Valve announces Steam Controller; unique gamepad with trackpads instead of joysticks

Valve has just announced the third of their three Steam living room announcements. This time, it's the concept for a game controller called Steam Controller. While on the surface it looks like a regular console gamepad, the Steam Controller does away with the typical joysticks and uses trackpads instead.

In a post on the Steam website, Valve states:

Driven by the player’s thumbs, each one has a high-resolution trackpad as its base. It is also clickable, allowing the entire surface to act as a button. The trackpads allow far higher fidelity input than has previously been possible with traditional handheld controllers. Steam gamers, who are used to the input associated with PCs, will appreciate that the Steam Controller’s resolution approaches that of a desktop mouse.

The basic idea was apparently to design a console-like controller that could handle games that were originally designed to work with a PC keyboard and mouse configuration, such as real time strategy games, simulation and more.

The Steam Controller's trackpads will also feature a more advanced type of haptic feeback, using what the website calls "dual linear resonant actuators." It adds:

These small, strong, weighted electro-magnets are attached to each of the dual trackpads. They are capable of delivering a wide range of force and vibration, allowing precise control over frequency, amplitude, and direction of movement.

The controller will have a touch screen in the middle which can be used by game developers to offer information or additional features for games. Valve adds, "When a player touches the controller screen, its display is overlayed on top of the game they’re playing, allowing the player to leave their attention squarely on the action, where it belongs." There are 16 buttons on the controller and Valve claims eight of them can be accessed without a user's thumb's leaving the trackpads.

It will also have a legacy mode where the controller will be recognized as a keyboard and mouse, and the controller can be configured to work with different button settings for each game. Valve says that Steam Controller has also been made to be hackable by anyone and will provide tools to assist people in that kind of activity.

The controller will be released in beta form as part of Valve's plan to launch a prototype Steam Machine to 300 people later this year. However, the controller prototype won't have a touch screen and won't be wireless. Valve also plans to reveal the hardware specs of that prototype Steam Machine next week.

Source: Valve | Image via Valve

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I just hope it's nothing like playing with fake analog sticks on a touch screen. I would have been interested in seeing something with a trackball instead of the right stick but I dunno.

What's interesting is they say they can provide haptic feedback on the touchpad surfaces so maybe they can simulate the feel of a d-pad or buttons.

Maybe I am missing something.

I understand they are trying to provide a 'controller' that fills the gap of traditional PC games that only have WASD/Mouse support.

However, what I don't understand is using what is essentially two 'trackpads'.

Do a lot of PC gamers now use Trackpads in place of a mouse?

If so, am I missing some dexterity trick with a trackpad to get the speed and precision of a mouse in FPS type games?

I honestly would have expected a controller with a thumbstick that could be used in a 2D plane like a mouse.

There are already controllers with thumbsticks. I think the idea is offering something different, in a way that would appeal to PC gamers who use a mouse and keyboard. For me, the accuracy one can achieve with thumbsticks just doesn't measure up to using a mouse and keyboard, period. If the trackpads though could offer a better range of motion, in a control scheme we're used to with controllers, then it could possibly win us over.

I say us because it's hard for me to part with my mouse/keyboard combo as well, especially for FPS games.

dead.cell said,
There are already controllers with thumbsticks. I think the idea is offering something different, in a way that would appeal to PC gamers who use a mouse and keyboard. For me, the accuracy one can achieve with thumbsticks just doesn't measure up to using a mouse and keyboard, period. If the trackpads though could offer a better range of motion, in a control scheme we're used to with controllers, then it could possibly win us over.

I say us because it's hard for me to part with my mouse/keyboard combo as well, especially for FPS games.

I understand there are controllers with thumbsticks, and I understand your love for the mouse/keyboard PC gaming experience.

What I don't understand is if any PC Gamer actually uses a 'trackpad' in place of a mouse and finds it an adequate replacement for a mouse.

I get that a thumbstick is not a good alternative for the speed and precision of a mouse, but I also don't think a 'trackpad' is a good alternative for the speed and precision of a mouse either.

The trackpad is what makes this controller seem a bit 'crazy' as it doesn't accomplish what MOST PC Gamers are going to want.

Hmmm. It has amazed me how Neowin has reacted upon this post.

After I finished reading the article I believed that there were going to be many close-minded people, and that'll be it.

It looks strange and unfamiliar, but i always stand with an open mind on new and innovative ideas. We just have to wait and see how this feels, responds and works.

The thing that's frustrating about this whole Steam Box thing is Valve is trying to turn PC gamers into console gamers. They're trying to figure out how to replace the keyboard and mouse with a controller, and how to replace the desk chair with the sofa.

