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Select game developers used the Steam Controller. Here's what they said Exclusive
Select game developers used the Steam Controller. Here's what they said
September 27, 2013 | By Kris Graft

Out of all of Valve Software's announcements about bringing Steam to the living room, today's Steam Controller was the only one that anyone could really get their eyes on.

And once you get your eyes on it, you realize immediately that this is a different kind of controller. Weeks ago, select developers were actually able to get their hands on this odd-looking, stickless wonder. And according to developers we've heard from who've actually used the controller, it's different with a purpose.

Dan Tabar is an indie game developer at Planetoid Pioneers studio Data Realms, and he was one of several indie developers who had hands-on demos with the controller at Valve's Bellevue, WA headquarters on Labor Day this year.

What he described was an extremely flexible, mappable controller -- perhaps the most flexible control option this side of a keyboard and mouse setup -- that offers generous tactile feedback.

"[Valve is] really trying to think things through," said Tabar. "They're asking, 'Do we really need thumbsticks? Why are the fingers on the back [of the traditional controller] not doing anything? Why not have paddles there?' The thing I find most exciting is that Valve is just rethinking it. We're totally going to be making Planetoid Pioneers with this controller in mind," he said.

During Valve's demo to him and several other indie developers, he was able to play Gearbox's Borderlands. "It hasn't been optimized, and wasn't actually built for [the Steam Controller]," he said. "Its controls were just mapped onto it. The haptic feedback was going crazy, but I'm sure they'll address that. The controllers we were using were literally fresh off the 3D press."

So far, Tabar has no word on when game developers will be able to get their hands on Steam Controllers so they can start making optimized games with them. But he did explain what he found out about it while there.

He said areas on the trackpad can be configured to have multiple button inputs. For example, the very top edge of a trackpad can be mapped to the keyboard's Shift+W, making your character in a first-person game run.

Tabar said the configuration map for the controller allows you to do "pretty much anything." For example, developers can slice up a pad into quarters, each one representing a different input, or even into eight radial sections, again, each section representing whatever you want, mapping to key combinations, or to the mouse.

The most prominent, and for some developers and players off-putting feature of the controller are those circular trackpads. But developers who we spoke with essentially said to drop your expectations of what a trackpad is capable (or not capable) of.

"These are not like laptop trackpads," Tabar said. "Everyone is like, 'Oh we're replacing thumbsticks with trackpads, oh shit.' [laughs] But this is not at all like a laptop trackpad. It just feels good. It's a challenge to verbally describe it.

"When [your thumb] moves toward the outer zone of the trackpad, you can feel that. [The zones on the trackpad] are independent of each other," he added.

Other notable features of the controller include the shoulder and trigger buttons, and the paddles on the back side. There's also that touch screen in the middle of the controller.

"As a gamer, I don't know if that touch screen is exciting, per se. But as a developer, it's really cool. You can swipe and do gesture motions on the little screen." That screen is a physical button too, offering a tactile "click" for players, an advantage over typical touch screens and pads.

"It doesn't feel like a trackpad"

Chris Remo, designer and writer at The Cave developer Double Fine had a hands-on of the Steam Controller at the San Francisco studio.

Remo played a couple different games: Double Fine's upcoming point-and-click adventure game Broken Age and the already-released platform-adventure game The Cave.

"We just plugged it in, and it worked," he said. "We didn't have special support for it or anything. It worked really, really well. I was really impressed with the mouse imitation. It doesn't feel like a trackpad."

Remo said the controller has a tiny speaker in it that offers audio feedback – a subtle "tick" sound that increases and decreases in speed (he compared it to the Wheel of Fortune wheel's sound), depending on how you use the track pad. If you "fling" your thumb across the trackpad – if it's mapped to the mouse – the ticking increases in speed, and slows down as the virtual momentum of your action slows.

"It sounds like there's actually a mechanical device in there, which really makes it feel mechanical, but not in a clunky way," Remo said. "It just feels really high-tech and precise. … I can't stand trackpads on laptops, and this felt really good to me. There was almost no learning curve as far as accuracy goes."

