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My time with the Steam Controller
by Tommy Refenes on 09/28/13 12:07:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

When I started Super Meat Boy, I knew that proper controls would be the make or break for the game. I’m very picky about controls in games, to the point if the game doesn’t control well, I don’t care who makes it or what it is, I will stop playing it. I often get asked which formulas I used for movement, friction, air physics, etc. in Super Meat Boy. Truth is, there are no formulas…it’s just a big huge hack. I spent two months on the controls for SMB to get them perfect. Everything from the weird “friction” that happens when you change directions in the air to the 200MS delay that happens when you’re on a wall and pull away is based on how it feels to me when I play it. None of these formulas are based on physics concepts, they are 100% based on feel.

When it comes to hardware I’m, again, very picky. We have a Razer controller that Shannon bought a while back that has strange buttons that click weird. I refuse to play with it. I hated playing the PS3 when it first came out because the SixAxis had no DualShock in them and were too light. I didn’t fully play any PS3 games until I bought a DualShock3 SixAxis controller. I didn’t even bother with the Ouya controller because if other people are reporting latency problems, I know for a fact I will experience them.

I need to press a button, feel good pressing it, and have it react accordingly on the screen. So, ladies and gentlemen… if I say I’m sensitive to controllers you will agree.

The Steam Controller (or whatever it’s officially called) is strange. Where your thumbs normally rest when holding a controller, there are just the two little circular track pads just like what you see in the pictures. In the center you have your A,B,X,Y buttons surrounding what I was told would be a touch screen display at some point. The touchpad / screen in the center of the controller wasn’t enabled so I can’t really speak on that. The A,B,X,Y buttons surrounding the touch screen seemed to be used more for your standard “Back” button configuration. Think of them not as A,B,X,Y but additional buttons that can perform some functionality. You obviously wouldn’t play a game with those buttons being your primary action buttons. You use the left and right circle pads as your primary inputs.

On top of the controller you have your standard Left/Right Bumpers and Left/Right Triggers, they work and feel as you would expect. On the back of the controller are two additional triggers that you can hit with your fingers naturally by just squeezing your hand but aren’t so sensitive that the act of holding the controller depresses the buttons.

The controller I held was a 3D printed functional prototype. It is thicker than an Xbox 360 controller at the base where the sides of the controller rest in your palms. The weight is about the same. I didn’t feel as if the controller was too heavy or too light. I did notice the bulk of the controller, but only as a differentiation from the PS3 controller I’ve been playing with recently (GTA5) and the 360 controller I use for PC gaming. The bulk didn’t bother me.

After becoming familiar with the controller I started to play Meat Boy. I played from muscle memory so the more advanced tactics were being used (wall slide, jump height curving, etc). At first I noticed significant lag, and thought to myself “Oh shit, I’m going to have to tell them that their controller is laggy and bad”. They told me the latency was very low so I figured it had to be the TV because without a low latency “Game Mode” most reflex driven games are totally unplayable. Sure enough, I got into the settings of the TV, turned on Game Mode, and the real play session began.

The configuration they had set up was simple enough. The left circle pad acted as the directional buttons, the right acted as a big giant jump button. The big problem with touch pads/ touch screens is you never know when you are actually over a button or pressing it. Valve has tried to rectify this by having some adjustable haptic feedback fire when you press one of the circle pads. Throughout my play session the haptic feedback helped with the problem, but wasn’t enough to solve it.

The circle pads were configured so that they could be touched to register input. Having input register without a firm, familiar press feels weird and the reason being is that it was set to both touch AND press. You could make Meat Boy move right by pressing on the pad, but he would also move when my thumb rested on the pad. This naturally didn’t happen often, but did happen enough to be noticeable. Once I pointed this out one of the engineers (I’m sorry for not remembering your name, I’m horrible with names…true story I constantly called my ex-girlfriend Jessica instead of Lindsay. Jessica is her sisters name. It was for no other reason than I’m terrible with remembering and saying names…I could describe your face and what you were wearing to a sketch artist and the cops would pick you up in like 2 minutes…that’s where my memory is allocated…) he went back to his desk and updated the firmware to only react on press. Once this happened the controller felt like a controller. Pressing directional buttons made sense and I felt a greater sense of control.

