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Gallery Photo: Steam Controller and Steam Machine press pictures
Gallery Photo: Steam Controller and Steam Machine press pictures

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We play with the Steam Machine, Valve's game console of the future

Can the company behind 'Half-Life' build hardware worthy of the TV?

Valve Corporation, the video game developer responsible for Half-Life, Portal, Team Fortress, and the digital distribution platform Steam, has an ambitious plan to reinvent the video game console. But don’t expect the so-called Steam Machine to take on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 quite yet. Right now, the company is focused on catching the attention of 65 million PC gamers who've historically turned to expensive custom rigs in the name of high-FPS entertainment — and it just might have a shot at that.

Last month, Valve invited us to its Bellevue, Washington headquarters to see one of the very first Steam Machines in action, try the Steam Controller, and obtain further insight into the company's plans.

Here’s what we learned there.

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The Steam Box

Valve will ship 300 prototype Steam Machines to beta testers this year, and there's nothing particularly special about their specs. That’s kind of the point, though: the first Steam Machine is a computer that can fit bog standard parts just like a full-size gaming rig, and yet fit into your entertainment center. Valve's steel and aluminum chassis measures just over 12 inches on a side and is 2.9 inches tall, making it a little bigger than an Xbox 360 and smaller than any gaming PC of its ilk. And yet the box manages to fit a giant Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan graphics card and a full desktop CPU — and keep those parts quiet and cool — without cramming them in like a jigsaw puzzle.

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The secret is actually quite simple, it turns out: Valve designed the case so the parts can breathe individually. The CPU blows air out the top, the power supply out the side, and the graphics card exhaust out back, and none share any airspace within the case.

That might sound like common sense, but it’s remarkably hard to find a case that does so while still making it easy to drop components in. Here, the key component responsible for dividing those three zones is a simple plastic shroud which unscrews in a jiffy. The box we touched was already surprisingly cool and quiet, but Valve's still tweaking the design: we saw Valve printing a couple of the shrouds as we walked through its rapid prototyping lab.

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The Steam Controller

The box isn't the primary thing that Valve's prototyping, though. While the company's Xbox-sized gaming PC is only a model to inspire hardware partners, Valve tells us it will produce and sell the Steam Controller all by itself.

For the past two years, the company's been trying to design an input device with the precision of a mouse and keyboard, but the versatility of a gamepad. Valve wanted something that would work in the living room, but would also support virtual reality and wearable computing down the road. Valve designer Greg Coomer says that starting out, the question was open-ended: "Clearly a mouse and keyboard isn't going to be the right thing for someone wearing a computer around, so what should we build?" the team asked itself.

The answer wasn't immediately clear.

The team walked me through a succession of over a dozen different prototypes, starting with a crazy magnetic break-apart Xbox 360 controller with Wii-like motion controls for both hands, buttons behind each finger, and an embedded trackball, of all things.

Though PC manufacturers largely abandoned trackballs years ago — BlackBerry phased them out in 2010 — Valve found it an excellent alternative to a mouse. "The trackball became the thing that we spent a lot of time developing," says Coomer. The team tried small trackballs, then bigger trackballs ("Higher mass means you get more momentum and a little more area to play with… you get finer grain control") then pushed the trackball all the way through the controller to expose the back of the ball as well. "You could spin it, grab it, stop it … free your thumb on this side while still moving the ball on the other side," the team says.

"We wanted to move input forward for the PC."

Originally, Valve wanted to revolutionize PC input, but it soon realized it needed to focus on a much more fundamental goal: simply getting the library of existing Steam games to work with a new controller. To do that, the company needed a way to make many PC gaming functions possible on a controller without the 104 keys a keyboard affords. Early on, the team decided to go with a touchscreen that could virtualize those keys instead of adding more buttons. "For all of Valve's existence, we've been a software company, and we wanted as much as possible to have control over the input experience through software," Coomer explains.

Then, the team decided they wanted the same kind of control over the trackball… but that proved impossible. "You can't ship a software update to change the diameter of the ball or the mass or anything."

"At some point we said 'screw this, let's make all the buttons a touch surface.'"

From there, design evolved organically. The trackball made way for a trackpad, which could be programmed not just to emulate a mouse, but also support gesture control. One trackpad became two (and two became a giant touch surface before Valve came to its senses). Valve added tiny solenoid actuators to provide haptic feedback. The entire shape of the controller went concave so the fleshy base of a user's thumbs wouldn't interfere with the touchpads.

What Valve left out of the Steam Controller is almost as intriguing as what went in. Though Valve co-founder Gabe Newell told us that the company wanted to put biometric sensors into game controllers, the team discovered that hands weren't a good source of biofeedback since they were always moving around. However, the team hinted to me — strongly — that an unannounced future VR headset might measure your body's reaction to games at the earlobe. Such a device could know when you’re scared or excited, for instance, and adjust the experience to match.

Another prototype controller also had a detachable "handheld input communication and computing core" instead of the touchpads, which you could insert into racing wheels and other peripherals as well. "I think we might come back to that someday," says Coomer.

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The test

What Valve wound up with — the controller it will actually ship with Steam Machines — isn't quite complete. The consumer version, a wireless touchscreen model, won't be available until next year. But I did get to try a prototype with a wired USB cable and four buttons in place of the touchscreen, and I have to say: those touchpads are pretty wild.

