Steam Controller & VR Gives a Hint About Valve’s Working Principle


Valve Corporation,  based in Bellevue, Washington, United States as most gamers know, is a game developing and video game retailing company founded by former Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, to innovate and go out of the box, to deliver a whole new experience for gamers. They started by creating the famous Half-Life. Valve noticed that how people like gamers and tech experts reacted to this new dawn of gaming and a lot of dedicated gamers and modders reshaped the title, giving birth to the revolutionary multiplayer first person shooter Counter-Strike. Since then Valve understood the potential of involving such people and the power of innovation. Valve published Counter Strike and as we know, that came out great, and has given gamers and modders opportunity to further rework the game, which is going well too. Valve also started online games marketplace for PC, and it turned out to be the largest gaming marketplace today. All these proves that Valve has this tendency to be slightly ahead. Now, as we all know that steam has announced their new Steam Controller and Vive VR headsets which are to hit the market soon, clearly entering the hardware industry. So if Steam enters hardware Industry, something interesting, a new surprise might be waiting for all the gamers out there, as history has proven that Valve never did anything just like that. So, we’ll try to get an hint about how valve works and also, how the future will come around for these new gizmos.

Launched in November last year with the new range of Steam Machine PCs, this innovative piece of controller has two large HD haptic track pads, a single analogue thumbstick and an array of buttons (including two on the inside edges of the pad’s handles), the Steam Controller is designed to bring the precision controls of the mouse and keyboard combo to a handheld form for the ease of PC gamers who find it difficult to adjust to most controllers. Each of the touch pads, features haptic feedback, allowing you to sense the location of your thumb on the screen, much like the touchpad of laptops.


While many of the gamers were interested in the controllers, very few actually believe that this is the future of control devices. Also the steam machine PCs (Which Valve doesn’t make, only provides feature sets for) are overpriced to most gamers out there. So we dug into this matter to see what valve saw in this controller, given that valve have rarely seen failures and they’re good with their ideas in the long run.

We have gathered a few conversations from eminent members of Valve from the Guardian, which has been chatting with Valve, picking up ideas about Valve’s mentality behind the Steam Controller and Vive.

“We had this really interesting challenge,” says Robin Walker, an experienced coder who have been with the development team for the Steam Controller for three years, since it’s inception. “We had to find this design that worked for the largest library of games that any device has ever attempted to deal with, but at the same time it had to be somewhat future-proof. One of the great things about the PC is that this is where all the innovation is happening, whether that’s virtual reality or new business models. We don’t know what’s going to happen next but we want to have a controller that can survive whatever the next steps are.” Walker continues, “At any point in our history the thing that was being the most successful from a business perspective at some point was the thing that made no sense if you looked at it from a pure accounting perspective,” says Walker. “It takes cultural effort to make sure we don’t fall into an easier way of thinking. It’s scary to say ‘I want to work on this thing and other people want to work on it too, but we don’t know if it’ll make more money’. It’s certainly scarier than thinking ‘I’m going to work on that thing because it’s making a lot of money and I can add another percent’. The problem is, if you take that approach, it kills our company within some number of years.”

Walker continued about the game compatibility with the controller, “We had to build a system that allowed you to configure a controller to handle all these old games while also letting you play new games in a different way,” says Walker. “We wanted to make sure we supported all that at a level above the game, so it doesn’t matter what you’re playing, you get that power.”

Walker then sheds light about the key features of the working procedure of the controller, “We’re very interested in trying to make hardware more like software,” says Walker. “With a traditional controller, people think of it as a solely physical object: you build the hardware, you build a thumbstick and the thumbstick says ‘I’m being pressed right’, and that information goes to the game. But there’s actually a huge software layer that’s doing a lot of work: how you interpret and filter for things like my thumb slipping off the pad; or if you want a character to move sideways, well, the reality is no one moves their thumb perfectly horizontally, so how do you adjust for that? It’s all software work.”

Valve wanted that the hardware feels compatible too, just like it’s software “Our games are better today because we have created many channels, like Steam itself, where communities can get their hands on software and improve it,” says Walker. “A lot of the thinking behind Steam was: how does the internet make you better?”

We know that Valve is very good when it comes to giving liberty to it’s users. As already witnesses, most of the Valve games let players to customize and improve content as per their will, which is responsible for the existence of Counter-Strike, so it is not unusual that valve would give people liberty to improve on this as well, this being one of the key strength of Valve’s success over the years. “This can be the same for hardware. We have a bunch of ideas on how to create those channels – so it’s things like, you can go onto our site and download all the CAD files for the controller; you can buy all the electronic guts from us so you can build your own form factor. We could have a workshop where people upload their own form factors so if you happen to have access to a 3D printer, you can just print a controller that someone else has designed. This has already started to prove effective as YouTuber Ben Heck, who specializes in hacking and modifying hardware tools, highly modded the Steam controller. Although the mod was not the most pleasant one to do, but it worked.

Another thing that needs to be mentioned here is about the team that is responsible for the creation of this controller. What’s Valve-ish about this is that unlike most other companies, that they didn’t hire a specific prepared team to work upon this. Instead, a team was assembled in the studio itself and the work was done there only. These small things make Valve stand out.


Now, coming to the Vive VR, which Valve is developing along with HTC. Valve’s business development manager, Eric Johnson, told them: “We view VR as on the spectrum of what an open platform can end up producing. If you bought Team Fortress 2 on a console, well, that game is gone now, but it is still growing on PC. That’s not because we had some masterplan, it’s just that, on PC, we had the ability to keep taking it in whatever direction made sense to our customers. Open platforms are really important to us because we can do Steam Machines and VR and new controller designs, then just ship them and see what happens.”

He also shed light on the fact that that Valve chose to go the more expensive way to manufacture the controller: “You have a bunch of choices when you manufacture something and a lot of those are trade-offs [are] between flexibility and cost. We took the maximum flexibility choice because if we’re building hardware and we’re targeting the PC, which is this really open system, we can’t necessarily anticipate the things we’re going to need to build very far in the future.” Johnson continued about the process: “So we said, let’s build a manufacturing line that’s considerably more expensive but lets us create whatever we want in the future. That’s kind of the Valve approach. We always try to make long term decisions, and that applies to manufacturing hardware or hiring hardware people. We didn’t bring in a third-party company to solve all our hardware problems. We approached it like we approach everything else: these are our customers. We’re kind of control freaks when it comes to our customers. Hopefully in a good way.”

From all this, we can conclude that Valve remains a company of geeks, who are at the peak of their respective skill sets and use them very effectively to bring out new things that would just redefine the margins. Sounds Valve-ish right? Despite controlling the most dominant PC games distribution out there, making a revenue of roughly $1.5 billion annually, it is still experimenting and toying with the industry like creating models out of play-dough. Vive, like the Steam Controller, may as well become a very expensive gadget, but that certainly won’t stop Valve from what they do. After all, this is a group of very clever and skilled people who just enjoys creating new wonders.

Source: The Guardian