Preface and Opening Thoughts
I have several hours invested with my Steam Controller in a few titles I’m familiar with. This single fact will prove very important as I get into the intricacies I’m going to delve into with regards to the Steam Controller. I feel that a great deal of reviews out there have not taken the approach I took to the device. I likened it to my Logitech G13 setup where I use my thumb to drive and my pinky to jump in MMOs or a multi-button mouse like the Razer Naga and Logitech G600: the Steam Controller is not a typical piece of hardware; as such, any attempt to use it in a traditional manner or without putting in adequate time to get used to it will almost certainly be met with failure.
As an example of this, when Razer first launched the Naga they tested thousands of gamers, finding that 88% were able to acclimate to it in their first 18 hours of use, while others took even longer. That’s 18 hours of playing games with the new mouse (presumably only one or two titles since not many folks play 12 different MMOs) before they were comfortable. This is an important consideration when reading about this product online as many reviewers have not used the device for anywhere near that time, while others are bouncing around between a variety of games rather than taking the time to adjust to the mechanics of a single game. Some, at this point, are going back and adding to their initial review now that they’ve spent more time with the device. These reviews offer a much better perspective on the product than any of the ones that were pushed out quickly; my past experience with adjusting to new hardware and a desire to do justice to the device is largely to do with why I waited so long to write this.
When reading the reviews out there, some trends are popping up, in my opinion. Many claim they aren’t as proficient with it or feel a regular controller suits them better (reference the previous points about the device and getting used to it), some point to a lack of playability of certain titles on TVs because of the games’ UI when reviewing the controller, and very-nearly everyone says mouse and keyboard are better. On their Steam Controller page, Valve says:
Nowhere in there does it claim that every game’s UI will be playable on a TV from the couch (and the Steam Controller has nothing to do with that – Steam OS/Big Picture mode has been around for some time now, but even then it’s the game’s devs that make the UI, not Valve) nor does it state that it’s equal to or better than keyboard and mouse (and I don’t expect anything other than some future, super-accurate look-to-shoot system will be), but these mostly-irrelevant notions seem to find their way into all the reviews out there and get in the way of an honest assessment of the device itself.
I take issue with this not because I’m some kind of Steam Controller fanboy (I like it, but it’s not perfect) but because it seems like they’re intent on talking about it as though it was supposed to be something other than a new type of controller. Granted, the reviewers do cover the device, but it feels like some are just tossing more fuel into the hate fire by saying it’s not competitive in games like CS:GO rather than focusing on the device itself. I intend to talk about this device as best I can without going down those lanes while discussing what I do and don’t like about it.
Generally speaking, there’s not a major change from conventional controller layouts in the Steam Controller. On the front we’ve got a joystick, ABXY buttons, a start/select or forward/back pair of buttons bordering the Steam button, and a pair of touch pads (one intended as a replacement for the right joystick and the other for the D-pad).
The joystick is pretty standard fare, though it seems to have slightly less range of motion than a DualShock4. The shape is predominantly convex; the textured ring around the outside feels less pronounced than it may appear in the picture. The buttons remind me of Microsoft controllers, though the overall size of them are a bit smaller (which has been a major complaint of some; as a 3DS XL owner, it doesn’t bother me as they’re larger than what Nintendo gives me to work with).
Both touchpads are very responsive, in my opinion. The left pad has a subtle D-pad-style groove while the right pad is smooth. Many have cited complaints about the lack of a ridge or bump on the right pad to orient their finger, and while I don’t find myself having any issues with it, the complaint is justified (and such additions were included in previous iterations of the device; I don’t know why they didn’t add something to it, even if it was a small divot similar in depth to the grooves on the left pad). Each pad also has the ability to be pressed or clicked, allowing for right-stick clicking if it’s being used as a joystick or the physical feeling of pressing the D-pad buttons.
The rear of the controller sports a pair of paddle buttons on the grips, and from this picture you can also see the triggers and shoulder buttons. Lightly squeezing the paddle activates the mechanical button with a faint click. I’ve read of people having issues where they grip the controller too tight during gameplay and accidentally activate a paddle button or press it while resting the controller against their leg. I’ve also bumped them once or twice while resting it or setting it down on my leg, but I’ve not personally had any errant presses due to gripping the controller too tight (maybe that’s just something I don’t do?). The slider at the bottom releases the back plate (the shoulder paddles are part of it) to gain access to the battery compartment.
The rear plate pops free once the sliding lock is released as it’s under subtle spring tension from beneath the mechanism. This also prevents it from wiggling about when connected (which is important, seeing as it contains the grip paddle buttons). On either side, in the grip, is where the AA batteries go.
Having a battery in each grip makes for a very balanced feel. When the batteries snap into place, an arm pivots out of the controller housing from the trigger area to lock it in place. Pressing the arm back into the trigger housing pops the battery back out. With a pair of AA’s installed, the weight of the controller is very close to the DualShock 4.
