Hands On With Valve’s Hardware Bonanza

Sitting down with Valve’s Eric Johnson this morning, one thing seemed to become increasingly clear. Valve, a studio that has arguably been pretty quiet of late (not least with the failure to ship Steam Machines in 2014), is coming to life again. With a slew of announcements at this year’s GDC, the HTC-tech-incorporating VR Vive, a proper announcement of Source 2, in-home streaming tech in Link, available builds of Steam OS, and a final build for their much anticipated controller, you could almost forget that none of them is a game. While Graham was being pulled into a virtual world, I had a play with the controller on games running on a couple of Steam Machines, on some rather enormous televisions.

So the first thing you want to know: is the controller any good?

At first, I worried. I was handed it to play Talos Principle running on a mid-spec Steam Machine, via Steam OS, and my initial thought was: “Ooh, they’re close.” And then I asked if I could adjust the sensitivity.

It was immediately interesting to see that Steam OS overrode the game’s own input settings. Valve called up the controller’s settings, a lovely clean layout, dropdown menus alongside the buttons on a crisp illustration of the controller. On the controller, my right thumb sat on what’s essentially a clickable trackpad, and the sensitivity of this mouse-substitute was slightly boosted. Back into the game, and my mind changed. “Ooh, they’ve done it.”

With the addition of an analogue thumbstick on the left side, below what still looks like a slightly clumsy circular d-pad, I didn’t have to think about using it to move around. That seems really important. As someone who’s pretty familiar with a 360 pad, I still have moments of disconnect when trying to emulate proper good-old-fashioned mouse/keyboard interaction. Here I didn’t have to pause, or look down, or get used to it. It just sort of felt right.

Well, right-ish. What’s interesting about all of Valve’s efforts is that they’re doomed to never make anything that matches a mouse and a keyboard. The very best they can hope for is to get close. It’s about plotting a point on the line drawn between a classic console controller, and the office machinery that so mysteriously best suits our gaming needs. From a brief play, I’m not confident to plot that point, but I’m pretty sure it’s closer to a mouse than you might expect.

Another feature that is packed with potential are the analogue triggers. Laid out as you might expect, placed below traditional shoulder buttons, the triggers can detect use long before they reach a final click. The theory being that developers and players can use this imaginatively. Maybe have a squeeze bring up your ironsights, and a click fire. As Valve point out, this would free up fingers to do more at the same time.

They’ve also had the rather common sense idea to put yet another pair of buttons set into the underneath of the casing, where your ring fingers naturally rest. Which leads to the realisation that ring fingers have been lazily doing nothing for too long – again it’s instinctive, and just felt right. In fact, it feels damned weird it’s not the norm.

I was also shown Link, their in-home streaming box. Which is tiny! A little baby! It’s a device that’ll stream your gaming machine to any other screen in the house. It’s Apple TV, but for games. Maybe. And compared to the wheezing old Frankensteinian hulk of a PC that’s currently next to my living room TV, it could be quite the upgrade.

Streaming, of course, comes with concerns about lag. Nvidia’s peculiar announcement of yet another piece of tech called Shield this week boasted that their OnLive equivalent, Grid, would “only” have a latency of 150ms. Something most gamers couldn’t cope with. While Link is of course only moving a game through the mystical ether within the same house, you may have similar worries. From our first glance, you may be able to let them go. Shadows Of Mordor played so smoothly, again on a Steam Controller, that we completely forgot it wasn’t being directly played. Now, let’s be clear – this was in Valve’s own setup, in what are presumably their ideal conditions. It’ll be important to find out, they say this November, how it performs in an actual real-life house. It sure is cute though.

All of these games were being shown off on TV screens the size of a wall. Astonishingly top-of-the-range televisions, maybe 100″, and looking stunning. These were quite comically described as the sorts of screens people will now be getting in their living rooms. I would dearly love a living room big enough to fit in one of those screens. But their point being, Steam OS was able to take advantage of them. Talos was being played at 120FPS on a 120Hz TV. Now, I’m not one of these savants who can detect framerates with my robot eyes, but it sure looked purty.

When we were shown Counter-Strike: GO on a top-end Steam Machine, in this case a Falcon Northwest PC costing well in excess of $2000 (they weren’t quite sure, it was somewhere between $2000 and $5000), it was on a 4K TV running at 60FPS. And it’s worth noting that all Steam Machines will come equipped with the same capabilities as a Link box, letting you get a low-end Steam box but still stream from your screeching beast upstairs.