I am a PC gamer. I don't want to be a console gamer. I like sitting in front of my 27" monitor. I like using a keyboard and mouse, and I like my games to take advantage of everything that the PC and keyboard + mouse offer. My fear is that now PC games will be further dumbed-down to be more like console games.

For example, I recently played through HL2 again. HL2 was designed for PC gamers. For example, it has lots of different weapons, and the game is designed to encourage you to use all of them all, constantly switching between them. This works on keyboards because you can just hit the number keys. How would you do this efficiently on any game pad (including the Steam Controller)? The answer is, you can't. The result will be that the design of HL3 (if there ever will be such a thing) will be directly affected to either reduce the amount of weapons or make switching between them quickly less important. HL3 will be dumbed down by Valve to work in their new Steam Box ecosystem.

Valve isn't doing the Steam Box for the good of PC gamers. In fact, they're screwing PC gamers to try and expand their market to console gamers. I don't blame them, the console market is much larger than the PC gaming market, but please, don't anybody try to tell me that this is good for PC gaming. No, this is the end of PC gaming.

JonathanMarston said,
The thing that's frustrating about this whole Steam Box thing is Valve is trying to turn PC gamers into console gamers. They're trying to figure out how to replace the keyboard and mouse with a controller, and how to replace the desk chair with the sofa.

I am a PC gamer. I don't want to be a console gamer. I like sitting in front of my 27" monitor. I like using a keyboard and mouse, and I like my games to take advantage of everything that the PC and keyboard + mouse offer. My fear is that now PC games will be further dumbed-down to be more like console games.

For example, I recently played through HL2 again. HL2 was designed for PC gamers. For example, it has lots of different weapons, and the game is designed to encourage you to use all of them all, constantly switching between them. This works on keyboards because you can just hit the number keys. How would you do this efficiently on any game pad (including the Steam Controller)? The answer is, you can't. The result will be that the design of HL3 (if there ever will be such a thing) will be directly affected to either reduce the amount of weapons or make switching between them quickly less important. HL3 will be dumbed down by Valve to work in their new Steam Box ecosystem.

Valve isn't doing the Steam Box for the good of PC gamers. In fact, they're screwing PC gamers to try and expand their market to console gamers. I don't blame them, the console market is much larger than the PC gaming market, but please, don't anybody try to tell me that this is good for PC gaming. No, this is the end of PC gaming.

Agree pretty much except for the very last sentence. There won't be an end to PC gaming simply because it's the superior platform. All the companies know this.

JonathanMarston said,

For example, I recently played through HL2 again. HL2 was designed for PC gamers. For example, it has lots of different weapons, and the game is designed to encourage you to use all of them all, constantly switching between them. This works on keyboards because you can just hit the number keys. How would you do this efficiently on any game pad (including the Steam Controller)? The answer is, you can't. The result will be that the design of HL3 (if there ever will be such a thing) will be directly affected to either reduce the amount of weapons or make switching between them quickly less important. HL3 will be dumbed down by Valve to work in their new Steam Box ecosystem.

Use the D-dad (X360 controller) for the weapons categories and just keep pressing the direction until you get to the weapon you want to use just like you have to keep pressing the number keys to move through the weapons in each category. D-pad up to cycle through hand guns, D-Pad Left for Shotguns, etc..... Its not that difficult to do.

JonathanMarston said,
<snip>

Playing HL2? Pffft, you're a filthy console casual. Real PC master race hardcore leet gamers play HL1.

Anything made after year 2000 is dumbed down console trash!!!11111

No, it's not. Valve are developing these things as alternatives not replacements, their games will still be PC friendly.

"will appreciate that the Steam Controller's resolution approaches that of a desktop mouse."

Bet you a million dollars it won't be anywhere near as accurate to use as a mouse though.

You get the best of both world with ABXY button and touch screen! That's the next generation controller should evolve! The Xbox One and PS4 controller did not take it to a whole new level instead of minor improvement.

Some of the people might think if it isn't broken then don't fix it. But the problem is it isn't broken but rather become more of the same controller that we familiar with the past 8 years and is pretty much 80-90 percent identical to the 7 generation console.

Seriously, we gamer expect a gigantic improvement for 8 generation console in every aspect. I think Valve is taking it more seriously than PS4 and Xbox One when it comes to controller and i give them credit for taking it into a different direction.

The wii U controller just flat out cumbersome and we know it isn't target at hardcore gamer but they seem give up on those audience.

I feel like this, coupled with the other announcements, is just Steam trying to be different for the sake of being different without actually figuring out what the market wants. Maybe they'll prove me wrong, or maybe they just don't care. It'll be interesting to see what this all becomes I guess.