One drawback to undefined physical buttons is that your thumbs need tactile contact in order to accurately know what button you are pressing. As the engineers and I were talking about this, the idea of little nubs being on the controller that would be noticeable enough where your thumbs would find them, but not so abrasive that the circle pads couldn’t comfortably used in mouse / trackpad mode came about. They had been thought of prior to my being there, but weren’t on the controller I was using. I expressed that they needed to be put in. They might show up in some form after my feedback…so…you’re welcome Valve / Valve customers.

The button configuration worked fine for SMB, I was able to get to the Salt factory no problem. I was able to sequence break C.H.A.D. by getting the keys before he could do his attacks. I was even able to do the bandaid the super fast way in the second level of the hospital shown here (though I didn’t wait on the platform above the bandaid, I always fall straight through):http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=JHJsnXRb_Es#t=1392

I was able to play Meat Boy the way Meat Boy can be played on an advanced level (and I’m rusty at it). The right circle button was the jump button and we had both Triggers mapped to the Run button just like a regular Xbox 360 controller. We also had the Run button mapped to the back trigger buttons I mentioned before that can be pressed with your fingers on the back of the pad. This worked great but did lead to a bit of hand cramping. I think this is due more to the way you use the run button in Meat Boy and not the design of the controller or the buttons.

But that’s Meat Boy, I wanted to see how it would do with a game where multiple inputs were required. Naturally, I requested Spelunky. Spelunky requires Whip, Jump, Bomb, and Rope buttons. We configured the controller to play like an Xbox controller. So the left circle pad was once again used for the directional buttons, and the right circle pad was used as A, B, X, Y buttons in the orientation that you find on an Xbox Controller.

I played through Spelunky and the controller worked great. As I was playing I was describing to the engineers the twitch movements that go into Spelunky. Anyone that’s played it knows what I’m talking about, but to explain further there are often times in Spelunky where you will find yourself in a situation where you will panic and need to compensate. For example, lets say you are jumping on a platform, below it are spikes, above you is a bat. If the bat hits you, you’ll die because you’ll fall into the spikes. If you try to jump on the bat, chances are you’ll hit the bat and fall and possibly die. So in situations like this you find yourself tap jumping with air compensation to whip a bat while still staying on this one tile platform. The Steam controller handled this just fine. The nubs I mentioned above would have solidified the platforming experience better, but again, those might get thrown in as they approach final hardware. I got to the Ice Caves and then a stupid Skeleton knocked me off a platform to my death…then I attempted a daily run and died immediately…pretty much the standard Spelunky play through.

If you were to ask me if I would play games with the Steam Controller…I would say yes. If you were to ask me to choose between Steam Controller and a 360 controller, I would choose 360. Don’t take that as slight to the controller though because it’s more about the comfort of familiarity over functionality. I would choose a 360 controller because I have several thousand hours experience using it, however if tomorrow all game controllers were wiped off the earth and the only option was the Steam Controller, I don’t think this would be a bad thing. In fact, I don’t think gaming would miss a beat. I’m excited to see what final hardware feels like because I think with the upcoming iterations of the controller we’ll see something that is different, but still feels good.

TL;DR; Great Start, needs some improvements, but I could play any game I wanted with it just fine.


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Comments


kimmy powers
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Thanks for the awesome preview! It sounds like the controller you used doesn't have those circular nubs on the touchpads shown on the announcement page?

Mike Griffin
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Cheers for this. Great description.

Christian Nutt
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Really interested to read this because my biggest fear was specifically for games that used buttons the way you describe, and also that required precision. Can't think of a better initial testbed than SMB and Spelunky. Encouraging.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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As far as I'm aware arcade sticks dominate in fighting games? Assuming that, wouldn't they also be better at all side view games? Much like the keyboard and mouse dominates in FPS'ers.

While it's nice to hear dev's or or common players opinions or biasness on inputs, I'd like to hear from the real pros of gaming, the ones who make money.

