Steam Controller First Impressions

A Steam Controller

I got one of the first batch of Steam Controllers this Friday and I’ve had an…Interesting™ time with it. I played it with 17 games of various genres to try it out and I’ve got a lot of things to say about it, at the least. You can find my specific experiences with the games at the bottom after the conclusion.

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…I also got Woolly World (You should get Woolly World).

Initial Setup

Color me impressed, the unboxing was actually kinda nice. It’s got a paper slip cover you slide off, allowing you to open the box where the controller greets you. Just under the controller is your wireless USB receiver. I actually completely missed a compartment under the controller holder that had a brain dead-simple manual, a microUSB cable and a USB extender hub (you’ll find later I wish I DID completely miss it).

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It does a great job of reflecting my fan, who photobombs every picture of a reflective object.

The install is painless enough, plug in the nub, make sure Steam is open, press the Steam button on the controller. It’ll install the latest firmware, taking about a minute. I then had to restart steam to start reading input, not sure if that’s a flaw or just a result of me running the Steam client Beta (was running it for the new Big Picture mode).

Then you start using it…and things get a lot less pleasant. The learning curve on this device is completely unavoidable. No matter how many controllers you’ve handled, keyboards you’ve tapped, mice you’ve moved or trackpads you’ve fondled, this thing is nothing quite like any of them.

That’s kind of inherent to the beast’s focus on emulating mouse, but it’s pretty unfortunate. Your first time using the Steam Controller is going to be bad. Ranging between “can’t play this game” bad and “it worked, barely” bad. This could be pretty disastrous when a bunch of people buy >$500 Steam Machines and sit down to play with a completely new input method on a device allegedly designed to make PC gaming comfortable and easy.

I think Steam really needs to put together some sort of small game to basically teach you to use the Steam Controller. If you just pick a game at random from your steam library it’s quite possible you’ll have a bad time, but they could mitigate this by having a recommended, fun little game to play first so you can get used to the unusual control setup and most importantly get used to the trackpads in a safe environment. Absolutely do not play a difficult game your first try with the steam controller.

Touchpads?

The left touchpad is not an input method. The left touchpad is a last-ditch effort by a deranged Valve employee feverishly insisting that touchpads are how controller should be made.

Oh sure, it functions as an input method–that was just a metaphor. It makes a really bad d pad in some games, it’s used in the weird double pad keyboard Steam Big Picture now has (that’s kinda cool), and you can map it to a mouse manually. But in no game I tested, nor any community config, was the left pad actually of any use beyond a WASD/d pad hotkey sort of thing.

The trackpad is absolutely unacceptable for character movement, especially with an analog stick right there. You see you have to click it in to start registering inputs, and you either have to clickyclack release and move and press again to reverse/change direction, or quickly move your hand over the surface to another direction. To stop moving you have to let it go, then suffer another click as you press it in again, it’s a very clumsy experience all around that almost makes me miss the 360’s d pad.

You don’t need two track pads. The track pads are terrible for analog stick emulation, so you can always make use of the right pad (which is always the camera pad) and the left analog stick to move and look. Since it’s a bad analog, a worse d pad and there’s no reason to have two cursor pads, there is simply no reason for this giant thing to be on the controller.

A second analog or d pad would be most welcome and go a long way to making this controller an actual controller replacement instead of only a KB/M replacement, but instead we are graced with this…monstrosity. It’s emblematic of Valve’s apparent mindset: It’s not there because you need it, it’s there because we say so.

Haptic?

I thought I should dedicate a whole section to how incredibly oversold the “haptic feedback” in the controller is. All the “haptic feedback” is, is a very loud, very weak motor under the right track pad that goes BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ all the while you move your thumb around. It is distinctly nothing like operating a trackball mouse and adds almost no information because you can, you know, just feel your own thumb moving along the textured pad.

It really seems like the physical ridges on the touch pad would have provided far more useful information about where your thumb is, but maybe they were too annoying to constantly feel.

