Steam Controller: Open And Hackable?


The folks over at Valve Corporation have been busy. Just this week they have made three announcements regarding the future of their company; SteamOS, a linux-based operating system, Steam Machines (for running SteamOS), and the one we’re most interested in, the Steam Controller, an open controller. Not to worry though, the controller is not exclusive to the Steam Machines!

This is why we’re intrigued:

The Steam Controller was designed from the ground up to be hackable … We plan to make tools available that will enable users to participate in all aspects of the experience, from industrial design to electrical engineering.

We’re curious to see what that exactly means, but it definitely sounds promising! We know that Valve already takes in tons of customer feedback through their Steam Community and Workshop contributors, but how open is this controller really going to be? To read more about it as the information unfolds, check out the topics in the Steam Universe forum.

If you’re interested in joining the hardware beta, head on over here, but space is very limited.

[Thanks Adam!]

50 thoughts on “Steam Controller: Open And Hackable?

    1. That was the first thing I noticed about it too.
      I mean, the four XYAB or triangle-circle-square-x buttons from xbox and playstation are *all* available to be pressed by a *single* thumb.
      Valve’s controller will require you to switch between thumbstick-type motion and button pressing, with both left and right thumbs!
      I really hope that they either figure out a way to make this work during the beta, or redesign their controller to be more normal.

      I can understand wanting to make their controller either-handed, but why don’t they just sell two versions?
      Or have the buttons/sticks movable?
      There have been controllers in the past which let you physically swap an XYAB or d-pad button area with a thumbstick and vise versa.
      I can’t remember the name, but it was decently manufactured, and I would have bought it if I was a leftie, or felt like spending the extra $20 compared to the generic Logitech I bought.

      1. the official announcement said there are 16 buttons total, 8 of which are reachable without lifting your fingers from the thumbsticks. at least they are doing something different than everyone else.

        1. Additionally, in other press releases by people that have used the device, they have set up one of the pads as yet more buttons. So if you really do not need two sticks in a game, one of the pads can be many buttons.

          Furthermore I see something that has been lacking in all this news coverage: Valve’s controller patent.

          It can be found several places such as here:

          The main point of the patent is a gamepad with swappable control hardware. They actually have the patent on modifiable controllers. Seems odd to leave that out of any analysis.

          1. Funny thing, I’m damn sure there’s prior art in “modular controller design”. I had a PS2 controller which allowed you to hot swap the button pad, D-pad and analog sticks.
            Of course the patent is more detailed than just “modular controller”. IANAL, but maybe the manner in which they deal with the hopswapping and “drivers” for the modules is enough for uniqueness.

      2. More normal? For those of us in PC gaming those are as far from normal as possible. I want something more mouse-like. This may not be it, but it’s not supposed to be a ‘normal controller’.

    2. Those buttons you see on the front are not primary buttons, so you shouldn’t need to press them frequently. This is taken from Valve’s website:

      “There are a total of sixteen buttons on the Steam Controller. Half of them are accessible to the player without requiring thumbs to be lifted from the trackpads, including two on the back. All controls and buttons have been placed symmetrically, making left or right handedness switchable via a software config checkbox.”

      1. Hopefully those shoulder, trigger, touch-pad-click, and back buttons will be easily reachable during normal play.
        Even if they are reachable (and they do look reachable, based on the image on Valve’s page) I’m still left worrying if those buttons will be easy enough to click with a non-thumb finger.
        I know for me personally, I’ve got both maximum strength and precision with my thumbs on buttons, followed by my trigger fingers and middle fingers.
        My ring and pinkies, however, would probably not be suited for clicking the back-of-the-controller buttons shown on their controller’s web page.

        Hopefully this will end up being a moot point, since it looks like Valve’s going to let you plug in any brand of USB controller, and/or keyboard and mouse, and let you play however you want.
        Either way, I look forward to Valve’s controller, even if only to get some new ideas onto the console playing field.

