Ten Thoughts on the Steam Controller

I bought a Steam controller last week, mostly because I was curious about what it would be like. Scattered impressions follow.

1. I actually like it as a controller, and found it pretty intuitive, but there is a very large caveat here in that I’ve primarily been a PC video game player for the last 20 years or so, so I don’t have any real ingrained habits regarding console controls, particularly XBox or Playstation controllers, which the Steam controller most resembles physically. I don’t have to unlearn any standard controller schemes, basically, in order to learn how to use this one. I suspect this makes me like this controller more than committed console players might.

2. I also like that this is immensely mappable to keyboard/mouse controls, which is indeed the thing that attracted me to it. You can go into the Steam app and just fiddle until you turn blue, if such is your joy (or even better, wait until some 14-year-old nerd does it for your favorite particular game and uploads the controller scheme for you to use).

3. That said, I immediately ran into a situation where the mapping failed: I tried to map keyboard controls for Descent and Descent II onto the controller and the game simply wouldn’t respond to the controller mapping at all. Now, I was trying this on games that are a couple of decades old, that also have to be opened in emulation, so I’m not sure this is a fair test of the controller. On the other hand, waaaaah, I wanted to play Descent. I’ll fiddle some more with it.

4. The haptic response on the right pad? Really does feel like you’re running your fingers along a trackball. It’s pretty wild.

5. I also mapped the controller to keyboard/mouse controls for Unreal Tournament 2004, and that worked pretty well actually. The right-pad-as-mouse was immediately intuitive, and the rest of it was easy to use. I did terribly, on account that I’m not used to using a handheld controller, but after a few minutes I was picking off bots, and I suspect if I devoted a little time to using the controller, I’d strafing and murdering like I usually do in relatively rapid order.

6. Which is to say that unlike Xbox/PS controllers, I don’t feel like I’m being unduly penalized on precision with the Steam Controller, which, as I mostly like playing FPS and similar games, is kind of a huge thing (and why I’ve generally stuck with PC gaming to begin with). The Steam controller is the first controller I could actually see using on a regular basis…

7.if I wasn’t already playing games on my computer, in front of a keyboard and a mouse, which is what I do. Which is my problem: the Steam controller is meant for the people who want to play PC games on their TV in their living room — preferably, Valve hopes, on a Steam game machine — and that’s something I don’t really have any interest in doing. One, my game computer is my work computer, in my office, and I’m not going to drag it downstairs. Two, the keyboard/mouse scheme is already something that works for me, so I’m not going to replace it with something else.

8. All of which is to say that the Steam controller is a controller that actually works pretty well for me, and I like it, and there’s little chance I’m going to use it on a regular basis. Because it’s not designed for me, in terms of the games I play and how I play them, and where. Which I suspect is the controller’s real issue: It’s a solution in search of a problem. I mean, I kind of feel the people who play PC games get they’re playing them in front of a PC, with a keyboard/mouse set-up, and I also think the sort of nerd who wants to play PC games on their TV isn’t going to be fussy about using a keyboard and mouse in the living room. I’m also not entirely convinced people generally are going to migrate PCs into their living rooms when consoles offer a very good gaming solution for, uh, generally less money (plus locking down the hardware so game compatibility is not a moving target).

9. But I can see circumstances where I would use a Steam controller even with those caveats: side-scrolling, fighting, arcade and driving games, for example, I can see playing better with the Steam controller than with keyboard/mouse. I don’t usually play those games on PC, but it might be a chicken and egg thing, i.e., I don’t play them because I play on the PC and a keyboard/mouse is not a great configuration for that. I’ll have to buy some and see what I think. Also, I suspect the Steam controller might have specialized uses: See this article, in which the Steam controller lets disabled fellow play Skyrim one-handed.

10. So am I happy with my purchase? I am, even as I wonder whether the controller actually is for me. I think the Steam controller does what it sets out to do, but I don’t know whether I am the person for what it is doing. I’m not inclined to ding it for that. Again: I like it. Now I just have to figure out if I’m ever going to use it.

31 Comments on “Ten Thoughts on the Steam Controller”

  1. My read on the Steam Controller is that console gamers will have a steep learning curve, not unlike going from a traditional console controller to PC mouse/keyboard, in order to get good gameplay from it.

    Learning a new interface sucks. If the new interface is worth learning? Suck it up and elevate your game.

    (I’m a console gamer who migrated to PC two years ago.)

  2. For point 7), rather than a full steam box, you can pick up a steam link for ~$50 that’ll stream your desktop computer to your TV. If your home network is decent, it’s a good option for couch play.

  3. Caffinatedone:

    Sure, but again, it means changing up from a control system I’m already comfortable with, etc, and anyway, I’m in my office more than my living room. Again, the problem isn’t the controller, it’s me.