Dane MacMahon
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Nice report. I still have a long list of concerns, mostly with more PC-focused games and the multiplayer disparity, but this was good to hear. Perhaps I can replace my 360 controller, which I only really use for platformers like Meat Boy, and see what happens afterward.

Ted Brown
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That level of analysis is exactly what I was looking for, especially the touch/press issue. Thanks, Tommy.

It seems like the promise of this controller is not to duplicate digital button functionality, but to work as a close analogue (for the reasons you describe, specifically twitch-based mechanics) while opening up gesture-based controls that we've only seen on mobile platforms. For example, this would make a port of Infinity Blade to the Steambox possible, AFAIK.

The analog inputs also allow for a level of expression (via avatar actions) and feel (via visual feedback) that would add a lot of atmosphere to slower-paced games.

Color me excited about the possibilities!

Dane MacMahon
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Hadn't thought of it making mobile ports to PC easier and worthwhile until you wrote that. Good insight!

Kaze Kai
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I'm wondering what you do about a game like FEZ that uses the right stick to look around. You'll either have to toss out the looking feature to use the right pad as ABXY or deal with the weird configuration of the buttons.

Jonathan Jennings
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I was curious about this as well I feel lik ea touch pad rotatable camera could work really well or be far too touchy and make it difficult to view your character / in-game action

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fred tam
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Well theres no point asking really because its going to be inferior to mouse on fps games by default. Mouse just has a massive advantage in terms of input speed and precision. Trying to rapidly turn by swiping your thumb across a pad is never going to match the quick 180 someone can do with a mouse, theres just much more area to work with just to start with...

James Yee
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Agreed. I look forward to more "field reports" from those playing games I give darn about like FPSes and Mechwarrior Online. :)

Luis Guimaraes
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Counter-Strike, Quake, Unreal Tournament and Tribes. That shall be enough proof. It'll only work is the player is good tho.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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Luis, I highly doubt that gamepad can bunny-hop, strafe jump, duckjump, and other average to high level First Person Physics Movements.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Curtis

Why wouldn't it?
Well, it lacks a scroll wheel, sure, but you only "need" one in Valve games really.

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Johan Wendin
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This isn't an official statement from Valve. It's the feedback from one of the developers of one of the games mentioned.

It isn't hard to understand why there's a certain focus to this blog post. Maybe if you spend another ten (really?) minutes on it?

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Patrick Mullen
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It makes sense to compare such a weird looking controller to existing "standard" controllers for intense actiony games that need precision controls. Looking at how well it can replace a kb/m is another question entirely, and surely will come soon enough. But this dev in particular really KNOWS platformers, so if the controllers is almost as good as 360 that's a good sign for one side of the equation.

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Amir Barak
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@Patrick, you know what else is really like a 360 controller? a 360 controller... All I'm hearing at the moment is, "don't worry people, you CAN play games with this controller". yeah well, that sums pretty much every other controller on the market. Is this controller going to work on the Xbox360 or the Xbox1? is the Xbox controller going to work on my computer? well, I know which one I'm getting then...

Ben Sly
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What I read from the full post is that it's comparable to in precision and feel to a 360 controller. Not *quite* as good, but it's much closer to a real gamepad than to a Kinect or touchscreen controls or any other "revolutionary" controller of the week. And, to me, that's a very significant statement. Because it's one thing to have Valve can talk and talk all day about how amazing and wonderful the technology is and how we'll be interacting with our computers in a new way, but it's another to have a respected developer of a game notorious for precise platforming to say, "Great Start, needs some improvements, but I could play any game I wanted with it just fine." The former is the same drivel we've heard from a number of modern companies touting a new control innovation (the vast majority which turned out to be too imprecise to be anything more than a gimmick); the latter is a statement that "this is not just another Kinect/Wii motion sensor/voice control/Wii U touchpad."

Now, I don't know if you care about testimonials like this, but to me that's a pretty big statement. It upgrades this prototype from being cause to wonder if Valve is sipping the innovation Koolaid to being a controller I might actually *want* to use instead of being forced to use - and as a prototype, it still might improve significantly with time.

