PAX East 15: Alienware Gets Steamy
Let’s just get it out of the way: the Steam controller looks weird. It’s got a concave design, a circular touchpad on the right, a clicky round touchpad with some semblance of directional buttons on the left, and face buttons that feel just a touch out of reach. But hey, if this controller can establish Valve’s lofty goal of bringing PC gaming to the console-loving masses, who cares how it looks right?
More than a year after its official announcement and a few design revisions later, the Steam controller has finally been revealed in its final form. Though originally intended for a 2014 release, the controller—along with Valve’s Steam operating system specifically designed for a line of “Steam machines”—are now due out in late 2015. As a result, the first of these machines, Dell’s Alienware Alpha, launched in 2014 with an Xbox 360 controller and a modified Windows 8 overlay, with the caveat that the machine would be fully compatible with all things Steam once Valve was ready to launch them. Appropriately enough, it was on the Alpha that I got my first experience with the Steam controller last weekend.
The Alienware booth at PAX East was densely packed all weekend; with gaming laptops, desktops, and Steam machines on display, gamers eagerly waited in line to try out some high-end hardware. On top of the Alienware Alpha, Dell was showing off the Area-51, an absolute beast of a machine ranging from a modest $1,699.99 to $5,349.99 (the priciest model features dual NVIDIA Titan graphics with an incredible 24GB graphics memory). While I could appreciate the aesthetic, raw power, and purpose of Alienware’s heavyweight (literally—the Area-51 weighs over 60 pounds), I’m a console gamer at heart—a computer that costs more than a down payment for a car is probably never going to be an option for me. The Alienware Alpha, on the other hand, is much more affordable—more than an Xbox One or PS4, but less than a high-end PC. The system I used was running The Talos Principle smoothly. I had never played it before today, so I went in blind on all fronts; it was my first time experiencing the system, controller, and game.
At first, the Steam controller feels as weird as it looks. The concave grip, touchpads, and offset buttons are going to take longer to get used to than an average console controller, and certainly more time than I was afforded in my short demo. As The Talos Principle is a first-person game, I used the right touchpad to move the camera around, which worked similar to mouse controls on a traditional PC game. It felt a little different, probably because it was so sensitive—I barely had to use any force to get the camera jerking in any direction. Eventually I got the hang of moving the camera and my character (using the solo thumbstick) at the same time, though if I got my hands on it again I’d probably want to change the sensitivity settings.
What I didn’t want to get used to, however, was the feeling of motion sickness I got after a few minutes of The Talos Principle. It was a mild case, to be fair, but that’s not an issue I had ever experienced in a first-person game before. I don’t know if this is a common issue or I was moving the camera too jerkily, but something about it just did not agree with me.
The other issue I had with the controller is that the face buttons, as previously mentioned, felt just a little off. I don’t mean individually—they’re as responsive as most controllers’ buttons—but their location was just slightly removed from where I instinctively put my fingers. In fact, not knowing where to put my hands could sum up a lot of the Steam controller’s problems. When I grip a DualShock or Xbox controller, I instinctively know what to do: index fingers on triggers, thumbs on thumbsticks, buttons and D-pads within easy reach. Here, that wasn’t the case, and I kept hitting the wrong button or missing it entirely. With the game up and running the entire time, I didn’t really get to mess around with the Steam operating system, but a quick press of the home button (complete with that familiar icon) brought up an overlay that looked like a streamlined version of the digital distribution system you’re probably used to.
My time with the first official Steam Machine didn’t exactly convince me to set aside my systems and make room in my entertainment center for one of Valve’s console/computer hybrids. The Steam controller has some innovative functions, and I always love seeing something new in the gaming space, but I’m still not entirely sure if there’s a huge market for Valve’s hardware collaborations. PC gamers like their mouse-and-keyboard set-ups and enjoy building computers from scratch (or at least picking higher-end specs than the Alpha offers); console gamers don’t really need a computer in the living room when they already have at least one system with its own controller hooked up to the television.
I’m sure there are some in-betweeners with disposable income that wouldn’t mind having a pre-built gaming computer hooked up to a massive high-def display, but even within that market I’m not sure if the Steam controller would be preferable to the more traditional one. Valve has months to convince me otherwise before the controller and OS hit the market in November, but as of now, I’m not sadly not sold on Steam hardware.