Is Valve's Steam Controller ready for prime time?


A couple of weeks ago I offered my thoughts on the Steam Link, Valve's device to enable in-home game streaming from a PC to your TV. At the time I mentioned that I'd also purchased a Steam Controller but was still coming to grips with it.

Steam Controller Valve

The idea behind the Steam Controller is that it can replace both mouse & keyboard combo, and game controller. No matter what the game, you're supposed to be able to control it via the Steam Controller thanks to the ability to customize what the various buttons on the controller do.

The Steam Controller has two circular trackpads (one of which has a "D-Pad" embossed on it), one analog stick, four face buttons, four shoulder buttons and two buttons under the grips. The trackpads really act more like trackballs than the traditional trackpads you'd find on a laptop. It's hard to describe, but there's a sense of acceleration when you move across them quickly due to some subtle audio feedback. As with many aspects of this gizmo, it's kind of hard to describe.

The most straightforward use of the Steam Controller is to replace a traditional gamepad. In that situation (typically) the right trackpad acts like the right analog stick (often to move the camera around) and all the other controls map pretty traditionally to a classic game controller. Face buttons, shoulder buttons and left analog stick all act as expected, with the left trackpad standing in as a D-Pad.

Two weeks on I'm still kind of on the fence about this device, mostly because it is so different. I've really struggled to re-program my muscle memory to use it comfortably. For one thing the face buttons are positioned so that my thumb thinks it's on the A button (at the 6 o'clock position) but it's actually on the B button (at the 3 o'clock position). Since A tends to be the "Do it" button and B tends to be the "Whoa, back out" button that causes a lot of frustration.

Using the right pad as an analog stick works fine until the action heats up. Once the pressure is on I tend to lose my place on the pad and wind up 'stroking' my thumb off the edge or something. The trackpad is slightly concave but perhaps my thumbs aren't sensitive enough to feel it.

For games that don't support a controller, all bets are off. For every Steam game you play with this thing you have to load a configuration profile (either one you made or one the community contributed) and so far there aren't a lot of standards for what does what. Generally the right trackpad acts as the mouse and the left analog stick is bound to WASD. Generally but not always. In some profiles you press the right pad to simulate a left mouse click, while in others one of the shoulder buttons is used for mouse clicks. Sometimes the right trigger is the left mouse button, sometimes the left trigger is. You can adjust all this, and you'll probably want to, but it can be quite a bit of work to get it all working in a way that is intuitive to you. If you're playing a game that is new to you it adds another element of difficulty. When an on-screen hint prompts you to press E, you'll have to remember what control you bound E to.

I think, over time, these issues will shake out and the community will organically come up with some standards but right now it feels a bit like the wild west.

It's worth noting that Valve suggests you run the beta Steam Client for now and they've been updating it like mad. The controller has gotten some firmware updates, too. My best experiences so far have been with games from smaller studios where the developers themselves have contributed a Steam Controller Profile.

So for now the Steam Controller, like the Steam Link, feels a little bit like a work-in-progress. If you like fiddling with things it's worth grabbing one of these just to get in on the fun of putting together configurations, but if you want something that just works out of the box, I'd give it another six months or so and see how things stand then.

On a personal note, this is my last post for The Technofile, which is why I'm talking about the Steam Controller before I've really settled on an opinion of it. I wanted to share my findings before I signed off for the last time.

I've been writing this blog for something like five and a half years and it's been a blast. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it. Here's hoping technology continues to delight us all. So long, and thanks for all the memories.

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