You eventually get used to the haptic noise and can mostly tune it out, but it’s pretty ridiculous. The controller seems to also not have actual “rumble” either, just the little buzzy haptic motor.

An odd use of the haptics is the analog stick has them when emulating a single-step keyboard press, usually only within the Steam UI. You press down and it goes BZZ to let you know it’s triggered and now stopped accepting inputs. But this is a really questionable mode of operation and no game seems to use it. Fortunately you can manually turn off this form of haptics and you’re unlikely to feel it in game, it’s just a reminder to never use the Steam Controller’s analog stick in Big Picture Mode (even though it works perfectly fine on other controllers).

The one benefit the haptics have is a really weird case–if you’re not in game and you fling across the pad, you can feel it “still going” for a little bit after your fling. The mouse cursor moves like, 100 pixels extra, slightly like flinging a trackball if your trackball has amazing brakes.

No game seems to allow this questionable feature (not even Portal 2, with it’s Steam Controller config, not even games emulating mouse) and honestly that might be for the best, but this was the only time I thought the haptics were kinda cool. I’ve never used it for an actual purpose, but sometimes I’ll fling the cursor around just to feel it go.

Some people seem to really like the haptic feedback though. Can’t tell if one of us is crazy, or if the Steam Controller build quality is just highly variable. Either way, I wouldn’t expect great things, I can’t frankly imagine why this form of haptics would ever be of use.

As a side note this was extra disappointing now that the Dualshock 4’s motors and Xbox One’s Rumble Triggers have been the most exciting thing for force feedback since…okay no, force feedback was never interesting before this, but I guess you really felt that one explosion in Star Fox, right? But seriously, the DS4’s ability to create extremely subtle and localized vibration sensations has actually been impressive, so it’s pretty lame to see this is the best Valve could come up with.

I don’t even know if the left pad has haptic. It sucks so much I never thought to try it and it’s never been enabled by default.

Confusion

In a very…”PC Gaming” move, a main draw for the Steam Controller is that you can set up your own configs, or use other people’s, and there can even be recommended/official configs per game.

This sounds neat, but in practice it makes every new game a fumbling, confusing experience. In Borderlands 2 the right pad was emulating a joystick and a bit less accurate. In Portal 2 it’s a bit better, and also suddenly if you click in the right pad there’s motion controls?! I never found the elusive motion controls in an official or community config again.

Sometimes the right/left rear paddles just copy the confirm/back buttons (A/B), sometimes they’re their own buttons. Sometimes the left pad is a (bad) d pad. Sometimes it’s a shortcut menu. Sometimes it’s…a…second…mouse?? It could be, but should never be, an analog stick because there’s a real analog just under it. Sometimes, most times, it’s completely useless. Did I make an entire section about how useless it is already? Well I’ll still say it again.

The configuration issue reminds me, in a bad way, of the classic Flash Game “what the hell do I even press” experience. Is this game WASD? No, must be arrow keys. Is Spacebar jump? Is it Z? Oh, shit, it’s Up Arrow–you monster.

This is something that will probably be smoothed out as community/official configurations start proliferating, but for now the Steam Controller is a fussy often DIY exercise, so if you’re looking to buy you should be ready to mess with manually made configurations and the gamepad acting totally different in different games is probably going to stay around forever.

As an added bit of fun, non-Steam games can have controller configs created for them, but they won’t actually work. I hope that’s a bug, but it’s still a pretty awful experience for now. You also can’t create configurations outside of Big Picture mode for now.

Multitasking

I’m kind of torn on this one–in a way the mouse emulation provides a more smooth game -> Desktop experience for multi-monitor fullscreen windowed users like me (there are dozens of us). You can use the mouse and the “desktop” config for the controller even provides some useful defaults like space bar, arrow key up/down. So you can flip over to Youtube on another monitor, click a new video to play, then quickly click back into your game without picking up a mouse or keyboard.

