The Steam Controller has had me scratching my head since it was announced near the end of 2013. Valve touted its controller as the answer to PC gaming in the living room, and it wasn’t too hard for me to believe that the PC-centric developer could make something that would outdo a traditional controller in that arena.
To me, however, Valve was pitching a solution to a problem I felt Logitech had solved three years previously with the introduction of its M570 Trackball. You see, I grew up using trackballs, and I’ve gamed on Logitech’s thumb-driven models since the Logitech Trackman Stationary Mouse made its appearance in the early ’90s. I spent even more time using the Trackman Marble and then the Logitech Trackman Wheel Optical up until the M570 came out.
I should also point out that I generally hate trackpads, and until a few years ago I’d spent almost no time with a modern dual-stick controller. My dream controller—the REvolve Controller—never came to pass. Those preferences left me feeling apprehensive about Valve’s twin-touchpad design for the Steam Controller.
Despite that apprehension, there were a few things that ultimately motivated me to pull the trigger on the Steam Controller. The first was simply that I wanted to see first-hand what the folks at Valve had actually cooked up. The second was this video from Steam Dev Days in early 2014 where Valve explained the decision to use a trackpad instead of a trackball, and the third was the great video Valve released of Steam Controllers being assembled.
I’ve used the controller for a few weeks now, and I’m still scratching my head over it. My first impressions of the controller’s build quality were positive, especially once the batteries were installed in the hand grips. The controller is balanced well and comfortable to hold. The default setup for desktop use puts the touch pads in control of your cursor and scroll wheel, the primary triggers become mouse buttons, and the paddles underneath are assigned as back and forward buttons for browsing. For the nitty-gritty details of the controller, though, I’m going to talk about the right and left sides separately.
Buttons, joysticks, trackpads, and paddles
For my right thumb, the button cluster opposite the thumb-stick isn’t comfortable for me. Pressing the A button in particular required me to stretch my thumb beyond a comfortable angle. Compared to an Xbox 360 controller, where my right thumb naturally rests right on top of the A button, it was clear from the start this was a problem I’d need to address.
It wasn’t all bad news for my right thumb. The trackpad works as advertised, and the haptic feedback from the (slightly noisy) actuators underneath is surprisingly good at making you think you’re rolling a ball instead of swiping a trackpad. This is where all those years of using a thumb-driven trackball came in handy. I had no learning curve whatsoever when it came to making quick and precise movements using the trackpad. The paddle button on the right grip feels natural to trigger with my middle and ring fingers, and it could make up for the less-than-ideal location of the A button.
The paddle button under the left-hand fingers allows for further reassignment of the right thumb buttons if you find them to be uncomfortable. The convex thumb stick cap did make my left thumb slip around some—not comically so, but enough that I was aware of it and had to reposition my thumb from time to time.
Both trackpads on the Steam Controller are clickable, but only the left one is embossed with a d-pad shape to give you a tactile awareness of where your thumb is located on the pad. In a word, I’d call the d-pad solution “serviceable.”
Setting things up
Before we delve into my gaming experiences, we should take a look at some of the controller’s configuration options. The first thing to know here is that the Steam Controller is all about Steam’s Big Picture Mode. All of the changes you’ll make to the settings and mappings happen in the Big Picture interface.
Big Picture contains a mountain of configuration options including, but not limited to, the standard templates for various game types, official profiles for specific games, community-created controller profiles, and levels of fine tuning that would impress owners of high-end motherboards. In addition to button mappings, Valve lets owners configure a variety of trackpad sensitivity, feedback, and mode options. Users that really want to get the most out of the Steam Controller will spend a lot of time in these menus.
The versatility of the hardware and software is obvious, but it’s also clear that unless a developer perfected an official profile for a game, there’s a good chance you will have to hunt around for a workable community profile or take matters into your own hands. If that sounds like a good time, Big Picture offers a consistent interface for setting up the controller, and each custom profile can be saved per-game.
To give the Steam Controller a spin, I chose four games that each use considerably different control schemes and perspectives: Rocket League, Team Fortress 2, Just Cause 3, and Helldivers.
I’ll start with Rocket League, a favorite of mine and a game I have a lot of hours into using an Xbox 360 controller. I expected this to be the most straightforward of the games I tested. Rocket League has relatively simple controls, and the Steam Controller’s layout seemed pretty similar to what I was used to. As it happened, my muscle memory backfired. The aforementioned stretch to reach the right-thumb buttons proved too much, and despite multiple attempts I just couldn’t hit the correct buttons consistently. This inaccuracy typically resulted in me using boost instead of jumping, and reliably power-sliding was completely out the window.