From the top, it’s clear to see that some respect for ergonomics was shown. The Steam Controller is curved with well-defined grips. The USB port (used for wired play without batteries and firmware updates; I do not know if it will charge rechargeable batteries if they’re being used in the device) sits in the center, well away from the hands. The shoulder buttons are significantly larger than the triggers and protrude further out by a few millimeters. In terms of functionality, the triggers feel very similar to the DualShock4, but with a much shorter draw and a perceivable actuation at the bottom. This button allows for dual-stage trigger controls where the pulling of the trigger performs one action and finishing the button activation performs another. I’ll go into one of the ways I’m utilizing this later on in the review. The shoulder buttons are mechanical with almost no travel distance; a click is audible when they’re pressed.
Despite looking a bit odd, the angle of the large shoulder buttons and triggers are actually quite comfortable as they fall well inline with the angle of the fingers while playing. The spacing feels similar, to me, to the DualShock4 in terms of using only a single finger for both the shoulder button and trigger, but a bit closer when using my preferred two-finger stance.
Pictured around the Steam Controller (turnwise, from middle-left) are a DualSock4, DualSock3, Mattel Electronics Football 2 (for @shane’s reference), Nintendo 3DS XL, and a banana (for scale). The actual size of the controller seems to be a very opinionated subject. As someone with very large hands (I have an octave-and-a-fifth reach) I wish it were a tad larger, but that’s about how I feel holding any controller other than the OG XBox controller.
Overall, I’m happy with the physical layout. Yes, the right touch pad could benefit from a marking of some sort to help orient the thumb and I’ve experienced the occasional errant paddle-press when picking up or setting down the controller, but all told I have no significant complaints. I’ve found all the controls easy to use, though the paddles are not well-suited for prolonged press-and-hold usage; when using it as my push-to-talk for Mumble, I found that after an hour or so of gameplay my hand would become uncomfortable. That said, I have been accused of talking a lot and the hand in questions has some nerve damage, so there may have been other factors at play that won’t affect everyone’s experience.
The UI for configuring your Steam Controller is surprisingly in-depth, but an innate understanding of said complexity isn’t required. By default, the controller will function just like a normal game pad and be recognized as such by the games I tried it with. If you want to play a game that lacks gamepad support, however, or want to get a more customized control scheme with extra functionality, be prepared to be overwhelmed at first.
I first set up my Steam Controller to play ARK: Survival Evolved with my wife and fellow Strategists (pictured above). Achieving this configuration that I now love took over an hour. This was due to a combination of the complexities inherent in the UI (I’ll delve into this later), a lack of understanding all the game pad functionality built into ARK (the game, being in Early Release, doesn’t have great documentation for all its game pad controls, so I found myself trying to solve problems that didn’t need solving and trying to squeeze in functionality that was contained elsewhere, only to be discovered after the fact), and my Steam Controller being NIB (and trying to figure everything out all at once).
Every game uses a different Steam Controller configuration which is automatically loaded whenever you launch a game. Steam remembers the last layout you used and will call it up automatically. My Rocket League configuration is very close to default, the only substantial change I made was putting my boost on my two-stage setting for my right trigger; this allows me to pull the trigger for throttle and easily bottom it out in order to boost rather than having to shift over to another key. Subtle things like this are the things I love about this controller over traditional gamepads. That said, I can absolutely see situations where emotions might be running a bit high and it could become difficult to control the squeeze so as not to activate boost until it was desired. I haven’t personally experienced this, but I acknowledge that any usage of the two-stage trigger feature could lead to this.
The above two pictures are of the regular and advanced settings for the right touch pad. Each of those drop-down menus and sliders alters the functionality of the touch pad. It took some time to find a setup that I liked given the amount of options. Trying to fly by default might work to a certain degree, but investing some energy in optimizing and customizing the settings to best fit you will net much better results. I feel a number of reviewers didn’t spend near enough time in here, given the intricacies of it, to give an honest assessment of it.
That said, this illustrates a previous point I made: it takes time to learn and adjust to this device. It’d be wonderful if picking up the Steam Controller felt second nature to everyone (and, indeed, it will for some) but the majority of users will need to spend time either browsing and trying the profiles others have created or make the effort to design one to their liking. This is an important (perhaps the most important) consideration when looking at this product.
To further illustrate the functionality of the Steam Controller, I’m going to talk about Mode Shift. This setting is available for most of the buttons on the Steam Controller (both touch pads, the joystick, ABXY buttons, both triggers, and the gyroscopic control); when enabled, a user-set action will cause a specific control to function differently. For ARK, I set the full pull of my left trigger (the button at the bottom of the draw) to change my right touch pad from joystick control to mouse control.
Pictured above are the standard and advanced settings for my right touch pad when it’s functioning as a mouse. By setting this up, when I use the sights on my crossbow or a gun in ARK (left trigger), it changes my right touch pad over to a setting I have an easier time aiming precisely with. When I release the left trigger, it automatically reverts back to joystick functionality.