  4. Isn’t the WiiU supposed to be a console that you play on your tv? And do you get to order Steam games? Forgive me if it sounds like I’m being a n00b but I am just curious, y’know? I have a vita so… I am getting a 2DS next month (Jan) … I just like the feel of it, and I can play Pokemon games on them… I digress though.. yeah.

  5. For playing Descent and Descent II I’d recommend installing DXX Rebirth, which (being a source port) is a native Windows program and should therefore work with your Steam controller’s mapping.

  6. Sounds like I would fall into the same place with it. I enjoy Steam games — mostly RPGs, and mostly out of date ones since I use a 2 year old MacBook Pro, and nothing remotely current will run on it. But I always play on the computer; we’ve had various Playstations over the years, and console play never appealed to me. It seems so limited … you can map so MANY functions to a keyboard!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it! I’d been curious.

  7. If you want to play a very Descent-like game, you could try Sublevel Zero. The levels are procedurally generated, so they’re never the same twice. I believe the term used is ‘Rogue-like’, no saves, but progress goes to unlocking new ships and weapons that you can then craft.

    As for the controller, I play on both PC and console, so I would have to unlearn too much to make it viable for me. I’ve also heard that getting your thumb back to center on the pad is a bit difficult, since there isn’t any tactile indication of where your thumb is.

  8. @caffinatedone – I thought I’d heard Steam had that as a solution! Though – define “decent home network”, as ours is all over the map: It’s hardwired to a Windows PC (office computer), a Mac Min i (Tammy’s desktop), our TiVO and our Blu-Ray Player (both of the latter stream HD content); and we wirelessly use two MacBooks (my niece’s Pro and my Air), as well as Tammy’s iPad. It’s FiOS 100/100 – allegedly, though Tammy’s forever calling asking me asking why Hulu’s buffering (insert long rant about Net Neutrality, and Regulatory Handcuffs made of Cold Iron clamped on Big Telco to ensure their absolute obedience here!)….

  9. To be honest, the only games I have on Steam I’d be likely to run on the TV (which is just behind me when I’m sitting at the computer anyway) are the Final Fantasy games – particularly Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII, which were designed for console systems (original Playstation) and have somewhat dodgy and uncomfortable keyboard mapping locations in the English language localisation. But then, if I’m going to be playing those on the television, I may as well just pull out the CDs for the original PS1 games I already own, and put them in the PS2 which is already attached to the TV, and play them with the PS2 controller I already have.

    Yup, I’m another one for whom the Steam controller is a solution in search of a problem I don’t actually have.

  10. If and only if the precision is equal to keyboard/mouse precision, there’s actually a niche for people who have limited space, or people who have physical problems with keyboard/mouse. The former I mention in particular because some shooters require lower mouse sensitivity in order to achieve finer precision, which in turn requires you have a lot desk space that is also properly configured to your height, computer setup, physical quirks, etc.

    But it’s possible that the controller can’t achieve that level of precision anyway.

  11. Sounds pretty dang cool, the trackball-like right pad especially since I loved trackballs over mouse. Played a lot on xbox 360 (still playing Borderlands 2 on it actually) but from the look of the steam controller it doesn’t seem it would be too much of a jump. And if it’s as mappable as you’re saying it could be made to function like an xbox controller without too much trouble.

    The thing is I don’t have my pc hooked up to my TV and I tend to play on my pc more often. Steam is convenient as a go-to for games and I play Civ5(including BE) and Total War most of the time from there. Having some trouble playing Distant Worlds but that is due to my os (Win10) I suspect.

    Will definitely keep this in mind though as it sounds like Steam did a good job with their controller. Thanks!

  12. I am dubious about Steam in the living room for a few reasons:

    1) the number of games out for SteamOS is very limited, especially for the sorts of games that use a controller. So as a console-killer, I think it’s basically a non-starter. So that pretty much leaves remote streaming to get any decent game library.

    2) One of the things PC gaming has over consoles is the control scheme. Mouse+Keyboard outperforms the controller, and it seems doubtful to me that a trackpad is going to do well against a high-performance gaming mouse. So the sorts of people who care about this will likely see it as a non-starter.

    3) Many of the games people buy PCs for are the sorts of strategy games that would just be unplayable with a controller on a TV. Civ games, Paradox games, Total war games are all non-starters on a TV with a controller.

    The controller itself is vaguely interesting to me, but mostly just because it may get better support. The few times I’ve messed with controllers on the PC it has been frustrating.

    (Caveat: I work for Sony, so obviously I have biases.)

  13. As a lifelong console gamer (I got an NES for Christmas when I was 6) who moved to China and left his consoles behind… I love this. I converted to PC gaming because it was practical. I didn’t want to drag my Wii and PS3 to China with me, but my laptop was obviously coming either way. I went to extreme measures to adapt my Windows laptop to work with a Sony controller. (I assume they make it difficult on purpose. to encourage you to buy an Xbox controller.) Now I think I won’t have to. Valve seems to have made nice with the PRC, since titles are now available in CNY. I assume that means I can buy one here. This could solve a lot of problems for me.

