The Steam Controller hasn’t been relevant for years, but it’s back in the news again. SCUF is suing Valve for allegedly — and knowingly — infringing on its patents for video game controllers when it designed the Steam Controller. A jury trial began this week in New York, and the case has already gotten pretty wild.
SCUF’s lawsuit against Valve is the first patent jury trial in New York to be conducted via Zoom, according to Law360, and as a result things have already gotten pretty entertaining. Firstly, because this is a jury trial, both sides were able to get involved in jury selection.
Jury selection typically involves screening out various biases and leveraging others to get members who are more likely to favour your particular argument. But because we’re talking about video games, and video game controllers specifically, the jury selection process was a little different for this case.
For instance, both SCUF and Valve’s lawyers opted to exclude one person from being a juror after they revealed this fact about their gaming habits:
Both sides agreed to excuse one woman after she said her husband plays video games up to 12 hours a day, but that she never does, is “absolutely against” ever letting her daughter play and didn’t know if she could be impartial in a case about video games.
Another person excluded by SCUF’s lawyers included a man who said he owned 4 of Valve’s Steam Controllers and spent several hours a day gaming.
Apart from having to outline the logistics of things like using Zoom’s breakout rooms so the jurors could have some private space, the jurors are also receiving a Steam Controller each for their troubles. The idea, according to the court, is so that each of the 8 jurors can have the controller in their hands while witnesses are testifying.
It should also help illuminate — or debunk — the cornerstone principle that SCUF is suing Valve over. In its opening arguments, SCUF said they warned Valve that a prototype of the Steam Controller (shown in 2014) featured “rear-side control surfaces” which SCUF had just patented.
The controller was shown off at CES 2014, and SCUF CEO Duncan Ironmonger wrote to Valve warning them a couple of months later that the Steam Controller was in violation of SCUF’s patent. As an added bit of detail, it’s worth noting that SCUF’s patent for “rear-side control surfaces” has been licensed by Microsoft, which uses rear-side paddles for its Xbox Elite premium gamepads.
“Valve did know that its conduct involved an unreasonable risk of infringement, but it simply proceeded to infringe anyway,” SCUF’s lawyers argued.
To the absolute surprise of no-one, Valve is arguing that the Steam Controller’s design doesn’t fit SCUF’s patent. The way the Steam Controller’s rear paddles merge into the battery cover, according to Valve’s counsel, are different to SCUF’s design which calls for “elongate members” that “inherently resilient and flexible such that it can be displaced by a user to activate control function”.
“Preferably, each elongate member is mounted within a respective recess located in the case of the controller,” SCUF’s patent says. “Preferably, each elongate member comprises an outermost surface which is disposed in close proximity to the outermost surface of the controller such that the user’s finger may be received in said respective recess. Preferably, each elongate member has a thickness less than 10 mm thick, more preferably less than 5 mm thick, and most desirably between 1 mm and 3 mm.”
Amongst all of this, it’s worth reminding everyone that the Steam Controller is no more. Valve stopped manufacturing the controller in 2019, four years after the device first went on sale. It was highly customisable, particularly as Steam’s controller support gained maturity. But using two haptic pads in place of analog sticks never really took off, and as the case notes, Valve only sold 1.6 million of the controllers over its lifecycle.
There’s been no word yet on whether SCUF are going to mail the 8 jurors some of their own controllers for comparison. Or whether anyone’s going to hook them up with a mini-Pile of Shame so they can actually test any of these claims. Jurors are generally supposed to stay off the internet during a trial, but that might be a bit hard when the whole case is being conducted through Zoom chats and meeting rooms.
The case continues.