Valve has been in the software business for a long time, and they've gotten pretty good at it. In 2014, the PC gaming giant will be launching their first official piece of hardware: The decidedly odd, innovative Steam Controller. What will happen when a company steeped in software releases their first piece of hardware? No one—including the people making the controller—is quite sure.
On Tuesday, I flew in to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to attend a brief Valve event dedicated to their new Steam Machines initiative. The event took place at a rooftop bar at the Palms hotel; it was all very purple and generally looked like this:
During a brief presentation, Valve head Gabe Newell unveiled 13 Steam Machines prototypes from various third-party developers. Also on hand were several of the Valve-designed Steam Machine prototypes, complete with prototype controllers, both of which have already been sent out to 300 beta testers.
It was my first chance to try out Valve's interesting, thumbstick-less controller, and I came away intrigued:
It's a funky piece of tech, and I get the sense that I'd need a few days to get used to it. In place of the expected thumbsticks, the Steam Controller has two touchpads that look like the world's smallest DJ turntables. The touchpads offer haptic feedback, so you can feel them rumbling and almost rolling under your thumbs. In use, the controller actually feels a bit more like a stationary trackball-mouse, rather than a traditional game controller or even a laptop trackpad.
The Steam Controller doesn't appear to be designed to replace the traditional Xbox/PS3-style controller for which most current controller-based games are designed; rather, it's Valve's attempt to build a device that can play mouse/keyboard PC games on a living room TV. Newell says that Valve is still deciding whether they want to make their own in-house Steam Machine PC, which means that at this point the Steam Controller is the only hardware they're officially working on with plans to release.
Shortly after Newell's presentation, I had a chance to chat with Valve industrial designer Claire Gottschalk—who tells me her last name translates literally to "Lamb of God," awesomely—about the ongoing, challenging process of designing the Steam Controller and the uncertain territory Valve is entering as they make their way toward the controller's launch later this year.
Kotaku: As Valve set about making the Steam Machine prototype and controller prototype that you recently sent out to beta users, what have you learned about making hardware?
Claire Gottschalk: It's definitely a very organic process. At Valve, it really all comes back to the user, and the user's needs. So, we do a ton of experimentation and we iterate very rapidly. I'd say the core hardware team is probably about six people. So it's like a black ops team. Everybody's very good at what they do, very good at communicating and respectful of each other, to make sure we don't step on each other's toes.
We've found that's really the best way to be able to iterate really quickly, that that interpersonal component is just as important as your skills. And so for a long time, with a controller especially, in my personal opinion the controller is much more difficult to develop than the console, because you're working with human interaction and ergonomics and human factors and input.
What's your process like, in terms of iteration and redesign?
We build stuff very quickly; we have working prototypes in a couple of days. Pretty much every other morning we just sit and chat and talk about all the stuff on our minds and how we think we can push it forward. We don't like [job] titles, but we have mechanical engineers, we have electrical engineers, we have machinists, we have UI experts, and we have industrial designers. Those are probably the people working on [the controller]. And you're talking to the industrial designer. So I'm probably the least technical, but more attuned towards user interaction and usability.
(Photo of unreleased controller prototypes via Seattle Times)
This will be the first time Valve has shipped hardware. So far it seems like you're taking a very iterative, software-like approach to it, doing constant revisions and getting a lot of user feedback. But when it comes down to it, you're going to have to ship a physical object that you can't just update by pushing out a new software revision. Does that make you feel pressure to get it perfect?
Well, not pressure. I find… it's probably just my personality, but I'm more fascinated by how this is really gonna play out. Because it is absolutely as you say, a very software-centric approach to iteration. And it's like, yeah, we can't hit an update button.
…and just push a fix out and give everybody a new controller.
Yes. But we can absolutely hit a button and produce three hundred of them, or a thousand, or a couple of thousand. However, the market doesn't like waiting for that. Especially when you involve partners, and they have their own schedules and their own deadlines, and they want to ship with a controller that works.
It's tricky for consumers, because when people buy something, and they own it… and then you issue a new version of it and suddenly they have the inferior version. That can make people mad. And you can't just issue a mass-recall or freely update the controller people already own.
Yeah. So just, I find just from a product development and business standpoint, it's a really interesting story in itself, how is this going to play out? I'm curious myself. I don't have the answers. Because it is a big experiment, to see how this really plays out. We will see.
But it sounds like you're generally feeling good.
All of this has happened in the past year. I've been at Valve a year and a half, and when I joined we just started working on controller prototypes. And so it's amazing see that we're developing this totally different type of input device that is still recognizable as a controller and is still reasonably usable. And launching it to a test group and getting feedback. I'm more curious on how the ecosystem will evolve, or if it will evolve. That I'm very curious about. Like, how we're gonna balance the needs of other [third party Steam Machine] partners with the development of this, and how it's a software approach to hardware. Atoms and bits are very different things.
Related to beta feedback: Earlier this evening during his presentation, Gabe Newell was saying that you guys are pushing the beta testers to give tougher feedback. [Full quote from Newell: "The beta users have been super happy, we kind of want them to tell us what's wrong. So we're kind of poking at them a little harder. Right now they're just saying this is the best thing since, you know, the beginning of time or something. So we're trying to get them to give us more, how can we iterate on this, what are the steps that we need to solve next."] How has it been, trying to get more constructive criticism from beta users?
Claire Gottschalk: It is interesting. If you look at a company like… well, I won't name any names. But there are some companies that people criticize very heavily, and they go, "This can't possibly be any good." And then with Valve, it's a strange place because there's a bit of a halo around some of this stuff, because we've always tried to produce things that we believe are the best that they can be, and that resonates on a lot of different levels.