What I Love and Hate About the Steam Controller

So I got a Steam Controller, The one piece of hardware that has had me excited since its announcement. Leave it up to Valve, the creators of this new hunk of plastic, to deliver something iconoclastic, experimental, and functional…albeit horrendously ugly.

Valve had a problem that no other games platform has had: A bifurcation of games based on input device, and the ideal way to play said games. The keyboard and mouse are a tried-and-true input method for games, unparalleled in its variety and precision. But some games just feel better when played with a controller. Sure, the genre of game that feels better with a controller is subjective, and everyone is going to disagree on what they prefer, but I’d say everyone has a game they’d rather play on a controller.

By nature, PCs are versatile and open, and thanks to this openness, plugging up Xbox One, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 4 controller is laughably easy. So why is a Steam Controller necessary? Well, because certain games just can’t be played with a controller competently. Cities: Skylines is a game that immediately comes to mind. There’s a certain precision needed when building in that game, or interacting with the interface. A Xbox One controller lacks the precision and the input options to make this a considerable option.

Steam Controller
Yes, it looks like an owl.

Which leads us to the most obvious deviations on the Steam Controller, haptic-feedback touch-pads — two of them. In short, I like them a whole bunch, even when the inaccuracy possibly caused a string of deaths over-and-over again in Metal Gear Solid V. And it’s not so much that I think the touch-pads are inaccurate. In fact, I think the exact opposite. I think they are plenty accurate; there’s is just a huge adjustment period. The placement of my thumb is the first issue I ran into. Without an analog stick for the right thumb, it is hard to tell if your thumb is in a neutral zone on the pad. This is an issue that is most noticeable when using the controller in which the pad tries to replicate a physical joystick, but it does affect the other bindings as well.

For instance, one of the configurations makes the right touch-pad react like a trackball, using the swipes from your thumb to create momentum. The problem is re-positioning your thumb after the swipe. There’s no physical indicators to relay to your thumb that it’s positioned back in the center of the touch-pad, leading to inconsistencies in the swiping because you can never quite tell when your thumb is at the edge of the pad or in the center. Rumbles from the haptic-feedback communicate the velocity of swipes with vibrations, but they do nothing in helping the user with thumb positioning.

The Steam Controller has behemoth grips. They are considerably larger than the grips on both the DualShock 4 and the Xbox One controllers. They fit great into the palm of my hand, but the convex face of the controller gives your thumb no place to rest. It’s constantly floating, and reaching for the touch-pad. 

Steam Controller
The imprinted cross on the left touch-pad helps a ton

The left touch-pad on the Steam Controller functions as a directional pad. There’s a cross imprinted on the left touch-pad that separates it into the four quadrants. It helps in making sure you are pressing the right areas on the pad, and helps the player track their thumb; really wish Valve would have included something on the right touch-pad for the same benefit.

Face buttons also take some time to get accustomed to. They’re fine when it comes to their travel, but they are incredibly small when compared to the buttons on the DualShock 4 and the Xbox One controllers. I’d say around half the size at a glance. In addition to being small, the buttons are grouped together tightly underneath the right touch-pad, and they are really close to the analog stick — I didn’t have any trouble with my thumbs knocking together while using the controller, but I could imagine some users will. The buttons are also positioned pretty far away from the center of the right touch-pad. My muscle memory kept reaching for the Y button thinking it was the A button because of the distance. Of course I can’t blame the Steam Controller for my muscle memory; I can, however, mention the strain that stemmed from reaching the extra distance.

The triggers and bumpers on Valve’s controller are what you would expect. Triggers have a great pull, aren’t too sensitive, and give a really satisfying knocking that feels much better than the fine vibrations in the Xbox One controller’s triggers. Another function of the triggers is the dual-stage triggers — soft-pull and hard-pull. They can be programmed to perform different things based on how hard the player pulls them. Bumpers have a great click positioned right above the triggers; your muscle memory won’t have to make any adjustments. Paddles, or grip-buttons, can be found on the back of the Steam Controller. Like the touch-pads, I thought the grip-buttons were an interesting inclusion into the controller. Immediately I thought they would be used as macro button for games that required more inputs than this controller provided. I had no clue that the community sourced bindings would excite me the way they did.  

Steam Controller
It’s overwhelming at first, but you get used to it

Valve has fixed some of the issues their first controller has by outsourcing its problems to the community. It’s a very Valve thing to do, and so far it seems to be working. I adore what I’ve seen the community do with the Steam Controller in the limited time since its release.

Sure, not all of it is good. I used a configuration that mapped the scope in Metal Gear Solid V to the right grip-button and it felt cumbersome. It’s a bastardized, forced use of the functionality; the scope is fine on the right-bumper in Metal Gear Solid V. The grip-buttons and dual-stage triggers get interesting when I mapped them to activate the gyroscope within the Steam Controller — shoutout to Muljord’s and Green Dream’s configurations that inspired my own. It allowed me to use the gyroscope in place of the right touch-pad to line-up headshots that felt impossible otherwise. In Rocket League, I found a configuration that used the hard-pull on the right trigger to activate the boost, a change I didn’t entirely love, but was interesting nonetheless. This is the Steam trump card: it’s community sourced customization. 

The biggest oversight in the Steam Controller’s design is shockingly not the hardware, but software. You can only dabble into the configurations in Big Picture mode. I’m not entirely sure if this was some insidious tactic to get Steam users to use Big Picture mode, or if Valve genuinely thought people would use the controller sitting on a couch. It’s the strangest omission I’ve ever seen; it ignores the very audience this controller is being marketed towards.

The Steam Controller is surprising. It isn’t Valve being iconoclastic to a fault and ditching a tried-and-true input method just because. They are truly trying to innovate and deliver something fresh, functional and innovative — with a little help from the community. Like your first glass of scotch, the Steam Controller is harsh, but so damn alluring.