Valve's Steam Controller gamepad combines dual trackpads, touch screen, haptics

It's been a busy week for Valve, the game developer behind the popular Steam game download service. They started out this week by announcing SteamOS, a dedicated gaming operating system; they followed it up by announcing Steam Machines, their long-awaited foray into hardware boxes designed to work in the living room, and they're capping it off with Steam Controller, a gamepad especially designed for Steam games.

Steam has long provided PC gamers (and more recently, Mac and Linux gamers) with a way to download popular games - not just from Valve but from other publishers as well. The service enables players to chat with each other, join groups of players with similar interests, unlock achievements within games and more.

But up until recently, Valve's focus was squarely on computer gaming, as opposed to console gaming. The company's been open about its interest in moving Steam into the living room, however, but this week's announcements have helped solidify plans that, up until recently, Valve founder Gabe Newell only talked about in broad strokes.

Still, the evidence has been there. Valve offered Steam for Linux earlier this year and has encouraged developers to create products for the platform. It's also introduced full-screen support for Steam that helps Steam and Steam games run more effectively on television screens.

SteamOS is based on Linux, and will work on any Linux box and be freely downloadable. It comes with graphics drivers thoroughly optimized for gaming - one of the crucial pieces of the puzzle that has, up to now, eluded most Linux builds for suitability as a gaming platform. It also will allow PC and Mac users to stream their games over a network.

Steam Machines - devices designed from the ground up to run SteamOS - are coming in 2014 from Valve's hardware partners, and now the final piece of the puzzle has been announced. It's a game controller especially designed to work with all Steam games (as well as any device running Steam), according to Valve:

Even the older titles in the catalog and the ones which were not built with controller support. (We’ve fooled those older games into thinking they’re being played with a keyboard and mouse, but we’ve designed a gamepad that’s nothing like either one of those devices.)

Rather than using thumbsticks, like Xbox or PlayStation controllers, the Steam Controller has two circular trackpads that are also clickable. Other buttons run along its surface and edges, and there's a touch-enabled screen in the center of the controller. What's more, the controller has force feedback, but Valve is careful to explain that this isn't just the sort of rumble feedback you're used to from earlier generations of controllers:

This haptic capability provides a vital channel of information to the player - delivering in-game information about speed, boundaries, thresholds, textures, action confirmations, or any other events about which game designers want players to be aware. It is a higher-bandwidth haptic information channel than exists in any other consumer product that we know of. As a parlour trick they can even play audio waveforms and function as speakers.

A configuration tool will be available to let players customize the settings for the controller in the games they're playing. And Valve is also vaunting the controller's "openness," saying that it was "designed from the ground up to be hackable." And by hackable, Valve means on the hardware level, not just the software.

The first gamers who will be able to get their hands on the new controller are the ones who are lucky enough to qualify for Valve's very limited Steam Machines beta program (only 300 machines are being released - tens of thousands of Steam players have already qualified to apply). Others will have to wait until Steam's hardware plans come to fruition in 2014.

Is Steam Controller the gamepad you've always wanted for your Mac (or PC)? Do you think it'll be well suited to the sorts of games you can play on Steam? Tell me what you think in the comments.

Peter Cohen