If Tommy's post is not enough to at least affect your impressions of the device, my guess is that you're not going to get much good information out of anything but having the controller in your hands. Which is perfectly fine - there's really no better way to evaluate a controller than to use it - but it does mean that you're going to have to wait until release to think about if it's worth supporting in a game you develop.

Shervin R Rad
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Thanks for sharing.
Dual stick shooters matched well with game-pad analogs move back ability.
I hope it works fine with them too.

Smoke Tetsu
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I'm imagining analog stick functionality with this would work similar to virtual pads on a tablet.

What I'm wondering about is... exactly how the button\touch functionality works with that right pad. Can it be chorded? Let's say I'm playing the latest batman arkham game and I want to do a special move requiring two face button presses at once. The shoulders are already taken up by other functions.

Shervin R Rad
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I think it's not similar because players wouldn't have eye contact with this screen and UI can't give visual feedback.
They don't know where is their finger position on this surface as well as touch screens.

Alex Covic
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Reading this felt like walking through your mind, Jessica... uhm, Tommy.

Tiny nubs - sounds exactly what I would want, too. It sounds trivial, but would make a huge difference? At least, for us, old people.

Chris Dias
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I'm pretty sure that's what those rings on the track pad are supposed to be.

Gabriel Nepenthe
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I feel that if the outer rings were crenelated it would really help us a lot. :)

James Margaris
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How do you play a game that uses a lot of both the right stick and the four face buttons on a standard controller - for example Arkham City or virtually any other third-person action game? (Oh, someone mentioned the exact same game! Probably because every set of adjacent buttons activates something..) Not sure how valuable this feedback is when he played games that don't make use of the right stick.

Or Wonderful 101, a game I was playing yesterday. I use all four buttons constantly, I press them nearly simultaneously, and I use the right stick. I know Christian Nutt knows what I'm talking about!

Being able to map buttons to the touch pad obviously doesn't do much when you need to use the touch pad as an analog stick, and even if you don't need stick-like functionality virtual buttons are lame. Sure, some rough patches or nubs would help, but those still aren't buttons. For discrete things that are either pressed or not pressed it's hard to beat real buttons.

This seems much more designed for a game where both thumbs rest on the "sticks" and the fingers use triggers / shoulders (AKA FPS games) than games where the right hand is more button-centric.

There are some simple practical concerns as well - if you map "X" to a virtual button on the right stick what happens when you hit a QTE that asks you to mash "X" and you can't remember which one "X" is? I have to look down at my controller quite frequently on systems I haven't played in a while.

Vitor Barroso
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Just an idea: the buttons on the back of the controller could be used to toggle the functionality of each trackpad. So, if you want to use the right trackpad to look around instead of as normal buttons, just hold the right button pressed on the back (or press it once to toggle and again to go back to normal). I'm assuming that no game requires you to press face buttons and use the right stick at the same time, since your thumb can only be at one place at a time.

Kujel s
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@Vitor: I had considered that senserio myself and must conclude for some games it would work and other it would not work. This contoller seems designed by PC gamers who don't really play console games :(

fred tam
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Even for games where your thumbs wrest on sticks, the sticks have the advantage of self centering, which is both convenient and help you be aware of the sticks current location.

Chad Wagner
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The pad registers "touch" as well as "press" - perhaps you can joystick by sliding, and press individual zones for buttons. This doesn't seem as though it would be any more awkward than moving your thumb from stick to button on the Xbox 360 controller.

Kyle McBain
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I think that's a good thing.

Sjors Jansen
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Thanks for the write up!

But since when did the 360 controller become 'good' for platformers? I guess I'm too old.

I still highly prefer NES & SNES d-pads... dualshocks were alright.. So, thanks for mentioning where you stand on controllers in general for comparison, that's very valuable.

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Sjors Jansen
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No, I'm saying that controllers are different from eachother. Tommy mentions this himself. He just has a different preference than me it seems. Because he mentions this it allows me to interpret his words better.

Shadi Mallak
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Very interesting! After initially having the same reaction as other about games requiring both sticks as well as face buttons (ie. for camera control), I started thinking that the area around the outer ring of the pad could be split into 4 or 8 sections, that would permit many inputs, while the middle, inner ring could be configured as a track-pad to control the camera.