A big part of this move toward Steam OS and its Linux architecture has been Valve working in collaboration with many big names in the industry, notably with the exception of Microsoft, on developing this new version of OpenGL. Freeing gaming of DirectX is not a goal Valve is willing to say they’re part of, but it’s obviously a big dent in Windows’ grip on PC gaming to see OpenGL so significantly revived. Linux, Valve says, consistently gets better performance out of games than Windows, and obviously the free and open nature of Linux suits their interests.

And it’s worth noting that Valve seem pretty determined not to let sofa-based gaming mean a step away from modding and the like. While you’ll obviously be making the mods on a proper grown up machine in a proper grown up hovel, accessing them is something they have built into Steam OS, showed off for CS:GO, in nice, tiled desktop that looked like someone had given the PS4 interface a nice spring clean.

Once again, we were seeing all these things in Valve’s set-up, so it’s important to wait and see how it all comes together in a regular lounge in a regular house on some regular internet. But after a very disappointing 2014 in which Valve significantly failed to deliver, 2015 is looking far more promising. The controller has come together – it felt great in my hands, and while it cannot be a substitute for a mouse and keyboard, it’s a league better than trying to play an FPS with a clunky old console controller. I’ve got a strong feeling it’s going to be a peripheral that’ll become ubiquitous amongst PC users. As a regular user of a 360 controller for PC gaming, I’m already certain I’ll be upgrading to it, despite my lack of a burning need for gaming from a couch. As for Steam Machines… it’s a tougher sell for me. Clearly there’s going to be a good range of tech and prices, but I need more convincing that a Linux OS is going to be a computing home. With a commitment to release this all this November, I’m looking forward to seeing if I can be sold on the idea.

76 Comments

  1. LogicalDash says:

    gimme

  2. Swanny says:

    I am so glad to hear the controller is coming along. I was a bit skeptical they’d pull it off, but now I just want to get a huge TV and play Age of Wonders on my couch.

    • Underwhelmed says:

      Once it looked like an owl’s face, now it looks like a face belonging to an owl that runs into a lot of poles.

      • pepperfez says:

        I mean, I’m glad they’ve improved the ergonomics and all that, but I really was looking forward to a cute little owl controller.

    • Eleven says:

      I had been quietly hopeful that Valve would pull it off. This generation’s console controllers are great and all, but didn’t really innovate much. Hopefully a controller designed for the PC will move things on a bit.

      Hopefully it will give game developers a good reference controller to design games around too. The x360 pad pretty much standardised joypads on the PC, but its getting long in the tooth and probably won’t be sold for much longer. Microsoft doesn’t really seem to want to support the xbox one pad on the PC, even for basic features like wireless, so it’s hard to see developers throwing their weight behind it. But this new controller, knowing Valve, will probably still be supported a decade from now.

  3. Jac says:

    Could you see yourself using this over an Xbox pad Mr. Walker and may I ask which type of games you feel you’d do so?

    Also my initial thoughts about those chunky back buttons was one of complete amazement that it hasn’t been done before. Thinking about it some more though, I’d worry that i’d constantly be pressing them unintentionally.

    • Chufty says:

      Well there is the Vita with its rear touchpad. And, indeed, that gets accidentally pressed all the time. But yes, why is it so rare to find a use for all those extra digits we have lying around?

    • Guvornator says:

      That’s probably why it’s got that slight gap – so you have to reach for it.

  4. raskolnikov.mx says:

    Oh boy. It sure sounds like I’ll need a Steam controller as well.

    I guess it is a wired thingy. Did Valve mention any possibility of having magical cordless controllers for us PC chums?

    • Jernau Gurgeh says:

      Ummm… Looks cordless to me. Wonder what sort of wireless connection it uses? Hopefully it comes with a USB dongle far less ridiculous than the PC Wireless Receiver for the Xbox 360 controller.

      • Dave L. says:

        They’ve said in the past that it’s wireless and uses a custom wireless protocol. Regular PCs will need a dongle, but I believe the Steam Machines (and probably Steam Link) are supposed to have the receiver built in.

        • El_Emmental says:

          I hope they ran enough tests with other wireless devices to make sure there isn’t interferences, because it’s very likely they’re using 2.4GHz chips.

          • ersetzen says:

            Probably something like ANT or ANT+. Which means that they could switch to normal bluetoth when needed, I think.

            Speaking of latency: Reportedly 15 bis 18 ms for the Link box. That sounds really quite interesting…

        • pepperfez says:

          Is there any reason for them not to just use Bluetooth? It seems like a much more elegant solution, at least from my only-modestly-techy perspective.