But it’s also potentially awkward awkward. If you forget which window has focus, it’s pretty easy to say, accidentally pause a Youtube video instead of starting your video game. While trying to Youtube and play 200% Mixed Juice I found myself screwing up more than helping.

It would be kind of neat, if even possible, to lock the Steam Controller’s input to an application. I’ve found the ability to accept background inputs like this very useful in emulators (very few non-emulators support this), but since the Steam Controller tries to be a keyboard and mouse too, it has no concept of “background input”.

If you’re playing on a TV (or monitor) without a second visible monitor, probably the most common use case, this is probably all totally irrelevant. But hey, you should buy a second–or even third–monitor and try out Borderless Gaming, it’s pretty great (when it works, which is most of the time).

Defects

Right out of the box I noticed a few machining defects on my unit–some unrefined blotches around the edges of the trackpads, one on the bottom of the left touchpad and one on the top left of the right one. I can’t really feel them in normal operation, but it’s clearly visible and really does bug me. There’s also a tiny chip in the glossy paint.

And then there’s the BIG defect. So Steam Controller comes with a little USB “extender” that lets you house the receiver away from the PC:

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Steam helpfully informed me I should use this little piece of plastic while allegedly experiencing lag–I was fiddling with video settings at the time so I suspect it was my PC not the connection that was responsible. But why not I figured, seems like a neat idea so I’ll try it out. The extender is actually nicely weighted so it won’t easily fall off your desk like many light USB peripherals.

All was well and good until one night I decided I’d try the controller on my Surface Pro 3–one of the reasons I bought the Steam Controller is that bluetooth pairing DS4s and long cords for 360 receivers add too much fuss to use them on a portable device. So I’ll just remove the USB dongle from the extender and–

Oh god. It’s stuck. And I’m not the only one either, Here’s a thread full of people with the issue. And I suspect many more either haven’t posted or haven’t tried to dock/remove their wireless dongle yet.

Oh well, it just requires some extra force to pull out right, not a big dea–

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Oh.

I’ve requested a refund–fun story. Steam Controller is treated as a “game” in Steam’s system, there’s no “replacement” or “support” option. You can either go complain in the discussion forum or request a refund, that’s all. And the refund options all explicitly relate to games, so it’s a pretty awkward experience. I haven’t heard back from them yet. The support site also crashed several times.

It still works by the way…the casing doesn’t go back on however, and it never did actually come out of the extender. It’s currently taped back together and permanently fused to it’s docking station, completely useless for my Surface and pretty ugly in general.

An Actual Use Case

Well that was all very negative. Let’s cover the one particularly good use case I did have–Grey Goo. Grey Goo is a modern, 90’s style RTS with absolutely no controller support. It happened to have a single community control scheme that works great. The left touch pad is mapped to got keys for the build menu, the left analog is the arrow keys, which pan the camera (without analog control this is a bit fiddly, but surprisingly workable), the right pad controls the cursor and the triggers click.

It all works pretty nicely and I played through the first three missions without issue. This is the first and honestly only time the Steam Controller really felt right and irreplaceable in-game. I was playing an RTS that would surely be a huge pain in the ass on my beloved Dualshock 4, without even touching a mouse, and it didn’t suck.

I also tried playing the original X-COM (That’s the DOS one, you casual) and found it workable but unpleasant. X-COM uses only the mouse and two mouse buttons–without the help of keyboard shortcuts the game is quite unpleasant to play frankly. To properly play X-COM you need lots of quick menuing via precise mouse movements, which the Steam Controller is simply not very capable of.

In the Steam Controller’s defense, the original X-COM’s controls were never that good–it could REALLY use hotkeys. I don’t own the new XCOM on PC, but it’s not a great showcase for the Steam Controller anyway since it has native controller support already. Maybe XCOM 2, which apparently drops controller support, will be a better test.

Second best, At Best

The Steam Controller’s primary problem is that it’s not the best at anything.