On Twitter, Ichiro Lambe with AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! developer Dejobaan Games also said the haptic feedback of Valve's new controller was a highlight of the device.

"It feels like you're moving your thumbs over a rough surface, though it's all virtual," Lambe said. "From a tech standpoint, think about something that can click whenever you tell it to... Simple example: you move your finger 1 inch up, and it ticks 10 times...You flick it up, and it starts ticking, like you've spun a wheel."

Remo added that he doesn't really consider the pads to be "trackpads," which, to players and developers, often represent poor feedback. "This is just the opposite of that," he said.

"I don't know if this would necessarily be my first choice for a first-person shooter, because I'm such a mouse-and-keyboard guy normally, but I'd also really like to try it," he said.

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Dane MacMahon
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Okay... I'm coming around a bit. Let's hear more.

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Alfa Etizado
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So is my imagination running wild here

"The Steam Controller is built around a new generation of super-precise haptic feedback, employing dual linear resonant actuators.[...]They are capable of delivering a wide range of force and vibration, allowing precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement.

This haptic capability provides a vital channel of information to the player - delivering in-game information about speed, boundaries, thresholds, textures, action confirmations, or any other events about which game designers want players to be aware."

Talking about textures there. Will you get to feel different textures holding the controller or...? I mean I can't imagine that happening but then again I see no reason why they'd throw "textures" in there. That's hardly the kind of information that's relevant enough to mention there. I can't imagine that they'd be talking about the controller rumbling different based on the texture over where your character's moving.

fred tam
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Texture feedback has its limits, Logitech used to have a line of mice that did that kind of thing, but in the end, it doesn't give you feedback in the way necessary, which would be force feedback. I had one and it just vibrated my mouse different ways while shot different weapons, it didn't affect my ability to move the mouse at all, which made it pointless...

Keith Thomson
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I can't imagine this controller being used for a game like FFXIV though, where you're using both sticks as well as all 8 face buttons (including the 4 on the D-pad.) It might work with a custom control configuration, but I'd have to try it.

Samuel Hayward
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It would actually work perfect. The Dpad is basically built into the trackpad.

I.E. the inner ring area would be for movement, the outer ring you'll flick to (with added haptic feedback to really give you that differentiation) to act as the dpad/face buttons. This is likely how I expect most 3rd person/shooters/etc games will control - not using the entire trackpad except for games with simpler control schemes, but subtle movements in the inner areas of the trackpad for movement.

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Luis Guimaraes
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Missed opportunity to call it "The Steamroller".

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Thomas Happ
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Sounds better than kinect. Maybe in some future iterations the pads can have a display showing which region does what.

Ian Fisch
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I understand the reason for the trackpad on the right - to emulate a mouse - but why on the left as well?

Would you want to control the character in a platformer or an action game with a mouse? Seriously what are they thinking here?

Chris Melby
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From what I've gathered, the left or right areas can be used like a mouse or a virtual stick. So you're not moving with the mouse movement, but more similar to the virtual controls that are present on most smudge-screen games; but with the added bonus of being tactile.

If what I said makes sense?

Dane MacMahon
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I would guess the reason is they didn't want an analog stick. I can't imagine an argument that results in a flat pad being better than a stick for character movement, no matter how tactile it is.

Jason Withrow
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They also mention the symmetry being important for lefties. I know one of my left-handed friends is already excited about that!

Dane MacMahon
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I don't get the leftie thing because either way you're using both thumbs more or less equally. My wife and best friend are both left-handed and have no issues with "normal" controls.

Not saying people who demand it are wrong, it just confuses me.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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My understanding is that, with the mention of "zones", it can act as a d-pad if you (the developer) configure it as such.

