” Walker said. “That’s our core at Valve, to make sure we’re listening to that stream the right way.”

By akfire1

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