Thoughts about the Steam Controller so far.

I got my pre-ordered Steam Controller about this time yesterday. Naturally I spent a lot of time playing with it. Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts.

The good:

  • The precision of the right pad is incredible. It lives up to its hype well. It’s not as nice as a keyboard and mouse, but it’s worlds better than a console controller.
  • It’s a lot more customizable than I was originally led to believe. Any button, trigger, stick, or pad can be assigned to any action from a mouse, keyboard, or gamepad. Literally anything.
  • Profile recommendation works pretty well. Users can create and share their mappings for a given game, and others can download and use these mappings. The default profiles are pretty nice as well.
  • The haptic feedback is spot on. “Trackball mode,” as it’s called, emulates the physics on a trackball on either of the thumb pads. The movement combined with the haptics makes it almost feel like a real trackball.
  • The setup was astonishingly easy. I unboxed it, plugged in the dongle, put in the batteries, and was playing Portal 2 with it in under 5 minutes.
  • You can connect the controller to your PC wirelessly using their funny little RF dongle, which works fine, or plug in to the PC using the supplied MicroUSB cable. If you plug in the USB cable, the batteries don’t discharge. If you use both connections, it will work much like a 360 controller with the Charge & Play kit. Seamless switching between wireless and wired.
  • It can emulate a gamepad, a keyboard and mouse, or both, as advertised. It does an excellent job of this.
  • It has gyroscopic sensors in it, kind of like a Wii controller, which I wasn’t expecting. It’s very accurate, and very cool. It also has two grip buttons which I used in Borderlands 2 last night for Sprint on the left and Reload on the right. This means less taking your thumb off the right pad during combat which I think helps gameplay a bit.

The bad:

  • There doesn’t seem to be any way to copy button mapping profiles to other computers. I often take a MacBook downstairs and stream games to it using Steam In Home Streaming. Seems I have to make another profile manually even for games I’m streaming. Stupid.
  • I can’t say I’m terribly amused that in order to use the controller, the game must be started by Steam. I’m not surprised that Valve chose to do it this way but it’s irritating nonetheless. I was able to add Minecraft as a “non-steam app” and was able to use my controller from there, but it’s extra work and certainly not as seamless as it could be.
  • Additionally, in order to change any mappings or controller settings, the game must be launched through Steam, in Big Picture mode. It kind of feels like Valve is forcing us to use Big Picture. I think Big Picture is nice enough, but I don’t game on a TV, so I really don’t need it. I just want to start a Steam game sit back in my chair, and play with my controller. Also, Big Picture doesn’t handle Alt-Tab switching well. So if you want to Alt-Tab between your game and a guide on the web, prepare for annoyance.
  • I think that the left pad is WAY too sensitive. It sometimes causes in game actions to happen when my thumb is hovering above it. This might be a problem with all Steam Controllers, or it could just be mine.
  • Not really a problem, but this device is radically different from any gaming input I’ve ever used. It’s kind of tricky to get used to.
  • I intensely dislike the location of the ABXY buttons. When playing Borderlands 2 last night, I finally hit Y so many times when trying to hit X accidentally, causing a weapon switch, that I had to unbind that button completely. I might get used to that, but if you’re used to an Xbox 360 or Xbox One controller, it’s maddening.

So, as you can see, most of the things I like about the controller are hardware related, and most things I dislike are software related. Seems like Valve has a heck of a device here, but Steam needs to catch up. All in all, I’m happy with it, and it really seems like a step in the right direction. It’s not the perfect device to make console gamers switch to PC, but it definitely helps the idea of a PC powering a TV-centric entertainment center. But, me, I like sitting at a desk. I like leaning back in my chair, with a controller, and having some good old fashioned fun. And this can help.

Update! I have managed to make it work with Diablo III. It’s a little sketchy, since Steam must launch the Battle.net client, which in turn launches Diablo III, but it does work, and it the input is actually pretty comfortable.