Valve’s Steam Controller Patent: Unique Features, Possible Concerns

Thumnail on patent controller

I have mixed views on this subject, so we’ll split this in two parts: First, the controller patent itself. Second, greater ethical questions patents like this in gaming raise.

Valve has released a patent on it’s upcoming handheld PC, The Steam Deck, set to launch December this year. It is compatible with multiple docks, adaptors and controllers (including ‘Xbox and Playstation controllers, as well as the Nintendo Switch pro-controller’). Specifically, this patent is for a type of controller that works with the Steam Deck. As you can see in the more detailed picture below, we’re essentially working with a quirky-looking hybrid of an XBox and Switch pro-controller (stylistically speaking). There are also shoulder buttons each side and a more conventional joystick in the left corner, standard but effective. I prefer a nice chunky D-(pad), but I can see the merits, smooth and simple. As for placing the buttons at the lower corner where you’d usually get a second joystick, I’m cautiously optimistic. Either an awkward fiddle-fest at worst or a uniquely seamless switch between button-mashing locations at best, fingers crossed. The placement of near-identical finger-detection circles at both sides also makes me think there will likely be an option to change which half of the controller does what for different games, like an optional left-handed mode, which would be great.

The touch pads have specialized motion control features that can sense the proximity between itself and your finger during use, then translating the finger-controller positioning to in-game settings. For example, if you’re playing Fruit Ninja (or the ultimate cutting-edge technological marvel that is Tinder), swipe away and your movements will apply onscreen. There’s also potential for other interesting applications of this feature, like tying in-game commands to specific locations on the touch pads, holding the button down for different lengths of time resulting in different actions, rapid tapping vs holding down and dragging, etc. All good stuff. Not 100% unique to Valve, but still good to explore the applications of technology.

This brings us now to exploring possible concerns regarding this controller’s finger-detection features. Specifically, Valve has published a patent (on September 9th) the use of a new controller that uses this motion technology with the more common style of handheld controller. When I first heard of this feature being patented, it reminded me much of the Nemesis System patent controversy with Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment, expertly covered by YouTube’s gaming non-binary finery of gaming commentary, The Jimquisition.

To summarise: The Nemesis System is a gaming feature that functionally speaking, means that major NPCs and enemies have a memory of their interactions with the player. So in Shadow of War/Mordor, whenever you get beaten by a random Orc, that Orc will get some of your items and cockily mock you the next time you roll up to his camp for some sweet sweet “revengeance“. On it’s own, that is one very fun way of incorporating it into a gameplay loop, but it could just as easily be interestingly implemented into, say, a dating sim where the player’s choices and actions towards different characters yields different outcomes. Unfortunately, that system will never have the opportunity for indie creatives to experiment with its applications because Warner Bros patented the Nemesis System. Meaning, no one outside that company is allowed to use it.

And going even further back than that, in preparation for this video, I found that Bandai Namco was also guilty of this, having patented the concept of playable loading screens in games that didn’t expire until 2015!

I fancy myself a bit of a creative, so the thought of limiting game mechanics and types of technological implementation to single companies very much worries me. Does this mean Valve is in the exact same boat as Warner Bros? Not necessarily, it is likely possible that clever gamers could incorporate functionally similar mechanics without plagiarizing the exact same finger-detection system as Valve. With that said, it is always useful to be aware and cautious of the legal contexts surrounding video games and technology.

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