          • ersetzen says:

            They use a bluetooth variant that has significantly lower delay but can fall back to the normal one, I think. Kinda best of both worlds in that regard.

  5. liquidsoap89 says:

    Okay hold on… Are you telling me that I could have been playing PC games at 120 FPS on my TV for the past few years, and I didn’t even know it!? How in the hell!?

    This also sounds pretty cool, well… The controller does. I don’t care about the streaming.

  6. Merus says:

    That controller does look like a box with stuff on it, though. Somehow it manages to be uglier than the original Xbox controller.

  7. zaloper says:

    That cheap, tiny Steam Link thing is all my dreams come true. If it works.

    • Groove says:

      I agree wholeheartedly, the Link is the headline for me here.

    • aiusepsi says:

      It slots nicely into that last little hole in their lineup: what if I want to play some games in my living room, but I already have a fancy gaming PC? You get a Steam Link. Sorted.

    • Martel says:

      I completely agree. I recently ditched my living room computer when it died for a Roku and would very much love to be able to game out on the TV again without dragging my gaming box out there. I’ll easily buy a couple of those things to spread around the house.

    • SuicideKing says:

      Yup, it’s on my wishlist, along with the controller.

    • Premium User Badge

      keithzg says:

      I’ve been using streaming since it came out in beta many months (a year?) back, on a Linux install on an ancient PC that I’d been using (because it has a Geforce 8400 in it) for a media PC for my projector. About 90% of my time playing Shadows of Mordor has been via this setup, and I really can’t tell a difference. So at least for 720p (the resolution of my projector) I think any spare hardware you have lying around will be sufficient, at least as long as you’re running Linux (haven’t tried it via Windows; been using customized Openbox sessions for as little overhead as reasonable, although if you’re using SteamOS there should be even a bit less).

  8. nindustrial says:

    Great writeup John, thanks for the info. I have to say I’m most excited about streaming, but I am certainly curious to see how lag actually affects real-world use. While the controller seemed interesting, your experience has me far more optimistic than previously. Mostly, I’m just excited to play strategy games while laying hungover on my couch.

  9. prokofjev says:

    DualShock 4 works great on PC, even the touchpad thingy in the middle is useful.

  10. Ejia says:

    I don’t like the position of that thumbstick. I have small stubby baby hands and the 360 controller’s placement is much more comfortable to me than, say, any of the DualShocks.

    I suppose if I want a giant TV and a steamthingy in my living room, I’d have to get a living room first.

    • goon buggy says:

      I think the thumbstick is just there for those that cant or wont adapt to the circle pad.

      • Wedge says:

        Having both is useful for a lot of things as well. One for movement and the other for auxiliary functions is a frequent configuration. Now you can just take your pick of which is which (I’m assuming the “dpad” thing can function as analog input if you want).

        • ersetzen says:

          The dpad printed thing originally was supposed to be used as analog stick and there isn’t really anything stopping you from doing that.

      • ToothyMcshark says:

        I’m guessing that the analog stick is to facilitate movement with their VR headset. The stick may be easier to control that than a haptic dpad, I think.

  11. Geebs says:

    I’d like to be on board with Valve’s “linux with OGL is faster than windows with DX” thing, but I’m kind of painfully aware that their engine tech is a good few years old. What version of OGL do Valve even target? I’m betting it’s actually pre- version 3.

    • Dave L. says:

      Pretty sure they’re targeting Vulkan now.

    • Ashrand says:

      Keep in mind that they JUST formally announced source 2 as well.

      They seem to have anticipated your concerns

    • ersetzen says:

      Source 2 will have a vucan version, so I guess that?

  12. dangermouse76 says:

    Getting Windows and Steam OS games to release together would really help sell the system to me. If they can get the games on there I think they have a chance.

    I’d happily – for now – dual boot a Windows/Steam OS set-up. I can see a future where most of the hardware is a semi server type set-up. Hidden away in the house networked to a number of displays. Turn on by remote select your start-up app ( OS ) games or productivity and away you go.
    But it’s all about getting the games – field of dreams man,field of dreams.

  13. Core says:

    I wish the controller had more buttons.

  14. Premium User Badge

    basilisk says:

    I’m slightly confused by this: “Laid out as you might expect, placed below traditional shoulder buttons, the triggers can detect use long before they reach a final click.”

