Valve is closing off the week with the last of three major announcements: a controller designed to work with the company's living room focused Steam Machines. Aptly named Steam Controller, the device is shaped like a standard game console controller, but the actual setup is far from typical. Instead of thumbsticks there are two clickable trackpads, and rather than the usual right-thumb four button arrangement, Valve is using a symmetrical design that distributes button placement equally on both the left and right sides of the pad.
It looks… weird. Like it could take some time getting used to, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Valve says the trackpads allow far higher fidelity input than has previously been possible with traditional handheld controllers, claiming that they approach the level of accuracy mouse-based gaming provides.
In the middle of the controller is a high-resolution touch screen that’s also clickable and enables both control and navigation. The company will provide game developers with an API to take advantage of this in any number of ways, from purposing it as a scrolling menu or radial dial, to showing secondary game info like maps. The screen’s contents can be overlaid on top of whatever you’re playing so you’re not distracted from the action.
In all there are 16 buttons, half of which can be accessed without lifting your thumbs. Both trackpads on the front, the shoulder buttons and a couple around the rear grips feature what Valve calls "a new generation of super-precise haptic feedback" capable of delivering a wide range of force, vibration and even function as speakers.
The Steam Controller will work with the entire Steam catalog of games. Older titles will simply behave as if they’re being played with a mouse and keyboard, and gamers can use the configuration tool to create and share bindings for them, or choose from a list of popular configurations. But Valve notes this is something entirely different, and developers will be able to tailor the experience of games for the controller through the API, which will become available for free later this year when the 300 or so Steam Machines beta units ship.
The Steam Controller will be available to those selected for the Steam Machines beta, although unlike the final versions, test units will be wired and include four extra buttons in place of the touchscreen.