Luis Guimaraes
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For left-handed players. So they can swap the controls to move on the right and aim on the left.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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I'd rather have four buttons on the back left...
A = Back
S = Forward
D = Move Left
F = Move Right

I left console gaming two or three years into the N64. So, I cannot use the right stick to aim unless I used it daily for like a year, lol. Which is pointless since my right is a mouse...

But can my left hand control both my movement and my aiming?! :D

Brian Tsukerman
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This is probably the thing I'm most excited about from this weeks announcements from Valve. I've always been critical of using analog sticks for looking around, having gotten used to the precision of mouse movement. Even with the Borderlands issue, it sounds like it'll be accurate and easily applicable once it's closer to release. Even my Rift sits unused when I'm playing the (many) games that can't utilize it, but this seems like it won't suffer from that issue.

Chris Melby
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I can only go by what I see and read and this appears to be a step up from a dual-analog gamepad, but since it's still focused on our thumbs, its design is still a hinderance to one's reaction-time and agility.

BUT I definitely want to give this a go, as  I'm a controller WHORE( I own almost every kind of input on my PC.) and I think this would be a good addition to my collection, but not a replacement for anything buy maybe another gamepad.

Mike Griffin
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Right. I'll still be using stock pads on a next-gen console, still be using a fine-tuned gaming keyboard/high-dpi mouse for first-person action titles on PC, still plugging in my Sega Saturn USB for its godly d-pad in fighting games like SSFIV on PS3/PC, etc. But this intriguing experiment will certainly enter my input device array.

I presume they've tested it enough in their own titles like TF2, Portal 2, and L4D 2 to at least make a good case (i.e., superior to dual analog?) for its performance in first-person games, a boon to FPS players that don't KBM. If the customizable tactile and haptic feedback position/rates are as good as they claim, and new-gen touch engineering as low latency as they claim, it might be great for several other genres.

It's just a bummer that they didn't compile a proof-of-concept'ish gameplay demonstration using -- appropriately -- some kind of momentum bombshell like Left 4 Dead 3 or HL3.

This week was more about platform and hardware. I'm fairly certain Valve will orchestrate a dedicated reveal scenario to Half-Life 3, and with the series' success on multiplatform it's hard to imagine L4D 3 being the SteamOS exclusive anchor.

Alas, it would've been sweet to see a Source 2/sequel tease played with the new controller!

fred tam
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I just don't see it working.

Thumbsticks work because the springs and sticks give you tactile feedback on what your thumbs are doing, thumbs aren't particularly precise part of our hands for fine movements in the first place, but thumb sticks are by default assumed to be less than precise, and devs work around this, its why the things have a dead zone, but the limits of the controls and physical feedback is immediately obvious to the user.

Making the thumb areas into track pads makes it a compromise in all areas, master of nothing type control. For flight/racing and fighting games the joystick/thumbstick just works, when you play a platformer a directional pad works better, the feedback and sureness of the control is what matters. Touchpads introduce a lack of confidence in your control that isn't good. In first person shooters, I just don't see this being anywhere near a wasd/mouse setup, thumbs are not good for precision pointing, and watch how people actually use the movement stick in fps on gamepads, its mostly quick movements to the limits of the control, speed of walking/running movement tends not to be important, but quick change in direction.

Just seems to be a inferior control for many types of games. If they had somehow added a touchpad in addition somehow I could accept that, but to throw away what works now with touchpad controls, doesn't seem a good idea. Physical controls tend to just be superior to touch controls. Imagine trying to drive your car with a touch screen slider rather than a wheel. A volume knob is always superior to a touch screen control on any car stereo.... touch has its place but on game controls...its just something you resort to because of form factor like on phones, to impose it on a home console seems a bit strange.
reminds me of that, which for most things, was inferior. It was a good way for Mario to die...

Ryan Barrett
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well, if they're not trackpads, then don't call them trackpads. call 'em like, thumbpads or something. Thumb-buds? Thumborbs? Thymbals? Thumbals? :P

Alexander Muscat
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If this works it could be an interesting solution to the age old universal controller problem on the PC. It reminds me of those wild PC controller designs in the early 2000s back when Microsoft was making Sidewinder controllers like that wild Dual Strike thing, in a good way.