    The 360 pad does this already. The triggers are not binary on/off switches, but provide linear output. The only game I’ve played that tried taking advantage that was GTA4 with its “hold the left trigger half-way for free aim and fully for auto aim”, which was rubbish, so I’m very sceptical about the ironsights/fire thing. It’s quite annoying and imprecise.

    But I do agree that from the first moment they announced the controller, I realised that those buttons on the back seem like the most natural thing in the world. It’s weird those aren’t commonplace.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      I find it pretty hard to press the 360 pad’s triggers anywhere less than all the way with any accuracy or reliability, too.

      In re the controller itself, that left circle looks a bit big if it’s going to do duty as a D-pad.

    • Thankmar says:

      Its linear up to a certain stop-point, at which you have to press harder to make an additional click. As I said below, you find that on the Gamecube controller (if I´m getting it correctly).

      • Groove says:

        Quite correct. The gamecube controller wasn’t as slick as modern controllers, but the analogue shoulder buttons really were analogue. I’ve extensively used 360 and ps4 pads and they may aswell be digital for all the difference it makes.

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      Phasma Felis says:

      It’s handy in driving games for the accelerator/brake.

      Never seen it used for anything else.

      • Premium User Badge

        basilisk says:

        Yes; that is of course the primary use that I somehow forgot to mention. I also strongly suspect that many shooting games actually do use this to some extent with weapons capable of single-round and auto fire, differentiating between a gentle almost-there squeeze and a full click. And I do think that at least some of the AssCreed games had two different running speeds depending on how hard you pulled the trigger. It’s a pretty subtle effect most of the time, but I’d wager it’s used more often than it seems.

        Thankmar’s explanation of a linear switch with a midway stop-point makes a lot of sense, though. I could imagine that working well.

  15. TheApologist says:

    I know fully expect to be dropping around £100 on a Link and a controller this Christmas…

    • ToothyMcshark says:

      Ditto. Well, except I’ll be dropping $100. Slightly less. :)

  16. Thankmar says:

    That click after the analogue portion of the trigger is inspired by the Gamcube Controller. Which was a pretty good controller for me, when the games were tailored around its layout. Multiplatform titles suffered from that, obviously.

  17. airmikee says:

    When Valve first announced their Steamboxes and the goodies that would go with them I was interested to see what they would do, but still slightly skeptical it would all turn into vaporware like so many other dreams. Now that they’re showing off their new toys, I feel one of those Phillip J Fry memes of ‘SHUTUP AND TAKE MY MONEY’ is now wholly appropriate. Especially if I’ll be able to grab a low-end Steambox for the front room and stream games from my gaming rig on the other side of the house, essentially turning my desktop into a console for the front room without having to lug the beast around.

  18. Mr Coot says:

    Bless you, Valve. All hail, St Gabe. I want it all. They Kingdom come, they will be done. Bring on the pre-eminent gaming platform: Steam OS.

    • Mr Coot says:

      Damnit. Just pretend I’m saying ‘thy’ with in a v strong RP accent, will yas.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      Out Gaben who art in Washington, fallow be thy games.

  19. Billzor says:

    Dumb question, but I take it that the SteamOS will be proprietary and therefore I will only be able to buy pre-built ones and not be able to build one myself?

  20. Muthabuffer says:

    I can’t wait to get hold of the steam controller and the vive plus vr controllers sound amazing. I use in home streaming a lot so i can really see the benefits of the steam link for a lot of people to get a cheap living room option.

    Heres where I run out of enthusiasm. As someone who was initially really excited about steam machines I’m now struggling to see why I would buy one over a windows machine. Linux doesn’t really run games better than windows in any tests I’ve seen and directx seems only likely to increase that gap. My windows based living room SFF PC can play ALL my games in big picture and stream from my main PC through Steam. So why do I need SteamOS? Yes it would save me the cost of a windows OS, but at higher price points that becomes less of an issue and I’m getting windows 10 on my current machine for free.

    If your a console gamer who wants an easier experience transferring across they seem to make perfect sense, the Steam link looks brilliant for just streaming, but as a PC gamer I think Valve hasn’t convinced me why I need a steam machine.

  21. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    You guys, I am so excited about this controller. I love the convenience and feel of gamepads, I love the prospect of four-player couch gaming, but I just can’t quite learn how to aim precisely in 3D games with a thumbstick. Various people have produced or tried to produce gamepads with a trackball in place of the right thumbstick, and there’s actual research showing that PC FPS gamers need only a few hours’ practice to become just as effective as they are with keyboard and mouse, but heartbreakingly, everyone absolutely refused to buy them and they’re no impossible to find, even used.