The mix-up between what I thought I was triggering and what actually happened in-game was so bad that it actually left me nauseous, forcing me to quit playing on multiple occasions. I’m sure this is an extreme case, but it cemented my initial impression that the location of the thumb buttons wasn’t ideal. After this experience, I looked for games that relied on those buttons a lot less.
Team Fortress 2
Next up was Team Fortress 2. As a game straight from Valve, I expected it to work great with the Steam Controller. I wasn’t disappointed. While I prefer to play TF2 with a keyboard and mouse, I found it much easier to play this game with the Steam Controller than with an Xbox 360 controller. General movement and aiming using the default settings felt good, and with no preconceived notions about what buttons should do, I was able to become fairly proficient with the game’s less finicky classes in short order.
I think it would take many hours of practice with the controller to become anything resembling competitive, though. One reason is that pulling the trigger to fire seemed to affect my aim. The way the grip of the controller sits in my palm meant that pulling the trigger caused my thumb to change position on the trackpad. That slight change in position resulted in unintentional camera movement. Maybe that issue is something I could adapt to over time, or I might also be able to address it by adjusting sensitivity settings, but I think it’s worth noting. Also worth noting is that the traditional controls of the Xbox 360 controller avoid this problem entirely. Overall, the Steam Controller would still be my pick for TF2.
Just Cause 3
Just Cause 3 gave me a chance to see how the Steam Controller interacts with a third-person game that also has plenty of vehicles. JC3 was also the first game I tested that didn’t have a baked-in Steam Controller profile. That absence of official support hurts. I think the potential is there for JC3 to play well using the Steam Controller, but I feel like I would have to spend an undue amount of time with it to get there.
I started with Valve’s pre-baked “high-precision camera” template and made a couple tweaks to it so aiming was even more responsive. Even so, I never really got to the point where I was satisfied with the accuracy of looking and aiming. I’m confident that a superior community-made profile is out there somewhere, but I chose JC3 as the title I would adjust myself. Driving, boating, and flying all worked great, though. The extra buttons available on the Steam Controller were a good match for JC3’s rather complex controls when compared to the Xbox 360 controller, too.
What can I say about my Steam Controller meets Helldivers experience? It was so bad that I don’t really want to talk about it. I’ll forge ahead and share some observations, though. I think this is another game that one could probably play respectably on the Steam Controller with a lot of practice, but Helldivers highlights another instance where a traditional thumb stick maintains an edge over the Steam Controller’s trackpad.
In Helldivers, you can precision-aim while moving slowly if you move your right thumb to aim while running. This works great on an Xbox 360 controller because you can leave your thumb resting on the right thumb-stick while running and it only puts you into aiming mode when you actually move it away from center.
On the Steam Controller, though, almost any contact with the right-side trackpad puts you into this aiming mode, since the featureless surface doesn’t have an easily discernable center. The mistakes that hair-trigger sensitivity produced killed me a lot. Instead, it’s best to lift your thumb completely off the pad when you’re running around in this game.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a way around this somewhere in the depths of the controller settings, but even if there is, this behavior is one of the Steam Controller’s unique characteristics that can cause issues in specific games. To be fair, there is an official profile for Helldivers, but when I first started playing my game picked up a community profile without telling me. Switching to the official profile lessened my aiming troubles, but it didn’t eliminate them.
I’m left with mixed feelings about gaming with the Steam Controller. On one hand, I applaud Valve for creating a sophisticated piece of hardware with comprehensive customization options. On the other hand, I feel like the company is relying too much on the community to put the final polish on the Steam Controller’s user experience. Even with the template system to build from, it would be nice if Valve created official game profiles for the controller to start with, or convinced more developers to make some of their own.
I also hope that Valve and other developers explore some possibilities with this thing that extend beyond basic controls. The haptic actuators are capable of impressive feats and deserve to be used in creative ways, especially when coupled with the gyro feature. Heck, I’d be happy just to use this controller in Fishing Planet so I could feel a bite on the line and set the hook with a quick tug. That could be extended by reeling in a fish while controlling drag with the trackpads.
Games developed specifically with the Steam Controller in mind would give me a reason to use Valve’s gamepad instead of the other options I have at hand. Right now, though, the Steam Controller doesn’t do anything that my HTPC’s smorgasbord of a Logitech M570 trackball, wireless keyboard, and Xbox 360 controller doesn’t do better.
If all that hardware hodgepodge isn’t your style, and you don’t mind spending time tweaking individual game profiles to perfection, then the Steam Controller is certainly worth a look. There’s nothing else quite like it out there, and it’s likely to get more useful with time.