I guess it all depends on how precise the tracking is. Can't wait to learn more! Cheers!

Kujel s
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I have a feeling that for games like Darksiders where you need to use a thumbstick and face buttons this controller will be terrible and that goes for a lot of shooters as well.

Jérémie Noguer
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Remember that you got 6 buttons/triggers on the back + you can imagine a lot of controls without ever leaving the trackpad, like tap for a jump, double tap for reload, click on one trackpad and scroll with the other through weapons, etc... It would probably give you as much if not more control as traditional butons.

Kujel s
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I had considered those triggers and for somethings triigers work and for a lot of things they don't, this whole desgin feels like it was created by PC gamers who never use a gamepad :(

Jérémie Noguer
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It's kind of the point, bringing PC gamers who don't like/use gamepads to play with one in their living room. It's not aimed at replacing existing pads, it's aimed at filling the gap between those and the mouse/kb.

I do play my PC games sometimes on my TV with a 360 pad, but for any tps/fps type of game, aiming is so frustrating, and navigating through inventory menus in rpg is so cumbersome, there is probably space for something new here.

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Igor Hatakeyama
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Thank you for sharing, Tommy!
The controller looks good. I would probably buy one if I had the opportunity, but the truth is i'm more accustomed to the 360 controller, just like you. I don't think i'll get used to some other controller easily. But who knows, right?

Brian Buchner
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Actual buttons or GTFO.

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Dillon Rogers
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Tommy said he worked on the controls for SMB for two months. The game is make or break off its control scheme and how well it handles. It wasn't just input - he tested pretty much how it felt to move Meatboy in any circumstance the game offered.

Jeremy Helgevold
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Odd that a game that 100% relies on precision control took two months to develop and iterate on a custom control scheme?

No, I don't find it odd.

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Jeremy Helgevold
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Why would I bother expanding my thoughts or explaining why I think a certain way about a subject to someone who cant seem to keep snarky and un-needed comments out of their responses?

In short, responses of greater thought than the one I provided are not worth providing to someone like you.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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Video games, unlike other medias, usually don't have to rely on general themes/story/content. They do on the other hand have to rely on gameplay/features. Player physics are pretty much at the top of the list. Sometimes developers just don't have the skill or don't have the right hotkeys. In those cases the game can fail. Or pull a Quake and invent an entirely new way to play(A bug, the strafe jump).

The question is, do you need to get paid? Do you need to wait on a certain month? Does a certain feature have to be updated before releasing to the vocal community?

Kujel s
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@Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN: "Video games, unlike other medias, usually don't have to rely on general themes/story/content. They do on the other hand have to rely on gameplay/features. Player physics are pretty much at the top of the list."

I wish this was still true for most games :(

Sjors Jansen
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Hey Ronny,

You may want to check out a small post I made a while ago to help you get a slight perspective on this. It's a very very basic platformer skeleton in which you can tweak some of those "physics". http://turdparty.ucoz.com/blog/onminijams/2013-07-14-1
The source code (haxe3/openfl/flixel) is here: http://turdparty.ucoz.com/blog/source_code/2013-07-15-2

You could try to make a platformer out of it with a really good tactile experience. And then test it with different gamepads. Recreate super meat boy for instance without the graphics but with the feel. And then go beyond. Test how much time it takes to get it right. How much you want to depend on physics.

There's a huge difference between gamepads as well. That's why people who play fighting games tend to buy these arcade sticks to play for instance. A 360 dpad is not really good enough.

Good luck.

---Edit:
I put part of a dutch science tv-program online which illustrates what is actually going on with tactile gameplay. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZGloSkEvtE
Now remember that you are constricting this process by inserting an input device in the middle of this process. It had better be responsive.

Christian Nutt
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Not to mention that he didn't say "all I worked on for 2 months."

No, I don't find it odd in the slightest. If you'd played Super Meat Boy and/or had an appreciation for the genre you would know that it has incredibly finely-tuned movement physics. Movement physics, in fact, form the core of the platformer genre (2D or 3D) and separate games all along the spectrum.