It's cool that they're trying all this hardware stuff, but I wish they'd just make Half-Life 3 instead (which probably would be an instant classic). With that said, maybe HL3 will be what Zelda is to Nintendo - the killer app - that will be bundled with or atleast drive sales of the platform.

Because touch controls are JUST what gamers say is the best thing and what they want transferred from pad gaming to consoles... Right...

HawkMan said,
Why on earth would you actually want this?

Because the idea is amazing. If they pull it off correctly it could sh*t all over classic controllers precision-wise.

How so?

No controllers with a touch interface like this have been good or precise to use. Higher res doesn't mean more accurate if using it is horrible. Compared to a stick this would be horrible to use. Consider the old hated PSP controller or the SE Experia Play. Then multiply the horribleness with 10.

HawkMan said,
How so?

No controllers with a touch interface like this have been good or precise to use. Higher res doesn't mean more accurate if using it is horrible. Compared to a stick this would be horrible to use. Consider the old hated PSP controller or the SE Experia Play. Then multiply the horribleness with 10.

As I said, I always dreamed of someone making a trackpad like surface instead of an analog stick (I wouldn't really call this a touchpad), in my thoughts it works almost as a mouse. Obviously, neither of us have tried this so it's hard to tell if they'll manage to pull it off or not, but I am highly optimistic.

uxo22 said,
Hopefully there's a joystick alternative.

rofl, maybe they'll make a joystick with a circular touchpad on the top instead of the tophat and a touchscreen off to the side that you can configure for different buttons.

Asmodai said,

rofl, maybe they'll make a joystick with a circular touchpad on the top instead of the tophat and a touchscreen off to the side that you can configure for different buttons.

The point I was trying to make (out of work comedian) is it would be nice to have a steam compatible controller that has analog sticks.

uxo22 said,
The point I was trying to make (out of work comedian) is it would be nice to have a steam compatible controller that has analog sticks.

That already exists, as Steam's Big Picture mode supports the X360 controller and any other controller you connect. The whole point of this product is to provide something with better accuracy and functionality than current controllers, as it's aimed at PC gamers used to mouse and keyboard controls.

That looks like a design with a focus on being different and not being functional. Trying to play a game using the laptop touchpad gets rather uncomfortable because of chafing.

Laptop touchpads are generally awful though, unless you're on a Mac. You also don't control with your thumbs as you would with a controller, which are generally more naturally calloused (especially if you're a gamer). I don't think that would be an issue, but I guess it depends more or less on what the material is like.

A Mac touchpad was the worst I ever used with the lack of real buttons. I could believe Lenovo copied such an idiotic change. The best has been on the Alienware laptop although it's a big large for non-gaming.

I'm not a fan of the button either, but I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about the pad itself, how smooth maneuvering and scrolling functions, how smooth the transitions align with what you're doing. The feedback is great. Windows laptops just aren't there yet, with but few exceptions as you mentioned. (the Synaptics update(s) help a lot too) Of course, that doesn't matter as much since Windows is heading in the direction of touchscreens.

If accuracy and movements work accordingly, this can be really awesome. It all comes down to execution though, and will be something Valve must work hard on if they plan for this to go anywhere.

Its interesting. One thing that worries me is the button placement. I do not want to be hitting buttons with my left thumb and it seems you would have to use both hands to push buttons since x and y are one side and a and b are on the other

As a big Valve critic, my impression of this device was progressive:

1) NIPPLE PLAY
2) Well that's silly.
3) Wait...oh...huh, I want to try that out!

But I wonder if it might be too specialized? Can it walk into existing gamepad uses in PC gaming? Do all right with console emulators?

I'm actually surprised by the public reaction. Was expecting fires and pitchforks lol.

Personally, it's just something we're going to have to try out. I just hope Valve's testing is thorough as hell, as this thing needs to rock our socks off if Valve hopes to get us on board.

dead.cell said,
I'm actually surprised by the public reaction. Was expecting fires and pitchforks lol.

Personally, it's just something we're going to have to try out. I just hope Valve's testing is thorough as hell, as this thing needs to rock our socks off if Valve hopes to get us on board.


I think after the general lameness of the PS4 controller and 'safety' of the Xbox One controller, people are glad to have something to direct their next-gen SHOW US SOMETHING DIFFERENT ALREADY expectations toward.

Joshie said,

I think after the general lameness of the PS4 controller and 'safety' of the Xbox One controller, people are glad to have something to direct their next-gen SHOW US SOMETHING DIFFERENT ALREADY expectations toward.

Wii U!