        1. I’m guessing you’re primarily a console gamer? IMHO, it seems like there’s two very different worlds of gaming controls, console, and PC (and a few wierdos like me who use a controller on their PC). Console gamers are using to using their thumbs for almost everything, with the fingers used only for triggers and bumpers. PC gamers on the other hand, are used to primarily using their fingers (mouse clicks, WASD keys, etc), with minimal thumb usage.

          It looks like the Steam controller is trying to be something completely different, but it also looks like leans more toward the PC gamer side of the fence.

          I’m certainly not worried about the finger strength or speed required to use the buttons on the Steam controller. The continued success of PC gaming provides plenty of evidence that the thumb isn’t the only digit capable of fast firing of virtual weapons. :-)

  1. The two thumb pads seems to be central to the user experience, and I guess that they could be more precise than thumb sticks. I really wonder about how the haptics will work though. The say everything from ticks to rumble to speaker capabilities?

    I really hope both software, drivers, firmware and hardware will be open, though tat may be hoping too much.

    All in all it seems promising and I can’t wait to see what odd and unexpected uses people will have for it.

    1. I am super excited about their dual element resonance design. I think it is overlooked. The difference between it and a normal vibration feature is that it adds another literal dimension to it. Instead of the vibration happening at the source element, the center of the vibration can be placed anywhere on a two dimensional plane. It is not dissimilar to the three dimensional waveforming that can be done with three antennas (yay 802.11ac!) where, with multiple static waveform generators working in unison, you can point the wave in any direction you wish.

      The practical side of this design, is it can feel as if specific parts of the controller is vibrating, like, say, every button can have it’s own feedback and with magnitude. Pretty exciting stuff. It is like going from black and white to color video for haptic feedback.

  2. Let’s see, SteamOS seems to just be a layer on top of ubuntu, it’s fairly reasonable to say that the controller will be pretty open too.

    Regarding haptics, no rumble motors or anything like that, afaik the only feedback comes from the twin trackpads essentially being glued to a speaker, so the trackpads should be able to move in and out at any speed, to various depths and probably with a bit of force. It’s not meant to shake the controller out of your hands (hello Saitek controller of mine :/) and it’s meant to have a lot more fine control than current vibrators. The ticking noise people refer to is I think the actual pads ticking to give you some feedback.

    As for the whole button/stick thing, I’m excited. I’ve been avoiding controllers where I can for being inaccurate, for instance my super meat boy experience on an xbox was that analogue meant not enough or all when it comes to running, and that you can’t switch directions as quickly as when you have separate appendages for directions. This trackpad design should at least fix the inaccuracy, which I’d imagine would be very helpful for things like quadcopter piloting. It’s also important to note that you can set the trackpad up however you want under Valve’s system, you want the right side to only be buttons? Fine fine, just want the entire surface to be your stick? Also good, how’s about a blend? Want 16 buttons around the outside? Sure whatever!

    Another thing to point out is the example layout for Portal 2 they provided, where basically all functions you could want except perhaps push to talk were accessible without lifting your thumbs off the pads. Anyway, really excited, hope to be able to use these for all kinds of cool things but I’m not sure what they are yet.

    1. There’s been stick-less sticks before, even the NES and Mega Drive had them. A blank octagon where the D-pad should go, it used infra-red or RF or induction or something to detect your fingers, instead of switches.

      People hated them. Because people prefer a stick or pad to actually move when you press it. A speaker’s not the same thing. The correct feel of give in the fingers is the feedback you need, the senses of touch and proprioception are sophisticated and sensitive.

      I predict doom for this! Worse, Doom 3!

  3. i would also hope them pushing another controller api like what m$ did with xinput. xinput didnt like to work with usb hid class game controllers without utilities that likely add latency. as a result there were a number of pc games that supported xbox360 controllers, but not pc game controllers. i dont want to see a repeat of this with steam’s api. it should have back support with the usb hid class controllers and be able to support all their functions.

