Bridging the gap between the PC and console – and by extension, between the mouse and the controller – is no easy task. There’s a reason it’s never been done; a reason that despite all these years and all these innovations nobody has come up with a suitable control scheme that allows the best of both worlds. As Valve’s own marketing video muses, “For too long, players have had to choose between the precision of a mouse and the familiarity of a controller.”
Note: I’ve updated this article a bit based on some more hours with the Steam Controller. Major changes are noted, others are just in there.
The Steam Controller aims to change that, and honestly it comes pretty close. So close, in fact, it’s probably a fair bet that with a few firmware updates, a little user familiarity, and (possibly) a second hardware generation, players will no longer have to choose between the precision of a mouse and the familiarity of a controller. For now, the Steam Controller is almost what it set out to be.
On one hand, that almost is miniscule – this is Valve at its very finest, a near-museum quality piece of engineering tied to software so customizable you might need Wikipedia to understand some of the stuff you can do with it.
On the other hand the almost is pretty significant, because the Steam Controller doesn’t quite do the job of a controller and doesn’t quite do the job of a mouse. But hot damn, is it close. You won’t feel that way at first, though.
UPDATE: Objectively, though, the Steam Controller doesn’t do what it’s intended to do, and its flaws are not limited to software. Ergonomically, some mistakes were made — most notably the size of the controller and the placement of the face buttons. Functionally, the lack of stuff we often consider whizbang special effects (like rumble) actually do make a difference in many games. You try picking a lock in Thief without it.
Size Doesn’t Matter
Ergonomics are everything, so I’ll start with some minutia of size and weight and hand-feel.
Speaking personally — you can only speak personally and subjectively about controllers — I slightly prefer the PS3/4 controller over the 360/bone controller. I prefer the placement of the analog thumbsticks on the latter, but with extended use I tend to develop a sharp pain in the base of my left index finger.
So my initial concern with the Steam Controller, given its size, is that I’ll have the same problem with it. As it turns out I have a different problem, but one still related to size and layout.
UPDATE: surprisingly, the decision to put the face buttons between the two haptic pads (more on these in a minute) doesn’t feel awkward or even different. Despite years of moving your thumb right to hit a face button, you’ll move it left without even realizing something’s changed. But while this seemingly major layout change doesn’t impact the Steam Controller overall, the face button placement is physically too far from the right thumb due to the controller’s size. The difference in thumb “reach” is not a dealbreaker, but it’s close.
Let’s look at some other angles.
However, if you look at the controllers from a front-on perspective you begin to understand why most people’s first reaction is likely to be “this thing is too big:”
And finally, comparing all three:
It may have simply been an engineering necessity, to fit some of the other technology in there. The Steam Controller also weighs a few ounces more than its counterparts, but not to the degree that it’ll bother you. Generally speaking construction is beautiful, solid, and well-built.
But… when my thumb goes for X, it hits Y. Or B. It’s a conscious stretch, especially noticeable in games like Wild Hunt, where the two attack types are mapped to X and Y.
We are Officially Running Out of Places to Put Buttons
The obvious layout differences look more jarring than they are when you hold the Controller in your hand, but that’s not to say you’ll take to it readily. Any controller must fulfill some requirements if it’s to have a prayer of being viewed as a PS/bone alternative: you gotta have triggers, you gotta have bumpers, you gotta have four face buttons and a Whatever The Big Middle Button That Powers Up The Console is called and so on. And you gotta put them in places that seem familiar.
Steam Controller has all that, more or less where you expect such items to be.
The real points of interest are the pair of owl-eye pads on the right and left of the Controller’s face. This is where the “precision of a mouse” thing comes into play, and fails to fully materialize, though in a way that’s doing this controller a disservice. The owl-eyes are haptically-responsive, micron-sensitive surfaces you control with the pads of your thumbs. Which is close to the precision of a mouse, but not as close as an analog thumbstick.
UPDATE: as this device is banking heavily on being a bridge between the precision of a mouse and the familiarity of a controller, it has a Get Out of Jail Free card here. It isn’t necessarily claiming to be a replacement for anything. In the final analysis there are some things it does that controllers don’t readily do, and some things controllers do that it tries and fails — in some cases spectacularly — to emulate.
It adds some nifty features: two rocker buttons on the bottom, where your middle, ring, and pinky fingers rest normally. Obvious places for additional buttons, really; I’m surprised it hasn’t been a standard before now. The triggers, meanwhile, are actually four buttons, not two: each has a traditional analog pull, but at the end of that both offer a secondary digital click. Thanks to the controller’s innate flexibility in mapping, that opens up a number of potential customization opportunities.
Any button’s action can also change the behavior of other buttons on the fly: say you want to reduce camera sensitivity when you’re aiming — like the sniper mode on gaming mice. It’s easily accomplished: just set the left trigger’s digital click to cut the sensitivity on the right haptic pad. The camera behaves normally when you aim normally, but squeeze the left trigger a little harder and suddenly you have a whole different precision window.
Like everything on the Steam Controller, though, the haptic pads are not “just” haptic pads. They are anything you want them to be.
Every game in Steam now has a “Configure Controller” option, from which you can map whatever the hell you want to map, to any button, analog or digital. Map Y to A. Map Start to 6. Set the haptic pads to emulate thumbsticks, or a D-Pad, or a mouse, or just a regular button. Or nothing, I suppose. You can set the left trigger to CTRL+ALT+Space+T for all Steam Controller cares. It’s way beyond the level of mapping we expect in most PC games and unprecedented for a controller. The level of granularity in customization is amazing; a mixed blessing since you could easily spend an hour or more fine-tuning controls for a single game.
