Weighing In on the Steam Game Controller
With the Steam controller being revealed as the final component of Valve’s goal to conquer the living room, one really has to wonder just how the hell it is going to work. Its design is definitely different from anything that we’ve seen in recent years, or really, ever, in a gaming controller. In fact, there hasn’t even been a perfectly symmetrical controller since the Atari joystick, and even that doesn't quite qualify as symmetrical.
I felt skeptical about the prospect of this controller at first, but as I sat down to write this article and really thought about what it could be used for, the more I ended up blowing my own mind just thinking of the possibilities.
For starters, there’s one genre that is almost purely associated with PC gaming, and that’s FPS titles. Ask any hardcore FPS player, and nine times out of ten they’ll say that the PC is the superior platform for the genre, on account of the accuracy and control that you have with a mouse + keyboard combo. However, the Steam controller will be trying to replicate that feeling with the two trackpads, rather than a traditional control stick. Combined with fully changeable button layouts, it may be possible that this controller can finally give PC players a reason to try playing FPS games on a console, if those trackpads are indeed as accurate as a mouse in your hand.
Let’s try to use Valve’s Team Fortress 2 as an example for a button layout. Normally, console FPS games have one of the shoulder buttons to fire a weapon, so we can set the right shoulder buttons to use primary and secondary fire. And if you play a Medic using the Vaccinator, you would also want to set the special ability of that weapon to be activated by one of the buttons on the back of the controller.
That is the thing that one should take into consideration: those two back buttons that are located right along the handles, placed right where your fingers are already going to be resting at. Just like that, we have not only each method of fire set, but we can also set the left shoulder and back buttons to be set for weapon switching. For example, you use one right shoulder button as a Pyro to light the target on fire, the second right button to airblast them into a corner, hit the back left button to switch to your Axtinguisher, and swing that sucker down upon your hapless opponent’s skull. This is actually theoretically possible with this kind of button layout, and we're not even taking into account how players can perform other class specific tricks, like rocket jumping.
Now, the one area I’m way more skeptical about is how well it works with fighting games. These games are traditionally played with an arcade stick, not only to help emulate the arcade experience, but because they also provide the best input accuracy and comfort, as it’s very difficult to play a game like Street Fighter IV on a normal console controller. Seriously, try it. It's not easy, and it's not fun.
The Steam controller may actually help to alleviate this issue though. Think about it; one side of shoulder buttons can serve as punches, the other side serves as kick buttons. For King of Fighters XIII, you can have a similar setup, and have one of the back buttons as your easy HD activation button, and the other as your roll. Or in Mortal Kombat, you can do a similar setup to that but have the back buttons serve as your meter and stance change buttons respectively, for easy super activation.
Of course, this is all assuming that the trackpads can read quarter circle motions and such properly. Fighting games require a lot of precision in order to be able to pull off certain combos and reactionary counter attacks, and if the controller has problems reading your inputs, then you’re gonna end up dropping a lot more stuff than you feel necessary. Sadly, we don’t know how responsive those trackpads are yet, so we can reserve judgement for this genre until we get our hands on the real deal.
But let’s move on to a real tough genre for consoles, RTS games. Games like Starcraft II have a ton of key bindings to allow players quick access to all their commands, so that they don’t have to move the mouse all over the screen to do what they need to do. But, if the Steam controller works as advertised, then we could be able to program most of those functions to every single button on it, including the four face buttons and the touch screen buttons: instant unit selection, building selection, unit commands, all without even needing to move your hand. And that’s not even taking into account the possibilities for the genre’s younger brother, MOBAs.
We also haven’t discussed the possibilities that can arise with the openness of the controller itself. Valve allowing anyone to hack the controller for different purposes only increases the amount of options that can become available. Perhap someone will hack the controller to install a port to plug in an arcade stick if the Steambox itself doesn’t have one? A headphone jack, additional buttons, steering wheel attachments, and more. The possibilities are endless!
While it will still be a while until we get a chance to try the controller ourselves, one can’t really help but be intrigued simply by the possibilities that can be available for gaming. Valve’s idea of an openly moddable, highly accessible controller may be the best thing gaming has ever experienced (if everything works the way it’s intended to, at least).
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