Look! Up on the 'net! It's a miniature boombox! It's a jet-black lemur! No--it's Valve's newly announced piece of tech: the Steam Controller. This is the final piece of the puzzle to SteamOS and Steam Machines; after all, what's a living room system without a controller? Call us geeky, but we tend to get a little giddy when any major company debuts a new controller. The feel and responsiveness of a controller is crucial to the experience of playing a game; if your input feels off in any way, the entire act of playing will be thrown out of sync.
The Steam Controller itself is an oddity: two touchpads instead of joysticks, buttons straddling a touchscreen in the middle of the gamepad. It got us thinking: How on Earth will it work with the enormous library of games available on Steam? This is all pure speculation; we won't know anything for certain until we actually get our hands on a Steam Controller. But until that time comes, we can't help but wonder what the gameplay experience will be in genres like
This is a big one, for Valve and the PC gaming community at large. If the Steam Controller can't hang in games like Team Fortress 2, Half-Life, or Left 4 Dead, what business does Valve have even making it? There's always been a disconnect between controllers and mouse-and-keyboard schemes when it comes to FPS games, given how finicky joysticks can be for precise aiming. Then again, controller triggers have always made sense as left-mouse/right-mouse button surrogates.
Valve claims that "the trackpads allow far higher fidelity input than has previously been possible with traditional handheld controllers." But they'll never match the precision of a mouse; after all, your poor thumb can't compete with the dexterity of an entire hand. Even so, it seems like the Steam Controller will be perfectly adequate for playing an FPS. We'd bet our lunch money that it'll feel more precise than an Xbox 360 controller ever could.
Traditionally, RTS games have crashed and burned whenever they stepped outside the bounds of their PC home. Sure, there have been some exceptions. Brutal Legend got around the frustrations of map-wide unit control by tethering you to a third-person hero; Halo Wars was built from the ground up to function on consoles. But for every one of those games (which people were already lukewarm about anyway), you get something akin to StarCraft 64.
The Steam Controller will probably function with RTSes like it will with FPSes: good enough to get by. Things like micro-managing your units or hotkeying buildings will be all but impossible, but you should be able to select units and guide their functions at the most basic level. And depending on how customizable the touchscreen buttons are, they could make activated abilities and switching between control groups a snap with a little practice.
Aha--here's where the Steam Controller can really shine. With the way turn-based strategy removes the need for twitch reflex, we could see the Steam Controller working great for playing Civilization or Crusader Kings on the couch. Most turn-based games are keyboard-optional as it is, and last year's stellar XCOM: Enemy Unknown soundly proved that turn-based tactics could be done quite well on a controller.
Will using the Steam Controller be in any way superior to using a joystick-equipped controller? Probably. If Valve's assertion that the trackpads were built with "high resolution and absolute position control," it'll likely be a cinch to select the right tabs and markers even in a menu full of tactical choices. And because the touchpad also acts as a button, making strategic plays should be as simple as browsing Twitter on your smartphone.
Nope. Nuh-uh. Not happening. If you're a fan of Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition or King of Fighters XIII on Steam, the Steam Controller has nothing to offer you. Fighting games, by the very nature of their special attacks, super moves, and complex combos, require you to press multiple buttons while holding a direction. On the Steam Controller, that seems all but impossible, because your right hand is hamstrung by the giant circular touchpad it has to jump over anytime it wants to press a button. And the buttons located by the left touchpad might as well not exist--you'll never be able to press them during a match.
Is this a huge loss? Not really, in the grand scheme of things--PC fighting games have always been a niche, and those that do play tend to prefer an arcade stick with a console anyway. Still, it's bizarre to think that an entire genre with a decent presence on Steam will be wholly incompatible (in theory) with the Steam Controller itself.
This runs into the same problem as fighting games: there are going to be times when you want to be moving and pressing buttons simultaneously, but your thumb can only be in one place at a time. Depending on the game, the right touchpad could be useless or handy, but they're unlikely to benefit from the increased fidelity of a touchpad versus a joystick.
If a PC-exclusive sports game were made that could make use of the Steam Controller's central touchscreen for planning out your plays, that would be pretty interesting. The chances of there actually being a worthwhile PC-exclusive sports game are also close to or at zero.
This might be a case-by-case basis situation, but we're definitely wary. Platformers usually function off running and jumping, usually with some shooting in the mix. But something about that dinky triangular A button makes it seem like jumping will feel incredibly unsatisfying. Sidescrollers also greatly benefit from the presence of a D-pad, something that simply doesn't exist on the Steam Controller. Maybe the controller's highly customizable haptics can make it feel like there's a D-pad lurking underneath the touchpad, but right now there's just no telling.
Run-and-jump gameplay can work just fine with a one-button / one-trigger configuration; Super Meat Boy is best played when you're sprinting with a held-down controller trigger. But any complex platformer where you have to slide, then jump, then attack in the air, then land and use a special ability will fall apart when played with a Steam Controller. We think, anyway. The button count readily available to your right thumb just isn't enough.
Gas on the right trigger, brake on the left. Nitrous on the right touchpad button. Yeah, that'll do.
In all seriousness, the seemingly advanced haptics in the Steam Controller could offer incredible tactile feedback in a racing game, much like the Xbox One controller. Valve says that the two actuators in the controller are "capable of delivering a wide range of force and vibration, allowing precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement." If we could feel the pavement beneath our speeding wheels, that would actually be pretty sweet. Heck, maybe you could even display the rear-view mirror on the touch screen for that little extra something.
That's not every video game genre under the sun; we just wanted to get the ball rolling. So tell us: How do you think the Steam Controller will function with your favorite Steam games? Will it excel with some genres, and fail miserably at others? Or is it simply too early to tell? Enlighten us in the comments section below.