Haptics, trackballs and Cheeto dust: How Valve built the game controller of the future

Game controls go open source

Where console gamers all have broadly the same experience, PC gaming is a world built around tinkering and customisation. And for Valve, the only successful controller will be an open controller.

“In the past, with any new game controller, you spend a bunch of time configuring it. Hardware manufacturers usually make software that tries to make that easier, but usually those pieces of software are terrible. So we’re not going to try to author default controls for every game: we’re going to rely on the community, in a way that’s similar to Steam Workshop, to create controller bindings that make sense for each game."

"People will be able to browse each other’s configurations and make their own, and if they add one that’s better than the existing default and lots of people like it and use it - that’ll become the default set of controls. Even in our own games, we haven’t done the work to natively support the controller with its own API. So when you play Portal with a Steam controller, the games believes it’s being played by a keyboard and mouse.”

More after the break...

Thumb kind of monster

Valve’s office is, like most offices anywhere in the Seattle area, a 30-second walk from a Microsoft building. When asked how they felt when they heard Microsoft had spent $100 million on its new Xbox controller, Anna and Greg are amused. “It wasn’t tremendously surprising that they spent that much money, but the odd part was that they seemed so proud of it. That was only one part of the development of their new platform, so... it was an odd thing to base a wave of PR around.”

And while the company has a reputation for secrecy, its hardware development has benefited from being conducted, at least partly, out in the open.

“We feel fortunate because we’re accomplishing a lot with a smaller team size than other companies have. By having people beta-test our work in public, we’re gaining a tremendous amount of confidence in our decision-making, and that’s that’s not something it seems like other companies are built to do.” 

There's a flipside to involving your community: while gamers have always viewed Microsoft and Sony as standard, self-interested megacorporations, Valve has 65 million fans - fans who will be loudly disappointed if this first foray into hardware doesn't cut the mustard. And as with any mould-breaking technology, many will write it off before trying it (some already have) but if this controller suceeds, it'll change thumb-twiddling forever.

READ MORE: Stuff visits Valve's mysterious factory of wonder (well, its office)

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