Jim Thompson
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I hated Steam when it first came I have a library of 50+ games.

Gabe sees the future better than the rest of us. The fact that the new controller reveal was the capstone of a week that began with a new Steam os is meaningful....look at what the wii controller did for Nintendo, or on the meta, what Apple's understanding of touch did for the iphone.

A handheld mouse controller with feedback will be game changing.

Harry Fields
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He does? Is he like, psychic and have mystical divination powers or is it the glasses?

Rui Mota
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Its not competing with Mouse precision, any input controller based on the thumbs cannot compete with a wrist driven tool. Not when precision is needed.
I really hope this doesn't become so big that PC game developers start targeting only thumb gameplay.

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Dave Wishnowski
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I wonder how easily, if at all, we can find diagonals on the track pads. We're currently developing a pro wrestling title (Pro Wrestling X) that assigns move slots to the diagonal/up/down/left/right positions on the left stick. It's going to make for some frustrating (or excitingly random!) move moments if those absolute positions are more analogue than they need to be.

Roger Haagensen
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Well since it's programmable you can create the needed granularity yourself, but I suspect the API has that code done for you already.

Also, it seems nobody here noticed the potential for cool custom stuff.
I don't play fighting games (like Street Fighter etc.)

But why am I the only one that had the idea just seeing the controller that, it would be awesome do just do a circle motion with your thumb and you could do a roundhouse kick.

And as there are two circles/zones these could be for different strength (quick vs power as an example).

Duong Nguyen
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The problem with "programmable" pads is that every game will want to have its own custom control layout, that involves not just learning the pad but remembering all the different pad configurations per game.. I don't know, if anything this creates a massive impediment for both hardcore and casual pick up and play users alike. Well time will tell if this catches on but my gut feeling, it's too complex.

jin choung
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i can easily see how these trackpads would be different from a laptop trackpad or the touch controls on a phone or tablet - these trackpads are circular and define the region of play explicitly with a border as well as will circular grooves giving your thumbs a sense of "geography". imo, it would be nice if there were n/s e/w grooves as well but maybe in future iterations.

so yeah, can imagine quite easily how this would be far superior to using an iphone's touch controls to play a platformer where you constantly have to look down to see where the graphics arrows are... but wondering if it wouldn't have been better to have a dpad+thumbstick instead of the left circle. but i guess then, valve would have to build lefty, righty configs....

hmmm... excited to try it out though.

Roger Haagensen
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"circular grooves", actually they look like ridges, if they where actual grooves with collect dirt very quickly and be hard to clean. I know, I'm nitpicking. But the fact that they are ridges are important as they are easier to clean.

Roger Haagensen
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I mentioned this to Dave Wishnowski above, but I'll repeat some of it here.

The controller allows you to do things that would not easily work so well with other controllers.
Imagine doing a roundhouse kick by just doing a circle motion with our thumb. And the strength of it could be controlled by using the outer or inner ring.

Also remember that out of the box this controller is just a bridge between a gamepad and mouse+keyboard.
It is only when you take advantage of it's possibilities that you will see the actual potential (like doing a roundhouse kick).

Some mentioned it being left hand friendly. I'm guessing it's mirrored just for maximum map-ability. Some people (be they lefties or righties) may just prefer to hae their controls mirrored. And if the left/right sides of a control are not identical then that is not possible.

Other possibilities I see (besides doing roundhouse kicks) are things like...

Imagine turning a crank or a wheel in a game (a lot of adventure games or puzzle games have this), maybe you need to open a Valve (pun intended) or steer a boat, or crank a winch.
A circular motion on the thumbpad (I guess that's it's name now) would be very natural for this,
more so than a stick would.
The circular motion could also be used to wind up or power up something (in a fighting game this could even be a special attack charging technique).

For those that want clutter free screens, the screen makes it possible to have health and energy/ammo and XP and level stats on the controller instead.

