What's the biggest barrier keeping PC gaming out of the living room? Is it the expense? The size of the machine? The reliance on Windows? Or is it that the mouse and keyboard are horribly awkward on the couch?
Valve has been busy tweaking its controller since we last saw it at CES 2014. With a focus on getting the peripheral to market by holiday 2014, so it can be bundled with every make and model of Steam Box, and sold separately at a "competitive" price point. While a few planned features have been put on the back burner, if not tossed out entirely, it's still a novel and functional method of control.
New buttons, no screen
The Steam Controller Valve showed at GDC 2014 featured a cluster of familiar lettered buttons, as well as D-pad with four separate directional buttons.
The four rectangular face buttons we saw at CES, which were actually a stand in for programmable touch screen, have been swept away.
Valve told me that they haven't abandoned the idea of a touchscreen altogether, but the first Steam Controller will definitely not have one. That's a slight disappointment, just for the loss of a novel feature, if nothing else.
The controller is still highly programmable though, mostly thanks to those dual touchpads. By default they're used for moving your character about, and like the sick of an Xbox or PlayStation controller, they can be clicked.
The pads can actually be programmed for different functions, depending on the position of your thumb when you click.
Console style play on the PC
I tried two games during my Valve booth visit: the new Strider and the adventure game Broken Age. Strider, a side-scrolling, platforming, hack and slash game felt quite natural with a controller. I was hopping and wall jumping immediately. When combat got a bit more heated the controls did get a bit confusing, mostly due to lack of practice, but I could certainly see Valve's controller pushing the Xbox 360 controller off my desk, for console-style games on the PC at least.
Broken Age played admirably as well. As an adventure title, there's lots of clicking, and the touchpad stepped up to the task nicely. It felt better than the way I played through that game at home, poking around with my MacBook Air's touchpad.
It might be mouse-based, but the game's relaxed pace made it a comfortable transition. With faster, more competitive games, I wouldn't be so sure, and neither were the Valve representatives on hand.
They admitted that playing a bleeding fast online game like DoTA with the Steam Controller is possible, but "difficult." I like the Steam Controller, but I'd still take a mouse and keyboard for a shooter any day.
While Valve Steam Controller is better suited to certain genres, ones that haven't always been at home on the PC, that doesn't mean that someone won't come up with something brilliant and game changing.
When the Steam Controller launches, players will be able to create their own custom control schemes, save them to their Steam profiles, export and share them with the Steam Community. Other Steamers will be able download these player-made setups, and Valve will highlight the most popular ones in the community. It could be that a fan made setup will beat out an official one. How's that for player feedback?
Is the Steam Box revolution still on schedule?
While it's disappointing to see Valve ditch a unique feature like the controller's touchscreen, the company has a history of going back to the drawing board to much success. When the controller and Steam Machines come out this holiday season, it won't be prying the keyboard and mouse from fingers, it'll be joining them.
Hands on at CES 2014
Valve has several hurdles to hop before it can turn PC gaming into a living room experience. Besides getting the Steam Box to market with its 13 hardware partners and pushing the SteamOS, it needs to get PC die hards to give a controller a chance.
That's the task the Valve Steam Box controller has before it, and it's no easy one. It needs to offer the versatility and precision that approximates the mouse and keyboard setup.
While Valve has opted to license its SteamOS to hardware partners, it will be manufacturing its own controller. During an offsite event at CES 2014 I had the chance to take Valve's Steam Box controller for a test drive across multiple genres of games.
Now Valve won't be the only one making a Steam controller, those third-party hardware partners will be entering the fray as well. It also won't be forcing anyone to give up the mouse and keyboard. That classic gaming setup may not be couch optimized, but it will be an option for those who value the old ways of fragging a foe.
Valve staff on site at the event told us that the controller we were trying out is not a final build. The Washington-based gaming empire is a bunch of perfectionists, if nothing else. They told us they already had tweaks in mind for the button layout, the form factor and overall feel of the controller.
With that in mind here are our impressions of Valve's Steam Box controller, after diving into a little single player gaming on an internal Valve Steam Box.
Light, nimble and precise
Holding the Steam Controller for the first time I was shocked by its weight, or lack thereof. It's light, to the point where I thought it might be hollow.
That's likely because Valve's final Steam Box controller will be wireless, and the demo versions I used were wired by microUSB. Having a battery in there will definitely add some heft.
The build is plastic, of course, but feels like quality work. The matte finish shrugs off fingerprints and felt as comfortable and natural as an Xbox One controller.
The most unique aspect of Valve's controller has to be the touchpads. Instead of the analog sticks of a standard console controller you've got two touchpads for moving and aiming.
The touchpads will be a big change for console players. The second you stop sliding your thumb, you stop aiming. There's no stick to let go of, and you can start sliding it right from where you stopped to start moving again.
The touchpads have haptic feedback, which gives a clicking sensation like you'd find on a Galaxy S4 smartphone.
At first, playing a shooter like Metro: Last Light felt almost too precise, jumpy even. For the first minute or two my reticle was flying all over the screen, like a mouse with the sensitivity cranked too high.
This was by design; the controller had been configured for the kind of quick aiming speed you need in a first-person shooter. The sensitivity was adjustable, and other demo units playing different genres of game had different control configurations.
I trusted the Valve engineers and didn't fool with the sensitivity. My faith was well placed, I was quickly sighting up targets and taking them out with speed and precision that felt somewhere between an Xbox controller and my preferred method of destruction: the mouse.
Will Valve's Steam Controller be competitive?
After twenty minutes or so I felt confident taking down AI enemies, but multiplayer seemed like different story. Based on my brief time with Valve's Steam Box Controller, I had the feeling that mouse and keyboard players would still have a distinct advantage over me.
A Valve engineer on hand said that making their controller on par with a mouse and keyboard is the goal, but an admittedly lofty one. While gamers take to shooters and platformers with the controller naturally, native PC strategy games are the greatest challenge. He named Valve's own fast-paced online game DOTA 2 as a particular challenge.
Release date and price still MIA
Valve wouldn't say anything besides "this year" regarding a release date for its Steam Controller. Beta testers in the wild already have them, but consumers will still have to wait, and remember, we haven't seen the final version yet.
Valve also didn't shed any light on what its accessory will cost. If we had to guess, we'd peg it above an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controller. Those fancy touchpads can't be cheap.
Valve's Steam Box controller is impressively precise and uniquely creative. Playing with one for just a short while reminded me of the first time I used the single analog stick on the Nintendo 64. Tangling up an AT-AT with my tow cable in Shadows of the Empire was difficult, frustrating at times, but I could sense miles of gaming depth just below the surface. If it catches on it could be a sea change for all gaming, not just on PCs.
However, if it can't compete with the mouse and keyboard, there's no way it'll become the standard for head-to-head online games like StarCraft II and Counter-Strike. If that's the case, PC gaming might remain at the desk, or the mouse might find a new home on the couch.