Valve’s new Steam controller is a bold experiment: an attempt at fusing a PC mouse with a traditional console-style controller. It still hasn’t entirely clicked with me.
[This post originally ran on 10/15/15. It’s been updated with some more impressions, brought about by The Inexorable Passage Of Time. The Steam controller officially launched today.]
This isn’t to say it’s a bad piece of hardware. Some flimsy triggers and uncomfortable button positions aside, it’s weighty, responsive, and—for the most part—ergonomic. It feels well-made. The haptic pads—the big owl eye-looking touch pads on the left and right sides of the controller—rumble precisely where your finger is when interacted with, and they’re hyper customizable via a menu you can bring up any time by pressing the big Steam button in the center of the controller. But like any new controller, the Steam controller has been hurled into a living room war with my Xbox and PlayStation controllers—which I’ve had for years—and the traditional mouse and keyboard setup, which is what cavemen used to headshot and teabag woolly mammoths.
Comparatively, one week is not a lot of time for me to acclimate. I’m still getting used to it; here’s how it’s going so far (now with my impressions after a whole month at the bottom).
The FedEx guy drops off my Steam hardware, and I resist the temptation to call him Santa Claus to his face. I open the controller box first, where I find the controller, a wireless USB connector, and some simple instructions. I pop a couple batteries into the controller, plug the USB in my PC, and I’m good to go. It should be noted that this is pretty standard for all the Steam hardware (e.g. Steam Link, the Alienware Steam Machine) I’ve received. It’s straightforward and plainly explained. It takes between ten and fifteen minutes to get everything plugged in, updated, and ready to play—a far cry from the perceived complication of traditional PC gaming. Unfortunately, everything that comes after that is exceedingly fiddly and complex, soooooo yeah.
The first game I try with the controller is Cryptark, a sidescrolling roguelite action game with 360 degree aiming. It should be the perfect test, what with the controller-friendly nature of sidescrollers and the advantage a mouse-type interface will give me with that type of aiming.
But I end up having some—shall we say—trouble. Try as I might, I can never get the Steam controller’s right haptic pad to position my aim reticle where I want it. The haptic pad’s rumbling is responsive and helps me keep track of where my finger is, but my reticle always ends up a little off. On top of that, I find that—by default—not all of my attacks have been mapped to the Steam controller. I have to go into the menu and do it manually. It’s not super difficult, but it is mildly annoying. Eventually, I switch to my mouse-and-keyboard, my trusty sword (and gun and grenade and gnarled wizard hand) and board. Instantly, I become substantially better at the game.
With my typical workday winding down, I decide to indulge in a little Mad Max, a quick, dumb way to blow off some steam. By and large, the experience with my new controller is alright, but something feels off. I realize that I can’t walk or run and maneuver the game’s camera at the same time. One supersedes the other, something I’m certain didn’t happen when I was playing with an Xbox controller.
I pop open the Steam controller menu and find that—again, by default—the game is using a configuration that treats the controller’s right haptic pad like a mouse.
For whatever reason, that prevents aiming and moving from playing nice with each other. I pick the premade gamepad template, which treats the right haptic pad like a joystick instead of a mouse.
That solves the problem, but at the expense of some of the precision and speed I was getting from the mouse-style camera. I try customizing that setup to match the feeling of the previous one, but I just can’t find the sweet spot. There are a tons of options, and it’s tough to tell exactly what is doing what. Eventually, I settle for something functional, but not optimal.
On the upside, Valve is encouraging players to create and upload their own custom configurations on a per-game basis. The best ones will end up in the “recommended” section. In theory, that means you’ll barely have to agonize over your own control configuration at all. On paper, that’s perfect—a brilliant solution to a thousand-headed hydra of a problem. Right now, however, hardly anybody has Steam controllers, so there aren’t many user-made configurations.
I decide to try out a cursor-driven strategy game, to see how the controller functions with games that aren’t so living-room-friendly. I settle on Civilization V, and it feels really nice. Removed from the high-stress environment of a fast-twitch action game, I’m able to better come to grips with the haptic pad. Before long, I have my first moment where I forget I’m using the Steam controller altogether. It feels natural.
For a bit.
After about 30 minutes, my thumb decides to helpfully remind me this ain’t natural. My thumb is aching, throbbing in the crook area opposite my thumb weenus. I realize that I tend to bend my thumb when using the Steam controller instead of relaxing it. I try laying it flat, but my overall accuracy and ability to make the cursor go where I want go way down. It’s a conundrum. A painful conundrum.
First-person shooter time. I pick Shadow Warrior because a) it doesn’t require me to be super precise with my aim all the time (thank you, swords) and b) I’m always looking for an excuse to play more Shadow Warrior. I find a control setup that treats the right haptic pad like a mouse while not interfering with my movement, and I find that I’m pretty capable right off the bat.
