How Valve built the controller of the future

COGITO, ERGO THUMB

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Whether or not you’re convinced by the Steam controller, there’s no denying that it is definitely a New Idea. With flat trackpads instead of sticks and buttons in unexpected places, it makes even the PS4’s touchpad-toting controller look unimaginative. But why did Valve make one in the first place?

“For a few years now”, say Greg, “our customers have been asking us to solve a problem, which was that they had to give up all their games when they go to play in the living room. To do that you need three things: hardware, like a Steam Machine, input and an operating system.

At first, our goal for our input device wasn’t all that clear. We were doing some experiments on wearable computing and virtual reality, but for the living room, we needed an input device that was able to play the whole Steam catalogue, without requiring somebody to bring a mouse and keyboard onto the sofa with it. So we looked at what PC gaming uses by default, and of course that’s a mouse and keyboard. And we realised we had to make the games think they’re being played by those traditional devices, because there’s no way we can update all those titles to have some new input method - they were never built for a game controller, and every development team has since disbanded. You can’t just crack a few thousand games open to magically support something new. So that was our goal: to translate between the expectation of a mouse and keyboard, and the actual buttons and surfaces on the controller.”

READ MORE: Valve Steam Machine preview

WELCOME TO THUMBDERDOME

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If Valve was going to trick every game into its 3000-plus catalogue into thinking they were being played by traditional means, it would need a new device. Possibly quite a weird one.

“With a mouse and keyboard, you’ve got 104 keys in one hand, and a super-high-resolution 2D pointing device in the other. We started building controllers that had tons of buttons on them, and controllers that all kinds of different methods of doing that high-resolution 2D pointing. One of the early front-runners was a trackball.

We built a lot of prototypes that had a trackball on the right-hand side. We had small trackballs, we tried cueball-sized trackballs that punched all the way through to the back of the controller so that the ball’s being held around its middle, and you can hold the whole thing and have really precise input. That was great, because you could spin it and stop it with your fingers at the back of the pad. Trackballs are actually really, really good in terms of 2D pointing. It’s precise and high-resolution, and it gives you a lot of physical control. But it also had some downsides: it’s asymmetrical, for one thing, so right-handed only; different people liked different configurations, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution; and a trackball has a lot of moving parts, which means you’re going to get a lot of Cheeto dust stuck in there." [For readers not familiar with Cheetos, they are a cheese puff snack, larger than a UK standard Wotsit but not as nice].

THUMBTHING TELLS ME I’M INTO THUMBTHING GOOD

Stumped by the Cheeto Dust Problem, Valve began investigating other means of control.

“When we started trying trackpads, they were way behind trackballs for a long time. It wasn’t until we started changing the software that began to see its potential. There wasn’t a ton of physical differentiation between the prototypes, but in the firmware, there was a tremendous amount of work that we were doing to get the trackpad to behave differently for different kinds of games. We started to think, this is more promising, because it gives us more power as software developers to adapt to the requirements of a different games, or to games in the future that we haven’t thought of yet.

For a while, we thought touch input was so strong that we even went off past trackpads and investigated touch input across an whole flat surface. It was useful to try that, but it taught us that wasn’t where we wanted to go - often we ended up needing to have a divided experience, where you’re looking down at your hands a lot and then up at the screen, and the tactile feeling of a controller was absent.

It also taught us how important haptic feedback is for any touch device. That channel of information from the touch input device to the user’s hands is vital. It can carry a number of different kinds of information on what’s happening in the game, but on a nuts and bolts level it tells you what part of the touch surface you’re using. We subdivide those surfaces into slices, or concentric rings, and those boundaries are impossible for the player to detect unless you have haptic feedback.”

More after the break...

GREATER THAN THE THUMB OF ITS PARTS

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It was at this point that the pieces of the puzzle came together. The problem was that Valve wanted a trackball that wasn’t a trackball. The solution was to make exactly that: a virtual trackball.

“Once we started looking at haptic feedback, we realised it could also help us hold on to all the things we had achieved when building around a trackball. The little electromagnets in there are so precise that they can emulate the momentum in a physical ball. The user can feel that the ball is spinning fast, or it’s slowing down, or it has stopped. So you can toss the virtual ball and have it feel like it’s spinning under your thumb, then plant your thumb on it and have it quickly come to rest again. And that channel of information makes it easy to use. It makes you aware, even before you’re seeing the results on screen, that you’re speeding up or turning or stopping."

YOU THUMB IT, I’LL PLAY IT

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After a few minutes of play on the Steam controller, one of the first things you notice is that you hold it differently. The lobes of the controller body may look Xbox-esque, but they feel different, pushing into your hand in a slightly alien way.

“We did a lot of testing on hand position”, explains Greg, “and we started with setups that were arranged in the generic shape of a gamepad with the trackpad just kind of slapped on top. That results in a hand position where your whole thumb, the flat pad of your thumb, lays across the pad, which is less precise because it’s trying to compute the absolute centre of that big region all the time. On the Steam controller, the touchpads have been dug in, and tilted to face you. They’ve also been tilted outward slightly: along with the shape of the controller body, that makes the natural position to place the tip of your thumb on the touchpad. It’s meant to help you position in a natural, relaxed way, with your thumb in the right position. This results in a much more precise control - orders of magnitude more precise.”

And Valve says its extensive testing indicates that a Steam controller could actually make you a better gamer.

“There’s something inherent about it”, says Greg, “that teaches you how to hold it right from the start. It’s not your larger muscle groups you’re using, it’s your fine motor skills. Thumbsticks have made it so that FPSs are mostly developed with a certain amount of auto-aim turned on, but with the Steam controller, it’s no longer necessary to have auto-aim because of the fidelity and resolution of the trackpad. By the time people get used to it, they report - and the data shows - that they quickly surpass what they would have been able to achieve with a thumbstick controller.”

READ MORE: Hands-on with the Steam Controller

THUMB-BIND OF MONSTER

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.”

I’VE RUN OUT OF THUMB PUNS

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, their office)

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