So, nope, not odd at all.

Jennis Kartens
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I wish more games would be made with that much emphazise on controls in mind.

It is very sad how much todays games have degenerated in terms of precise control mechanics and everything that is attached to it.

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Amir Barak
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The problem with software development is that it's really really hard to gauge what efficiency is... with building chairs for example if you can produce 10 chairs per hour you're obvious more efficient from a dude who makes 5 chairs per hour (but even that's questionable if the chairs all fall down a week later)... but with development lines of code is NOT a good measure (seeing as how removing them can take longer to do and makes the code run faster...). Also he says two months but I don't know that he's speaking two months 8 hours a day, seven days a week though...? you should ask him directly.

Speaking as a single developer in a single-developer-indie-shop I dunno that I'd have two months to spare on input alone but if it's an important part of the game (Which it always is) I find that I usually go back to tweak code that I've worked on nearly every day.

Christian Nutt
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@Ronny Germany

Yes, but I don't agree he even insinuated it, so why in the world would I say that?

I would also argue that you probably haven't read much about how Nintendo develops games if you don't think the company spends an inordinate amount of time working on character motion, control, and physics, particularly on completely fresh iterations of its franchises (e.g. Mario 64.)

Sjors Jansen
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@Christian: "Touch fuzzy, get dizzy" ;)

Sjors Jansen
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Hi Ronny,

yes you can have some basics up and running pretty quick nowadays.
But you are underestimating the work that goes into making a good tactile experience.

I suggest you play super meat boy until you have completed it 100%. Then afterwards play a free flash platformer. Then make a game like super meat boy yourself. That will give you the insight you seek.

And please do this, because your conclusions will seem flaud and insulting to pretty much any developer I suspect.

Regarding inconcise reporting on time spent, that's true. If a game is developed as a hobby it's pretty much impossible to get a handle on it.
Consider how much time an idea takes. Is it just the aha moment? "Now I know what I should do!" Or does it include the pondering process in the back of your head? "How do I make this work?" And how do you count ideas you have for your game throughout the years you are working some other day job to get food on the table?
That's one reason why you get some inconcise reporting. You can't really distill it down to the level you want, believe me the industry tries very hard. And partially as a result of that we get very formulaic games.
Also, a lot of companies have gameplay programmers, not to mention designers or combinations.

So in conclusion, 2 months exclusive work on the tactile platforming experience is pretty normal for a platform game built from scratch. That's not OCD. If you won't accept that, please make a good platformer.

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Dwayne Knight
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For those concerned about buttons or thinking about little nubs for more tactile feedback. It would make sense if they or someone released an attachment that had physical buttons (similar to those made for tablets). Those circular track pads look recessed a bit so if there was a disk with 4 buttons on it that attached securely you could get a more traditional controller feel.

I mean this same concept could be taken further if you also wanted to create other attachments like thumbsticks. Touchscreen joysticks have never felt quite right to me though so I'm skeptical about this... and if you are going this far to replace everything to an old style might as well just use a different gamepad.

Duong Nguyen
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The article already shows the glaring issue with a touchpad, no tactile feedback or orientation. Most people rest their fingers on buttons, but not actually press them, this gives a sense of kinesthetics. I don't know why they choose to imprint circular groves on the touchpad when they could have just as easily imprinted a directional pad and that wouldn't have affected the touchpad sensing at all but greatly aided in tactile sensing ( esp in combo with their actuator feedback ).

Harry Fields
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I'll buy one if for nothing else than novelty. I mean, it's a controller. If it sucks, it won't be the first controller I bought that sucked (I'm looking at you, 200$ Saitek flight yoke with a dead zone the size of texas!). I think a lot of us are looking way too far into this and trying to extrapolate meaning where there is none. It's a controller... it's valve's solution to controlling PC games from the couch, but it's not the only solution. That's the slick thing about PC gaming. You'll always be able to use an XInput controller if that's your thing or stick with the venerable KBM combo if you prefer. I'm not expecting some sublime religious moment the minute I get one in my hands, but maybe it will actually work for shooters and stuff. We'll see.


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