I also use Mode Shift to bind additional keys. Pressing the center of my left touch pad changes the binds for my ABXY buttons. Similarly, pressing my right touch pad gives me a fresh D-pad worth of binds on my left touch pad.
The configuration UI is easy to understand, and refining the basic functionality of the Steam Controller as a game pad is pretty easy to do, but if you want to get in and get some extra keybinds and really refine your controls, set aside some time to dedicate to it; you’re going to need it (especially for the first one). All told, I’m glad it exists, and after familiarizing myself with the capabilities of the controller, I’m confident subsequent game mapping will be much faster.
The Steam Controller is a unique device, unlike any other game pad or controller out there in a number of ways. As with any technology, there are pros and cons.
To its credit, the Steam Controller feels like a good product; it has a nice weight, it feels just as solid as any other gamepad I’ve held, it functions as expected, the touch pads are accurate, the haptic feedback works well, the gyroscopic sensor is neat (and though not something I’m currently using, it works and a lot of people seem to love it), the customization in the UI on a by-game basis is amazing, and Valve is standing behind their product. To elaborate slightly on the last point, when it was revealed that there were some problems initially with Mac drivers, Valve gave the affected users every Valve game (past, present, and future) as an apology. Additionally, when one of the two I ordered for my wife and I showed up with a defect, they sent us a replacement straight away after a simple support ticket to confirm the order.
Working against it, the device is nonstandard and has a learning curve (I believe this is the epicenter of much of the complaints against it). People have mused over the ABXY buttons being too small, hating the indicationless right touch pad in place of a joystick, complained that the paddles are too easy to press, that it’s too big or too small or doesn’t feel quite right, that the product feels like it wasn’t finalized before being released, that the setup is complicated and/or counter-intuitive, and that it’s not practical to play all Steam games on a TV or as competitively as you could using a keyboard/mouse setup.
In the end, it’s up to the individual to determine what works best for them. If you don’t know if you can reconcile the touch pad in place of a joystick, that could be an issue. If you’re not prepared to put in the time needed to adjust to a piece of hardware you’ve never used before, that may prove problematic. If you want something that’s going to be competitive to a keyboard/mouse in CS:GO, don’t even bother. However, if you’re looking for a lot of bang for your buck, to play games with a controller that would otherwise require a keyboard/mouse, to have a better potential performance than with a traditional game pad, or just like having all the new shinies as they come out, this thing is an absolute steal at $50.
I, myself, couldn’t be happier. Is it perfect? No. There’s always room for improvement (I’m looking at you, DualShock3), and there were some design decisions made that I don’t agree with on the whole (like the lack of an indication of where your thumb is on the right touch pad) that might be corrected or changed in subsequent iterations. Is it a great product that’s worth its sticker price? Yes. Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. Will I use it for every game? Obviously not (especially if I want to pretend I’m competitive in an FPS or the like), but I will use it anywhere I might have otherwise used a controller, as well as on titles I might otherwise not have (like ARK). Is it a good product for you? That’s a decision you need to come to for yourself. If you’ve any questions about what I’ve written or want more information/screenshots/feedback on specifics, feel free to drop a reply
I think this is basically it, in a nutshell. My question is, once you spend the time on that learning curve, will the Steam controller actually give you any distinct advantages in your gaming that you can’t get from the standard Xbox controller most people use for PC gaming.
It definitely can be (and is, in my opinion) better than a standard controller for games where controllers excel; the ability to edit or add additional keybinds alone puts it on a whole different plane. I can’t imagine that it will ever be better than mouse/keyboard for games where mouse precision and super-quick reflexes are valued (CS:GO) or titles that are extremely mouse-intensive (Dota 2), but in terms of controller vs controller, I’d put someone whose taken the time to adapt to the Steam Controller against any other controller out there.
That sir is 1 serious article and I GREATLY appreciate the effort. I am pretty sure I will be getting 1 now.
The only questions I have relate to the banana, firstly were any harmed during the making of said story and secondly did it taste good when eaten
The banana was humanely rescued from HEB and, upon acceptance of its terminal fate, requested to go out on its own terms; I was honored to oblige.
It was quite tasty
as a casual player, I just want to sit back on my couch and enjoy mouse and keyboard games without some weird set up. Based on this article, I’m pulling the trigger… or the paddle… or the whatever.
Steam can go F*** themselves, I went to order a controller and it says ““coming soon””. Guess I’ll go buy a bunch of bananas instead
I like the metroid/terraria music in the background
Me too; it goes well with all the Aperture Laboratories decals they slapped on the machines
Excellent article. I am currently getting used to the controller and the only true problem I have is not being able to download the other peoples configurations. I will keep working on it and thanks again for the inspiration to experiment with it.
After getting used to the Steam Machine it is great and as an added bonus we can play every game on my PC not just Steam games.