I tried Portal 2, Trine 2, and Metro: Last Light using the controller, and I must admit the controls weren't immediately intuitive. Pressing buttons on the back of the controller to jump, for instance, felt pretty unnatural after spending decades using my thumbs. It was also rather disorienting to have my character move as soon as I moved my left thumb the slightest amount, since I've become accustomed to resting them on an analog stick or the WASD keys of a keyboard. It also felt pretty weird to have my thumbs pulsate with haptic feedback as they moved around.

A learning curve, but crowdsourced controls could help

But it wasn't that the controls didn't work well, they were simply unfamiliar. The touchpads are surprisingly accurate, and they make first-person shooters and other mouse-friendly games far more accessible than any analog stick can afford. You can sweep your thumb across the pad to turn on your heel, then move it a tiny bit more to line up a headshot without having to compensate for a joystick's return motion. You can push a thumb to the very edge of the pad to keep moving continuously. You can even use both touchpads simultaneously in cursor-driven games to move the mouse cursor faster than with either alone.

And importantly, you won't have to settle for default generic controls or painstakingly figure out which keys should bind to which buttons by yourself. Valve is crowdsourcing controller profiles for every Steam game, allowing players to vote up the best sets of controls, and it's simple to tweak them afterwards as well. When I found that the left trackpad was too sensitive in Portal 2, I simply turned it down.

As far as performance is concerned, Valve's Steam Machine with SteamOS certainly seemed up to snuff, at least with these high-end components. The team switched between a Windows and SteamOS box halfway through our demo, and I couldn't tell the difference.

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What's next

After a short demo, I got an opportunity to ask my burning questions about where all of this is going.

First, circle January on your calendar. That's when the other shoe will drop; Valve's hardware and software partners will reveal the actual Steam Machines that will ship to consumers, and the games that will come to the Linux platform, at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show.

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There will be a number of different Steam Machine boxes on sale in 2014, and Valve expects them to arrive mid-year. Some of those boxes will be far smaller and / or cheaper than Valve's own prototype unit. "You can get far smaller, and that's what many OEMs are doing… I think it's safe to say less than a quarter of the size," the team told me.

Of course, when they get to that size, they won’t be using full-size graphics cards any more. Intel's integrated graphics are a possibility there: "We're super interested in Iris Pro." When I ask whether Intel or AMD might make special chips to bring down the price of truly powerful integrated graphics, the room goes quiet for a moment. "We don’t have an answer that we can give you before January," the team answers.

The Steam Controller has a gyroscope, it turns out, one which Valve plans to enable in a software update to add motion control. The company will be shipping an API for games that uses the controller's touchpads and touchscreen natively when it rolls out the prototype units, and all of Valve's own game development teams are already integrating support into their games.

But don't expect Valve to make Half-Life 3 exclusive to SteamOS to help lift the Linux-based operating system off the ground. "It's against our philosophy to put a game in jail and say it only works on Steam Machines," says Valve's Doug Lombardi. Even though the company locked Half-Life 2 to Steam years ago, the team appears to have thought better of that decision. "That may or may not have been a good idea given the condition Steam was in at the moment."

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Even without exclusive Valve games, though, SteamOS might have more support than you'd expect. Valve's Anna Sweet says she started talking to partners about Linux three years ago, and games will be surprisingly easy to build. "If you're using the Unity engine, you're already done… if you've done a Mac game, you're most of the way there."

When I ask whether Steam Machines will have a dedicated hardware specification, the team reveals that they're working on something a little more elegant: a system built into Steam that shows you which games your hardware configuration can actually run, and conversely, what hardware you'd need to buy to play a given game well — based on the real-world data about computer configurations that Valve already collects with its Steam Hardware Survey.

"It's one of these places where Steam is particularly and perhaps uniquely positioned to be able to actually help customers… we're sitting at the nexus of these hardware specs, so we can harvest data about what's going on, and repeat it back in a digestible form to every Steam user who cares," Coomer explains. Valve says it hasn't hammered out all the details yet, but it plans to launch such a feature next year.

Valve might be building its own VR headset, but it's also thinking of leveraging Steam to help the lauded Oculus Rift virtual reality headgear get the software traction it needs. "We've been talking to Oculus pretty extensively… about how we can help them with Steam."

Last but not least, SteamOS won't just be about games: the company plans to add other services for video and music playback. "However, we are not planning support for spreadsheets," quips Lombardi.

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Wrap-up

We left Valve's headquarters with the biggest, most important questions unanswered — questions that will determine whether the Steam Machine could legitimately challenge game consoles from Sony and Microsoft. Valve wouldn't tell me who the company's hardware and software partners are, what Steam Machines or the Steam Controller will cost, or which killer games might make the Linux-based SteamOS an attractive Windows alternative.

But over the course of my visit, Valve made it clear that's not the point quite yet. The team is focused on serving its existing PC customers above all else, and doing it in a relaxed fashion. "We've been speaking as if it's a foregone conclusion that everyone wants to be in the living room. That's not true, and it's great that that's not true," says Coomer. "There's a little bit of consternation around our most dedicated customers that we might try to shuttle them into a different room in the house. That's not what we're trying to do at all."

Speaking as one of those dedicated customers, I can say that what Valve has built is fairly intriguing even right now: one of the most attractive and customizable miniature computer cases ever built, and a controller with the precision — if not the feel — of a mouse. Valve admits that it has "a lot to accomplish over the next year or two" to prove that its efforts have been worthwhile, but I'm already excited for the Steam Controller. I can hardly wait till January to see what Valve’s partners have been cooking.

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