    1. Your first sentence needs writing again! Are you saying they’re planning on launching a new API? If so, I agree with you. USB seems to support everything already. AFAIK you can have as many pads and buttons as you like, analogue or not.

      The 2 Dual-shock clone PC pads I have both read the digital D-pad as a “POV hat stick” for some reason, with the analogue sticks reading as sticks. I wonder if this is necessary, why not just have it as a stick, why make it a hat-switch?

      My 3rd joystick has an actual hat switch, and an accelerator slider. And lots of buttons, and it’s wireless! Nice! It was 2 English quid in a sale basket at PC World. I only bought the one cos I thought there must be something wrong with it. It’s fine. I wish I’d gone back and bought the other 5 or so, now. It’s nice for Mech piloting, though I keep the mouse for aiming.

      1. i meant to say:
        i would hope that steam is not pushing another inferior api like what ms did with xinput.

        control abstraction is an issue. dpads and hat switches are essentially the same thing, and it is best abstracted down to an array of buttons rather than an axis. any two buttons can be linked to make an axis, and it would be nice if software can handle it as either.

        steam could make a draconian api and have games support it exclusively (like ms did with xinput). but they could go the other way and end up creating the mother of all input standards that makes every game support every kind of input, including controllers besides its own.

    2. This was my biggest WTF moment ever when I tried to use my generic game controller with GTA4… XBOX controller only? I never played GTA after that. :(

      Well, I tried to use a xbox controller emulator, but the point is the same. Never again.

      1. What, on PC? Are they INSANE? Who’s going to pay 30-odd quid for a friggin gamepad when they might already have one they like more? Plus y’know the keyboard and mouse, still the best controllers for most games. It’s why so many console shooters need lock-on targetting, and other help with aiming, it’s just not possible to be quick and accurate with a tiny analogue thumbstick. A mouse is great, OTOH. They should include them with tanks for the army.

        Is this another case of Microsoft using one of their lame technologies to lever people into using the others? As in “seeing as I’ve bought the pad I may as well buy the console”? Bring me the head of Bill Gates and a pencil sharpener. I swear to the gods, I could never get tired of kicking his face. Grasping little weenies.

        There’s another more sinister X-box tie-in. Anyone seen the UK TV ads for “join the army”? In the UK the army advertises, using their ep1c l33t remote killdrones controlled by a laptop connected to… an Xbox controller! Yep kids, join the army, you’ve already got the killing skills, the graphics are better, and you’re 50 miles away from anyone who might be mean to you.

        It’s not very subtle, and completely sinister.

        1. That started with some DARPA programs, as usual. Turns out, the sort of people (demographic, not anything else implied) that go into the army also are quite familiar with xbox controllers. It just makes sense to grab cheap off the shelf controllers instead of making yet another overpriced military only controller monstrosity that they have to spend training time on.

          1. I can see the point I suppose, of using *some* off-the-shelf stuff for the military. There was a drive about 2 decades or so ago for that in the USA, I remember. Started off with people being outraged the Army was buying $100 hammers. Ended up with using Windows NT to operate a warship. Which bluescreened before it got out of port. Which is “fortunate” I suppose.

            If I was out being shot at in some other dude’s country, I’d want a hammer I can rely on. If it’s the only hammer I have and I have some life-saving carpentry to do. It’s the certification that makes it expensive. Well, that and the massive corruption where a politician hands a manufacturer a blank cheque, and gets 0.1% of it back in campaign donations. Because it’s important that people like that get re-elected.

            Anyway my big pisser is just, out of all the stuff the military use, why show the one kids’ toy in their recruiting adverts? The battles, where you either die or kill some other poor idiot, don’t get a mention. I don’t think appealing to people who think playing Xbox games is valid military experience, is a fair way of recruiting soldiers. Even if those ARE the sort of people -cough- demographically -excuse me- you’re aiming for.

            It’s not telling the real story. Though of course recruitment propaganda never has done, but I’m still pissed off about it.