Foremost, this is because control setups that simulate the mouse tend to use the haptic circle’s inner area, as opposed to joystick setups which drastically reduce the sensitivity of that zone so you can be a bit more reckless. I end up feeling way more at ease with super tight controls, though, and I actually use a revolver to pop off a few headshots I probably wouldn’t have been able to pull off with my Xbox pad.
Another thing I notice—and I think I like, but I’m not sure yet, I’m still getting used to it—is that my ability to jump is mapped to the controller’s left grip. Yes, on the Steam controller the grips are also buttons. In practical terms, this means I don’t have to move my finger from the right haptic pad to press A and jump. I can just squeeze with my left hand.
My thumb still ends up hurting afterward, though, and I get into a few firefights where I feel like my crappy shooting transformed some bargain bin baddy into Neo from The Matrix.
I try another shooter, Bedlam, and my aim troubles get even worse:
(No, those aren’t real people talking in the video, thankfully.)
I decide to take The Witcher 3 for a spin because I’ve been meaning to get back into it for months after initially finding myself locked in a romance with Triss and being like, “MY GERALT wouldn’t have done it that way if he’d known. Gah! The nerve.”
I end up having a handful of issues with this one. Initially the controller hardly works with the game at all: It only allows me to pivot the camera for some reason. I have to reset. It actually works on the second go-’round, but the best control configuration I can find (gamepad with high precision aim) creates this weird lag spike every time I move the camera. It’s not game-breaking, but it’s a pain.
Otherwise, it’s a decent enough experience. I play until 3 AM, because, you know, The Witcher.
Menus! I decide to navigate some sleek, sexy, thrilling-as-a-tsunami-having-a-heart-attack menus. As I wrote previously, Steam Big Picture Mode recently received an overhaul that’s made it way more functional. It’s still a bit clunky, but it’s getting there. Navigating it with the Steam controller is mostly straightforward, though I wish there was an option to do it with the right haptic pad functioning as a mouse rather than only the joystick.
Also, typing is unexpectedly great. You use both haptic circles and the triggers—circles to maneuver across the left and right sides of the keyboard, respectively, and triggers to make selections. It looks like this:
I already much prefer it to any other means of typing with a controller I’ve tried. That said, it does sometimes feel like I have to reach uncomfortably far on the haptic circle to reach the keyboard’s outer edges. Again, paaaaaain.
I decide to stay up super late playing The Witcher again before a long day of writing about Steam stuff. Because I hate myself.
I’m not 100 percent on board with the Steam controller yet. I think given time to acclimate on my end and more user-made control configurations for the lion’s share of games, it could certainly evolve into something neat and, hopefully, less fiddly and complicated. Will it become my go-to gamepad? I’m not sure. Will it replace my mouse-and-keyboard altogether? Hell no. But that was never its intended purpose.
I’ll be honest: for the first week after I shared my initial Steam controller impressions, I could barely bring myself to use the damn thing. The prospect of feeling like a foreigner in my own (virtual) body simply did not appeal. Moreover, on a couple occasions when I did decide to use it, I couldn’t find good control options for my games, and half of the important buttons ended up un-mapped.
However, time has significantly improved my perception of Valve’s Frankenstein mad science mega-gizmo. For one, people have added a lot more controller configurations, some of which feel smooth as silk slathered in butter, then immortalized in an 18-minute jazz ballad. Second, I discovered the option to add a subtle (yet, in some cases, essential) motion control effect to my control schemes. This allows me to compensate for my still, um, nascent haptic pad aiming skills with quick flicks of the controller itself. It’s a bit like having auto-aim enabled, only I’m in control of it, if that makes any sense whatsoever. Third, I’ve just gotten a little more acclimated to the thing—the feel of the haptic pads, the positioning of the buttons (though they’re still too far from everything else), etc.
That said, I still don’t feel entirely like I’ve become One With The Machine yet. It’s been a month, and I still sometimes have to think—have to waste precious milliseconds lobbing conscious brain signals at my joints and fingertips—before everything comes together. That in itself is troubling. Even if the Steam controller holds more potential than traditional game controllers (I’m almost certain it does), I feel like only a handful of people will stick around for the entire marathon run preceding this initial hurdle. Valve sure seems to be hoping this thing will help bring PC gaming and the living room closer together—take them from awkward small talk to an achingly romantic proposal on a summer gondola in Venice—but I worry that the barrier to entry is too high for it to catch on. Maybe I’m too used to traditional controllers, though. Maybe people without controller-calloused hands and tastes would find the Steam controller more intuitive. I don’t know yet.
I wish I had something more definitive to say. Let’s end on this: do I recommend that you buy a Steam controller right now? No, not really. The hardware’s still early and, in some ways, physically uncomfortable. I won’t be surprised if we see a slightly tweaked second iteration sooner rather than later. On top of that, while many games have a plethora of custom control options at this point, many others don’t. This is almost a textbook case of new hardware syndrome. Watch and wait. The Steam controller—customizable and potentially precise as it is—could grow into something truly special in the coming months and years. It’s just not quite there yet.
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