Of course, if you like the result, you can just use the same profile for any other game. Your configurations are saved on a game-by-game basis. If you don’t feel like doing a ton of custom sensitivity tweaking, use one of the “recommended” layouts or browse and download settings from the community, which has already built up an impressive library of options for more popular games.
Really, I MEAN ANYTHING.
So like you’re thinking there’s no right thumbstick, yeah? You just tell the right haptic pad to emulate one and you’re… you’re pretty much good to go. But if you do a side-by-side comparison of precision, the thumbstick will win, I guarantee it. No matter how much time you spend tweaking.
When people play games, they use all kinds of words and phrases to describe this and that. “The controls are a bit floaty.” “The jump feels tight.” “Shooting is thumpy.” That’s how our brains translate the inputs we’re getting from our eyes and hands; really it’s a matter of latency (time between action and reaction) and polling rate (number of times per second the controller checks to see if you’ve done something).
It’s fractions of milliseconds. Game to game, move to move, the ideal latency and polling might vary. You can’t just say “low latency and high polling” and be done with it. If your latency is too low it’ll feel like the game jumped your gun. If the polling’s too high, you won’t be able to pop-pop-pop the way you like because you’ll be spraying bullets like a bullet-hose.
The customization isn’t limited to mapping, either. You can set all kinds of things, including the haptic response — which feels like a sort of squeaky rubber against the pad of your thumb and is what the Steam Controller has in place of rumble… which, I must say, is missed. But there’s only so much you can cram into one of these things, right?
Stop Showing Us Menus, Fool. Does it Work?
I will say, from the Department of Obvious, that the more time you spend with the Steam Controller, the more comfortable you’re going to get and the less off-putting some of its peculiarities will be. Until then, expect some variance in your mileage.
I will also say that I’ve spent probably fifteen hours with this thing and I’ve set it aside in frustration more than once.
I Say Mechro, You Say Mancer
Borderlands 2 was the first thing I tried, because I played it with a 360 controller, I’m very comfortable with it, and it’s a good example of a shooter you can play equally well with controller or mouse. I wanted to capture some video so as to show you a side-by-side comparison, but technical foibles exceeded my capacity for irritation and I gave up on that. Besides, the differences might not be evident to a spectator. They’re evident to the player, though.
It felt… swingy. Not precisely over-sensitive, just over-exuberant. Like because the pad is flat, I was compensating on camera movement too much, or something. Into the settings we go.
It took about an hour of back-and-forth between the game and the settings to create an ideal custom Steam Controller setup for Borderlands 2 — a game I’ve finished and will probably never play again — and it still wasn’t as good as a 360 controller. That’s not meant as a damning statement, though. Not even close. It’s not as good as a 360 controller, but it’s perfectly playable and sufficiently precise. You’d get used to it.
Give a noob a 360 controller and a FPS and they’ll inevitably flail around and wind up looking at the floor; this was, to a lesser extent, my early experience in Borderlands 2 and pretty much everything else I tried. Over time it got more and more natural, but there’s going to be a re-learning curve for most people.
I keep going back and forth on my verdict: sometimes I was frustrated enough by the different-ness to set aside the Steam Controller altogether and switch back to my familiar corded 360 controller. Other times the device’s customizability and obvious effort at doing what it’s supposed to was more than enough to make me give it the patience it deserves. The best advice I can give is to stick with it.
By this point I feel like the Steam Controller and I will get along okay, but prepare for disappointment if you’re hoping this device will completely supplant your others. It’s close — in fact it’s probably as close as anything can possibly come — but there’s a good chance that won’t work out for you. Controller configurations are personal, so I can’t give the Steam Controller a flat-out Yea or Nay verdict.
What I can do is give it some stream-of-consciousness bullets.
- It works as advertised
- It includes technology that frankly should cost a hell of a lot more than $49.99
- It’s too big
- The level of available customization is unprecedented, beyond even what you see in mouse/keyboard games
- The haptic response feels pleasantly creaky against my thumbs
- It doesn’t bridge the gap between mouse and controller and probably never will, at least not perfectly
- Don’t even try to hot-plug it with another USB controller or you’ll hear Steam howling from the other room
Frankly I’ve seen some people exhibit shocking precision with thumbsticks (I’m not one of them) so it may be unfair to suggest that the controller is an inherently “clumsier” device. But even setting aside the matter of precision, pointer-driven games like Prison Architect absolutely positively play better with a mouse and still do when you add Steam Controller to the equation. Flexible games like Borderlands 2 absolutely positively play better with a mouse or a traditional controller, but in those instances, it’s a much closer shave.
Looking at this article I feel like it’s only somewhat coherent, so I reserve the right to do a second take on Steam Controller impressions in the future. This device is wildly innovative, the kind of thing only Valve could come up with, and the kind of thing that really does take two years to develop. That doesn’t mean it’s good or bad; it’s just how it is. Ultimately the Steam Controller isn’t a Steam Link slam dunk, but it’s far, far from a “don’t bother.” It’s a cautious endorsement.
Coo at Steerpike’s cat at Steerpike@Tap-Repeatedy.com.