    So this is basically my dream controller right here. On top of all that, I suspect Valve is likely to be way more conscientious about driver and hardware issues than Microsoft or Logitech have been. I haven’t been this excited about an input device in years.

  22. Radiant says:

    That controller looks weird as fuck.
    That’s the best looking thing they can come up with?

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      Who gives a shit what it looks like? I wanna know what it plays like.

      • Premium User Badge

        Phasma Felis says:

        Sigh. No edit button still. I’m sure you get what I was shooting for.

        • Radiant says:

          Yeeeah, I guess. But what happened to Gabes “hold two pebbles in your hands” new paradigm malarkey?

          This still doesn’t get over the fundamental problem with hand held controllers in that you have more dexterity in your fingers then you have in your thumbs.
          Why not flip the touch controls underneath the pad?

          Then you have the full tactility [new word alert!] and control of all four fingers on a pressure/touch pad.

          …Or just anything else that is new.
          Trackpads and thumbsticks. If you’re going to kitchen sink it why not throw in a track ball too and call it a day?

    • Josh W says:

      It looks like my grandma went to a carboot sale and came back saying “I bought you something for your computer” only its’ actually a disguised pda that only works when plugged into a TV, and the face buttons are actually M&Ms.

      They have reached the uncanny valley of product development.

      • Radiant says:

        Or she comes back and says “I bought you an Apple Iphone”.
        Only it’s an Aple Ifone and it has two screens.

    • Razumen says:

      Looks are secondary to how it feels, and from this article, it sounds like it feels great.

      Not to mention that the controller shown is probably not the final one, aesthetic wise.

  23. Neutrino says:

    Does Link work only with Steam games or will it work with any content on the source PC?

    • Rozza says:

      You can add external games to Steam manually (just by browsing for the .exe) and they’ll then appear in the Library. This gives them the Steam overlay so it’s likely that it’d allow them to be streamed too, although I’ve never tried it.

    • ToothyMcshark says:

      I know that you can broadcast non-Steam games to your friends, and although i’m talking out of my ass here, I assume it’s the same technology that pipes a video signal out to the Link.

    • Premium User Badge

      keithzg says:

      Considering I had a game crash on me the other day while streaming and it glitches it so it was just outright streaming my Windows desktop session, I’m gonna say yes!

  24. Continuity says:

    I want one. I don’t know why, I guess its Gabe voodoo.

  25. cunningmunki says:

    Let’s talk about that analogue stick. When I first saw they’d added an analogue stick in that leaked controller image a while back, I was in tears. Why add such a superfluous thing to such a beautiful and progressive new controller?! Why god, why?! But then I thought about it from Valve’s point of view.

    They must know it’s superfluous too, and none of the feedback I ever read on the original version of the controller was that it lacked a thumbstick. A d-pad, yes; but not a stick. So why do we get a stick instead of a d-pad? One reason: console gamers. Valve know that if they’re ever going to entice console gamers into the Steam Universe, they’re going to have to give them a modicum of familiarity. Even Valve themselves say that console gamers who have tested the controller start off using the stick and then progress to using the left pad. Its probably the only part of the controller that purely there for commercial reasons rather than practical ones. And I’ve made peace with that. Now let me BUY IT.

  26. Rozza says:

    November!? That’s like, a year away! Nearly!

    They’ve been banging on about this blinking controller for bloody ages now (their first announcement was September 2013) and even though it’s in the hands of journalists for demos and clearly looking rather polished, we have to wait another eight or nine months!? Bah. Of course I only say this because I have wanted one since the first announcement.

  27. gladiator24_7 says:

    I’m pretty excited for the Steam machine. I’m a busy guy, too busy to play games (but I do it anyway) and definitely too busy to build a new PC. But I can buy a box for $700 that will let me play indie games? Ok! Console games are made for teenagers, I don’t maintain a gaming rig anymore, I just cruise the limitless volumes of awesome indie games that the clueless console crowd doesn’t even know exists.

    I’ll buy a Steam machine. And if Valve can get the word out to the masses about how freakin cool cheap indie games are, I won’t be the only one.

  28. Premium User Badge

    Don Reba says:

    Aren’t triggers analogue on all gamepads? There were on Dreamcast, GameCube, XBox, XBox 360, etc.

    • Razumen says:

      Yeah, they have been, but the click when it’s fully depressed was something that’s been unique to the Gamecube controllers up until now I believe.