This gamepad, benefits of new Circular Keyboard concept... thats why is have a touch-pad instead of buttons... very interesting piece of hardware that only makes sense if it gets a proper function to it... so ..lets wait for SteamOS.

It's not SteamOS specific. You'll be able to use it on your PC for Steam games as well. Valve isn't going to define what things are for either so game devs will be able to map the buttons to whatever they want depending on the game. If developers don't support it directly then it will emulate the mouse and keyboard and allow the user to define what controller buttons map to what keyboard buttons/mouse actions.

Yeah, this seems like one of those ideas that sounds and looks cool till you use It and it's not what you expected. Good luck Valve but I honestly think this is yet another niche thing that you're tossing your money at.

Out of all the announcement they have made this one will fail. Why? Because gamers have said that ipads suck cause there are no buttons. If this was MS releasing this the hate would be full swing.

coderchi said,
Out of all the announcement they have made this one will fail. Why? Because gamers have said that ipads suck cause there are no buttons. If this was MS releasing this the hate would be full swing.

What are you talking about? This thing has 16 buttons! The both touchpads and the touchscreen are buttons, there are the A, B, X, and Y buttons, the three across the bottom, 4 shoulder buttons, and 2 on the back. Furthermore they claim to have solved the lack of physical feedback from the touchpads via advanced haptics (I'm skeptical on this one but curious none the less).

coderchi said,
Out of all the announcement they have made this one will fail. Why? Because gamers have said that ipads suck cause there are no buttons. If this was MS releasing this the hate would be full swing.

Look, I'm right there with you in that touch controls on phones aren't that great. iPad is a bit of a different story, but overall, you're talking about a system where your thumbs are blocking your screen, which in a limited environment like your phone, is something you need to be able to see. None of these issues will exist with this controller, as there isn't a screen to block. It's simply a controller.

Personally, I think the pads could be arguably more accurate, given how imprecise thumb sticks can be.

I think it looks horrible and doesn't look very user friendly.
Having said that, Valve seem to know what they're doing, so i'll reserve my judgement till i get my hands on it and hope i'm proved wrong.

I'm not a fan of gamepads except for very few situations to begin with (diehard mouser), but color me curious about this.. either going to be a real improvement or fail badly.. not sure which yet, my gut tells me the latter but who knows.

It'll be interesting to see how it feels. Touch controls are always awkward due to the lack of tactile feed back and I think this is going to appeal more to younger gamers who've had their hands on touchscreen mobiles for the majority of their life.
Still, the ridges could provide all that is needed.

According to their site they have advanced haptic feedback for the touchpads as well. The touchscreen you don't have to look at because when you touch it the API creates an overlay on the main screen (monitor/TV) so you can drag your finger around and see what you are picking without having to look down. To actually initiate the action you have to click the touchscreen as the whole screen is also a big button.

Touch controls are more awkward when your fingers are blocking the screen. Given that the controller is going by touch and you won't be concerned with what your thumbs are blocking, I'd say it'll be fine provided the accuracy is there. The haptic feedback should also be helpful.

I take it that it's two circular touch pads with a touch screen in between? The A, B, X, and Y button placement seems odd. No idea if there are shoulder buttons or what the three across the bottom are.

Asmodai said,
I take it that it's two circular touch pads with a touch screen in between? The A, B, X, and Y button placement seems odd. No idea if there are shoulder buttons or what the three across the bottom are.

They might be like the xbox 360 lights on the controller, player 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.

Asmodai said,
I take it that it's two circular touch pads with a touch screen in between? The A, B, X, and Y button placement seems odd. No idea if there are shoulder buttons or what the three across the bottom are.

Nevermind, went the the source. I'm intrigued.

Anthony Tosie said,

No. Real.

Just confused because the article says:
This time, it's the concept for a game controller called Steam Controller.

Sounds like they announced something that doesn't exist yet.

Anthony Tosie said,

No. Real.

Well mostly real. The clickable touch screen isn't real yet. The prototypes just have four big buttons where the touchscreen should be but other than that and the prototype isn't wireless everything is already up and running.

wasd- said,
I like it. Its different

Depends on how responsive this is really going to be. With a gamepad, that can be a serious issue...

Lack of proper tactile feedback will be a serious issue indeed. And I highly doubt it's possible on touchpads.

I'd really like to try it because it's different, but i've no idea if it will actually be any good.

I'm atleast more interested in this controller than SteamOS though, which is utterly pointless and another ecosystem i don't want to be locked in to. Gabe always advocates open source, yet SteamOS so far seems far more limiting than Windows. It's just something Valve have full control over so they can make moarr money.