  14. I apologise if this is off-topic, but I was wondering about the controller’s precision: is it comparable to using a mouse in a non-gaming scenario? Somebody I know works in CAD and other design work but has trouble using a mouse due to a stress-related injury. A trackpad (e.g. Apple Magic Trackpad) is out of the question as well.

    I have often wondered if a gaming controller can be used instead. If a few keys can be bound to specific tasks, keyboard use can be minimised as well. Application support for the gaming controller is a concern, but we’ll worry about that if and only if we can find an appropriate hardware.

  15. Siddhartha:

    By default the controller maps to the mouse, so I can use it to move the mouse cursor and execute mouse button functions. It’s not as precise as a mouse but it’s not bad either; it could be done. What I don’t know is if you can map controls for it outside of the Steam environment (beyond the defaults that are already there).

  16. @Xopher Halftongue: Based on at least one review I spotted, the Steam Controller can apparently be run off USB power, though if you want to use it wirelessly, you’ll need the batteries. Similar to the Xbox One controller when used with a PC in that regard (at least now that the X1 wireless interface is available).

    @Our Gracious Host: How was the controller acquired? Brick-and-mortar store, e-tailer, or direct from Valve?

  17. So I pre-ordered and got both the Steam Link and Steam Controller. I am very much the person who this device was made for; to me, the Controller is NOT the answer to a question nobody asked, it is a device that answers my needs.

    I have a lot of games on Steam, but I don’t want to play many of them down in my basement office space, separated from my wife and family. Sometimes I want to play games that my wife can watch and or kibbutz on; particularly things like adventure games that we tackle together. The Steam Link allows me to leverage my high-end Alienware PC and laptops in the living room when I want to play there (as I have done with Rocket League, Shadowrun, Quantum Conundrum and the Vanishing of Ethan Carter).

    Is it a complete replacement for sittinga at a desktop PC? No, but it’s a pretty decent proxy for it. I haven’t tried things like an RTS (such as Grey Goo), but as I get more comfortable with the controller, some games are playable that I would have assumed were not, such as Torchlight II or some FPSes. I feel like it was money well spent, personally.

  18. I’ve played the console version of Red Alert for a bit, and controller input was clunky enough to make me give up on the game.

    I’d be curious how Torchlight II works with a controller. Diablo III on consoles is a very different game than it is on the PC because of controller vs. keyboard. (Though lots of fun on both.) But with Diablo III, Blizzard didn’t just map a stick to the mouse. It plays differently.

  19. If you’re looking for a game to test your new toy’s functionality as a controller instead of as a mouse and keyboard substitute, Dark Souls and it’s sequel are worth a look. They’re some of the few games I’ve played where I much prefer a controller to the more precise mouse and keyboard. They’re also fantastic games, though with a bit of a learning curve.

  20. I remember playing Descent until I was about to throw up from inner-ear to eye disagreements, laying down for twenty minutes until I wasn’t on the verge of puking, and then playing it some more.

    Good times. Great game.

  21. Mouse+Keyboard outperforms the controller

    Doesn’t that depend a lot on the game? Not everything is a shooter. A mouse would be useless for Street Fighter or a Zelda game (if it’s even possible to use one, which I doubt), and not much better for Dynasty/Samurai/Hyrule Warriors or something similar. And while you could control them with pure keyboard instead, I doubt if it would be likely to be an improvement over the gamepad.

    A turn based game like Civ or X-Com could be played either way – in fact, I have played X-Com both ways and it’s pretty much the same game, although I’m not sure I’d want to play Civ by gamepad if I had free choice of control schemes.

    ISTM that the central principle here is that most PC games are designed for the types of input devices PCs are likely to have; consoles ditto. This tends to lead me to the idea that the controller will see the most use for games that were ported from consoles in the first place, like megpie71’s suggestion of the Final Fantasy games (personally, I have a PS1 controller to USB adapter for this sort of thing; it isn’t wireless but has plenty of slack to reach any place I am likely to want to sit in relation to my monitor).

  22. DISAPPOINTMENT!! They didn’t port it, they just made a Steam wrapper for DOSBox. Runs ok, but mouse sensitivity is terrible. Booo.

  23. For completeness: Woo! Increase of DOSBox mouse sensitivity to 300 & drop of Descent sensitivity to ~2/3 gives a manageable feel.

    This bodes ill for getting those curtain rods mounted…..

  24. Ok, so this will hopefully be my last comment on the matter, but this one might be worth it to someone other than me.

    DXX-Rebirth: http://www.dxx-rebirth.com/

    Full port to modern systems. In particular, the author appears to have completely re-worked the controls handling. I don’t have a joystick/keypad to test it, but it might work with the SteamTroller?

    It also renders in modern resolutions — up to the paltry 1366×768 of my laptop screen, at minimum.

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