Valve has pulled back the curtains on a new game pad controller prototype, and as can be seen in the photo to the left, it is certainly a unique take on video game controllers when compared to the standard dual analog stick design gamers are used to.
The most immediately apparent aspect of the controller is the lack of analog sticks. Instead, there are two circular touch pads which are most comparable to the touch pad used in place of a mouse on most laptops. The possibilities this affords are great, as a touch pad will undeniably allow for a much greater level of accuracy.
Other than the touch pads, there is a touch screen in the middle of the controller which can be configured to function as more buttons, to go along with the four physical buttons. Unlike console controllers, the buttons are next to each of the touch pads, rather than in a group on one side of the controller.
The mere existence of such an innovative controller is very exciting, as controller design has remained fairly stagnant since the Sony introduced the DualShock controller back 1998 as a peripheral for the original PlayStation. Outside of the Wii remote, most controllers have been slight variations on Sony's tried-and-true design.
Still, it remains to be seen just how well the controller will work for different types of games. Without having felt the new controller first hand, it is impossible to know if the higher accuracy of the touch pads will offset not having the physical feedback of an analog stick. The abnormal placement of the buttons could potentially be an issue as well. On top of those issues, there's the ever-present issue of comfort, an issue that can't be addressed without physically holding the controller, though early reports are that it feels fine.
So far, Valve has mostly been touting the controller's ability to play first-person shooters and real-time strategy games. Shooters are among the most common genres in console gaming, but apart from very few examples, real-time strategy has almost no presence at all outside of PC gaming. If Valve has really figured out how to effectively map the controls of a strategy game for a controller, it could introduce an entire audience to experiences they could only find with a mouse and keyboard.
Valve is scheduled to launch a new gaming-focused operating system, sometime in 2014, and the controller is intended to launch alongside that. Perhaps not right at launch, but eventually the controller will be able to work with Steam running on existing operating systems such as Mac or PC.
There are still a number of questions surrounding the new controller. How much will it cost? Since it is just a prototype, how similar will the final product be? While Valve has released an example of how 'Portal 2' could be mapped to fit the controller, how will more complicated games like 'Battlefield 4' work with so few available buttons? These questions likely won't be answered until much closer to its release.
Even if the controller ends up being an abysmal failure, it's nice to see a developer trying new things with controller design.