The thumbpads should easily be useable for throttle and rudders.

I've used gamepads/mouse/trackpad/trackball for games. And I currently use a thumb operated trackball that is shaped like a mouse, and with a few exceptions I do all gaming with that one rather than a mouse.
It may seem odd but the thumb can actually be very precise, and with the current touchphone generation thumb precision of people will only improve.

A trackball or thumbpad like this is as precise or more so than moving a mouse with your hand.
The only time a mouse is more accurate is if you control it with your fingers only (and not move your arm/hand at all), but at that point you are already using 5 fingers to do that.

Also this new controller through it's API will also make it possible to emulate the zero trackback behavior of trackballs.
Those with no idea what I mean I'll briefly explain.
With a stick if you are moving it left and then intend to move right you need to move the stick all the way from the left to the right.
With a trackball or a mouse or a touchpad, as soon as you start moving to the right you are moving to the right, there is no trackback, no need to pass through the center.
These thumbpads can be made to behave like that too.

Brian Tsukerman further up here in the comments mentioned his Oculus Rift sitting unused. First of all, that is still a Gamedev edition as there is no consumer edition yet. Secondly the Rift and the Steam controller may turn out to be an ideal combo and lend itself better to VR controls and navigation than a normal gamepad.

I'm speculating here, but I would not be surprised if the developers behind this new controller had the Oculus Rift (or the "Rift generation" of VR) in the back of their mind as well.

It's nice to see some innovation in the industry. And that XYBA buttons need not be grouped together in a cluster.
I'm also sure some crazier design sketches is tucked away in their drawers.

This looks like a innovative controller. And if the Steam Box itself does not do that well, just the controller itself could create some waves.
I never liked nor found gamepads good to use, the odd slack and mechanical feel of the sticks felt odd to me.

I also like that being able to spin a virtual "wheel" (or is it a virtual trackball?) is possible, an action that I use very often with my trackball, spinning the ball and then stopping it allows for vey quick and sharp turns in an FPS.
Though in I assume the spinning action of the steam controller is partly to allow quick menu scrolling as well.

I always wanted a non-mechanical trackball, my concept was a thumb operated trackball with a "lightdome" that sensed the thumb movement). The Steam controller thumbpad however seem exhibit the same behavior and with the added zones it goes even further.

As I've been rambling on enough as it is I'd just like to end with...
Is it just me or does the second image in this article make the controller look like it has two eyes and a smirky mouth? I imagine Japanese animated advertisements having lots of fun with an animated controller. Maybe he could be called "Steamy"?

Roger Haagensen
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I also forgot to mention that these thumbpads probably can act as actual pads too.
Which means that a game could make use of tap or double or tripple tap as input data as well.

Also, the steam controller is not a replacement for anything, it's a new class of controller in it's own right.

Jarod Smiley
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Just wait till you try it guys, no matter how much logic you throw at it, nothing outshines holding the controller in your hands and playing with it for hours.

like other here, I'm skeptical, but there's just no way of making any conclusions without holding this thing.

Danilo Buendia
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There should also be a Steam Boombox that is just a big version of this controller with speakers instead of touchpads

Michael Parker
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A few things jump out at me:

* Constantly swiping my thumb left to right to get across the screen in an RTS (or even an FPS) is horrible - the reason the mouse is great is because you can cover a large area of the screen precisely without resetting the position

* FPS controls on the xbox controller are way better than they used to be - call of duty developers have come up with LOTS of very clever design mechanics which the majority of developers don't even realise are there. Valve need to study (reverse engineer) the call of duty control systems to understand how much the controller has come on in FPS design, and what they're up against.

* Thumbs aren't accurate enough and can't move far enough to have the length of gesture whilst retaining accuracy.

I'm all for innovation and I hope this does go somewhere, though, it's a shame there is not more of a "mouselike" feel to any of these new controllers, utilising some of the same muscles we already know have the range and accuracy for great game interaction.