Video game publisher Valve shook up the industry with three big announcements last week. The company first unveiled SteamBox OS, a Linux-based operating system designed for living room-based PCs, intended to challenge traditional video game consoles from Sony (NYSE:SNE), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Nintendo (OTC:NTDOY). That led into its second revelation -- that it was releasing Steam Box, a Steam OS console, in 2014.
In a previous article, I reasoned that Valve was attempting to build a walled garden on par with Microsoft's Windows Store and Apple's App Store, but that its strategy had some very noticeable flaws.
Last Friday, Valve made its final announcement -- that the Steam Box would come with a controller that eliminated the traditional thumbsticks and D-pad altogether, replacing both with two trackpads with haptic feedback. It also includes a small touchscreen in the middle, which can be used as a "second screen" display for games. It also divides the traditional control buttons between the left and right sides of the controller, instead of keeping them all on the right side, as current controllers from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have done.
A mixed response
As expected, the controller is a polarizing product for gamers used to traditional console controllers. However, a recent article at Engadget highlighted some developer responses after they tested the prototype of the controller, and the responses have been mostly positive.
James Schall, Sega's Director of U.S. and European Digital Distribution, stated that the touch pads were very responsive and could result in better gaming performance once players got used to it. Dejobaan Games President Ichiro Lambe claimed that first-person shooters were far easier to play using the Steam controller.
Tommy Refenes, the creator of Super Meat Boy and Spelunky, also documented his experience with the controller on Tumblr. Although Refenes stated that the controller was easy and accurate to use, he still prefers the Xbox 360 gamepad -- currently the most popular option for PC gamers -- out of familiarity rather than functionality.
Is Valve reinventing the wheel?
Therein lies the big hurdle for the Steam controller -- it is attempting to reinvent the wheel. Looking back at the history of video games, controllers have only successfully evolved a handful of times.
The first major evolution was the D-pad (cross pad), invented by Nintendo's Gunpei Yokoi in 1982 and popularized by Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System) in 1983. Prior to Yokoi's D-pad, video games were mainly controlled via joysticks. The D-pad minimized the movement required to move a game character, which dramatically increased in-game accuracy, as seen in Nintendo's seminal hit, Super Mario Bros.
With the Super Famicom (Super NES) in 1990, Nintendo retained the D-pad and added two more buttons and two shoulder buttons, which still remain standard fixtures on modern controllers.
Sony was responsible for the next step, adding dual thumbsticks to its Dual Analog Controller, released for the first Playstation in 1997. The thumbstick, which could be moved in a circular motion, combined the greater degree of accuracy found in joysticks with the compact size of the D-pad. This controller evolved into the DualShock controller, which made vibrating controllers with dual thumbsticks an industry standard.
Sony's DualShock controller has stood the test of time, with every subsequent generation of the Playstation controller over the next 16 years using it as a design foundation. Even Microsoft's Xbox controller and Nintendo's Gamecube controller were heavily influenced by the DualShock.
Nintendo was responsible for the final major change in game controllers, when it released the Wii in 2006. The Wii popularized motion control games, which resulted in Sony and Microsoft, respectively, releasing the Playstation Move and Kinect in 2010. However, these are still considered niche devices, while traditional console controllers were still widely used by console and PC gamers.
Although Nintendo and Sony have done much to improve game controllers, there were plenty of failed attempts to reinvent the wheel during that time. Mattel's Power Glove, the hand-motion activated U-Force, and the Sega Activator -- an absurd infra-red ring for fighting games -- were among the worst ideas of that generation.
However, one failed product of the early '90s deserves a comparison to Valve's new controller -- the Turbo Touch 360, a controller that also replaced the D-pad with a touchpad.
Of course, that's not to say that the Steam controller will suffer the same fate as the Turbo Touch 360, which was equipped with a far less advanced touchpad and lacking the modern upgrades of haptic feedback and second-screen technology. But it raises a troubling question -- is Valve creating a product to address a demand that simply isn't there?
The strengths and weaknesses of Valve's controller
Although market demand is questionable, the Steam controller still has some advantages over its predecessors.
Just as the D-pad was built to reduce the maintenance needed for joysticks, which eventually broke or lost calibration, Valve's touchpad controllers can eliminate the problem of worn-out and broken thumbsticks. In addition, the controller was designed with the same goals that resulted in the creation of the D-pad and thumbstick -- smaller movements and greater accuracy. Most importantly, the Steam controller is built with modern games -- especially first-person shooters, which require greater precision -- in mind.
However, the change might be too radical for game developers. Although current Xbox and PlayStation controllers are ergonomically different, they are fundamentally similar, with two clickable thumbsticks, four shoulder buttons, and four main action buttons. Therefore, games can easily be ported between the consoles.
Developing a game for SteamOS could require significant gameplay tweaking, which could alter the gameplay experience compared to the other versions. If that comparison is unfavorable, Valve might have to release a "classic" version of its own controller as Nintendo did for the Wii.
Still too many unanswered questions
With the introduction of the Steam OS, Steam Box, and the touchpad controller, Valve has raised a lot of questions.
What notable advantages does Steam Box offer over other consoles or a Windows PC hooked up to a TV?
Does Valve really expect gamers to abandon online stores like Ubisoft's Uplay, Electronic Arts' Origin, Amazon.com, and Microsoft's Windows Store, when they can access all of them on a PC to find the best deal?
Will the radically different controller become a liability, rather than an asset, to the system, if developers do not optimize games for it?
Can the Steam Box remain price competitive to the $399 Playstation 4 and the $499 Xbox One, which will be sold on the "razor to razor blades" model?
Valve has certainly piqued the gaming public's interest with its three dramatic announcements, but it remains to be seen if this sound and fury will signify anything long term. Stay tuned for further updates!