The Steambox is the most interesting console of the next generation


It’s been fun watching Sony antagonize Microsoft and it’s indecisive approach to the Xbox One.  I have never sat down and watched through an E3 press conference by Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo.  Seeing Sony eat Microsoft’s lunch felt vindicating after years of contending with the growing complexity of DRM, DLC, and season passes.  What was best about these press conferences though is how each sought to reassure gamers that next generation consoles were going to cater to core audiences and not go off the deep end with motion controls, DRM, cell processors.  It felt that these press conferences were aimed at clearing the air of uncertainty (whether or not they were successful is another story.)  While the console industry has focused on not rocking the boat and trying to emulate the success of Steam and mobile platforms,  Valve will now be staking its claim in the living room in a way that really does feel worthy of being called “next gen.”

Around this time last year, I wrote a #BoRT post on the value of video game input as opposed to audio/visual output.  It’s been no secret that Gabe Newell has been looking at how the gaming experience can be improved with reduced latency and greater precision in gaming controllers, and that vision has come to fruition in the form of the Steam Controller.  It was Valve’s third announcement following SteamOS and the Steam Machine.  While the first two products expand Valve’s reach into the console gaming sphere, the Steam Controller is a more radical departure for PC gaming and console gaming.  There are some who are nervous about the lack of face buttons and joysticks.  Valve wants to assure us that the lack of tactile feedback from buttons and sticks will be compensated for through use of linear resonant actuators.  Instead of having the immediate feeling a button giving away under pressure, it appears players will instead be feeling the controller respond more programmatically.  From what I’ve read on it, the Steam Controller will make the nature of interaction with the controller part of a game’s design.

Of course, part of the attraction of having Steam in the living room is being able to tap into an existing library of games.  Valve once more attempts to reassure gamers that the Steam Controller is being designed with this in mind and will be providing legacy configurations that provide a natural experience while playing games designed for traditional controllers or the mouse and keyboard.  (If you’re interested in hearing a hand-on account of what the controller is like, check out this post by Tommy Refenes.)  And given the nature of Steam OS, you won’t be forced to use a Steam Controller to play games on the system.  Ultimately, the controller introduces a lot of potential, and uncertainty, in ways similar to motion controls in the previous generation.  I feel there’s more reason to be optimistic about the Steam controller though since it seems to be designed to empower designers rather than dictate to them as motion controls or the cell processor did.

There’s no guarantee that developers would jump on board with this new control scheme, and Valve would suffer little if their controller went the way of the Playstation Move.  But right now, the potential of the Steam Controller offers a much bigger step forward for games than the most recent console offerings by Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft.  While those companies are trying to just catch up with the technology of the last 6 years, Valve is in a unique position to actually innovate rather than iterate.  Here’s hoping that it succeeds!


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