        2. can get one for half of what you claim, I paid £19 and £23 respectively for my wired xbox controllers (got a white one and a black one) and some would consider that over-priced. If you have a wireless controller already then the USB adaptor is all of about £10. You can get 3rd party XInput compatibles for £10.

          Xbox controller in military usage. They are cheap, yet are fairly decent controllers if the software supports it (for which the API’s are free). Easy to replace a cheap xbox controller instead of having to spend a few hundred on a controller designed for the military yet would likely have the same buttons.

          Although I own 2 wired controllers I do still play FPS’s with mouse and keyboard. There are quite a few games which I do use the controller for, mostly things like just cause which was a console game or BeamNG.Drive which having no driver assists like ABS or traction control becomes impossible to do on a keyboard without wheel spin or lock, analogue triggers are superior for that (or a racewheel even better but thats extra cost). FPS games on gamepad do suck though.

  4. I’d love to get Jeri Ellsworth’s opinion on this, being ex-valve and a long time tinkerer she may have an interesting opinion that HackADay might want to follow up on.

  5. I personally think this could be very cool. Looking over the release, it’s clear the pads are addressable in 3 “rings” each, as well as being clickable. I could see that being very useful for a huge range of actions. I also like how the backside triggers are very long, so you can actuate them with your last 3 fingers at the same time if needed. (middle/ring/pinkie)

    It looks like it would be accurate enough to actually make playing FPS games on a console possible.

    Reading the notes on the touch screen, it would seem that the software in SteamOS is also going to display the screen’s contents as an overlay, so you wouldn’t have to look down at it. That seems cool too.

    1. From Steam’s own description the pads are actually touchpads, so should be addressable pretty much any way. Still don’t like them tho. The D-pad has barely changed at all since it was invented for Game & Watch. They got it right to start with, and nothing so far’s managed to improve it.

  6. I’m really looking forward to getting a set. They shouldn’t have labeled the 4 analogue buttons on the front YXBA – it makes people think you have to access those when playing. The track pads are programmable and features fine haptic feedback. I’m looking forward to program it in odd ways. Like make one of the trackpads emit sound in context.

  7. Thanks, but not thanks.
    I didn’t like Steam from the beginning, because since today I don’t get it why it is necessary to activate games online, and why you need an online connection to play an offline game.

    I used Linux for many many years, but I don’t like the idea of a Steam OS at all, because it will bring all the Warez&Gamez scene to Linux, and with them, all the virus, trojan and botnet stuff will follow.

    1. i’m worried about viruses as well. i hhaven’t had any issues since switching to linux, but i assumed that was because there’s no market for viruses with linux users… but because of that linux has pretty shitty protection, or that’s what it seems like. so… however awesome steam OS is going to be… we’re gonna have to make better castle walls to protect our library tardis magic boxes that connect to sattelites and bring us the wonders of the internet, better even than a magic lamp with a genie could do. the viruses are coming. let’s prepare while we can.

      1. I thought Linux had pretty good protection, due to being based on Unix. Security and access levels are built in all the way down. In Windows, it’s all added on the top. An elaborate suite of sticking plasters for sailing a sieve.

        A lot of that goes out of the window if you’re root, but no game really needs to run as root. As long as OpenGL or whatever else has quick access to the hardware, and that can still be done properly and securely. I admit I don’t know the details of how it’s implemented.

        That’s another problem with Windows, so many normal apps claim to need to run as an admin. Perhaps it’s bad design by the app writers, perhaps the OS forces things that way.

        The reasoning you mention is thought to be the reason why there are no Mac viruses. Because once you’ve paid the enormous price for one, you don’t *want* there to be viruses on it. Even tho historically Mac OS was pretty much a heap of every Insanely Great idea of last year piled on top of each other. People just didn’t write Mac viruses. And I suppose their existence in isolated islands meant there wasn’t as much promiscuous disk-swapping to spread them.

        It’s possible for Valve to design a secure OS. I dunno what their plan is for existing PCs tho, PC users aren’t going to install a new OS just to play games.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.