I regularly use my Dualshock 4 and 360 controller at my desk, with keyboard and mouse in reach, because they’re simply the best for the game I’m playing at the time. The DS4 is perfect for most platformers and general gaming not needing mouse-precision, and the 360 controller is perfect for twin stick games that don’t make use of the d pad (stupid, awful, rancid 360 d pad!). Keyboard and mouse are perfect for RTS, FPS, TBS, basically anything with a cursor or first person perspective and mouse look.

The Steam Controller…is never perfect. It is at best not particularly worse than a normal controller if you only use the buttons and analog sticks. Any time you use the trackpads, the defining feature of the controller, you are firmly into “okay at best” territory. The amazing precision of a mouse is absolutely nowhere to be found. You’ll overshoot or undershoot constantly and make lots of awkward erratic motions. Hours of training only helped a little.

This isn’t necessarily a fatal problem, since the Steam Controller is meant to sort of “bridge the gap”, but it results in a distinctly unfortunate psychological phenomenon. Every time I pick up the Steam Controller I’m aware I’m making a compromise–a rather extreme one. I’m not going to play my best. I need to avoid Hard Mode and Multiplayer like the plague. I’m going to screw up. Do I even want to play right now? Maybe I’ll just play something else.

As an extra bit of irony, the best time to use the Steam Controller is when Steam warns you there’s no controller support for the game. You get a big scary yellow warning about needing a configuration. Awkwardly enough, any game without this warning is almost certainly best played with a non-Steam controller, and any game WITH the big nasty warning is probably best played, with some effort, with the Steam Controller.

Conclusion

So there’s clearly a learning curve here like any controller, but honestly that’s not very important in my opinion. The Steam Controller is a super-niche device and if you don’t want to play games of a very specific genre on your TV–mostly RTS, cursor-heavy TBS (WITH keyboard shortcuts), and point and click games–there’s really no reason to be using this thing.

There are a lot of improvements they could make by firmware, controller configs will make first time use per-game a lot less hassle, but a great deal of the Steam Controller’s problems are firmly lodged in either hardware or mindset and are unlikely to change until a Steam Controller V2. This is frankly pretty unacceptable in my opinion, as the Steam Controller is already about a year late at this point and has had multiple public revisions already.

If you’re a huge RTS fan who wants to play your games on the couch with a controller…you are quite possibly the only sort of person who could possibly justify this controller the price. Anyone else is going to be extremely frustrated and or better off with a traditional controller.

Games Played

Here’s a list of games I tried:

  • 200% Mixed Juice (JRPG, plays fine)
  • Grey Goo (RTS, plays 90% fine)
  • XCOM UFO Defense (Turn Based Strategy, Mouse only interaction. Frustrating but playable due to few time-sensitive actions)
  • Portal 2 (First Person Puzzler, full offical Steam Controller Support. Clumsy but playable)
  • Borderlands The Pre-Sequel (FPS, very poor aiming, worse than dual analog somehow. Recommend literally anything else)
  • Assault Android Cactus (Twin Stick Shooter, distinctly worse than a dual analog controller but playable)
  • Chocolate doom (Non-steam app, could not play due to Steam not actually applying controller settings)
  • Eschatos (Shmup, fine since it only uses buttons and an analog. Using the “d pad” is suicidal even compared to the awful 360 d pad)
  • Sun and Moon (one button precision platformer, fine as long as you use analog movement)
  • Akiba’s Trip (Third Person Action–the trackpad is a bad right stick replacement, and the poor PC port of this only makes it worse)
  • Long Live The Queen (Visual Novel–oddly Steam Controller didn’t work in this, despite being an xinput game, then I turned the controller on and off and it worked fine. Game plays fine…if your controller is working)
  • Freedom Planet (Platformer, worked fine except the “d pad” wasn’t even accepted as input. Considering the quality of the Steam controller, this is fine)
  • 10 Second Ninja (Precision Platformer, works fine, doesn’t use either trackpad. Do not even try the “d pad”. My Buffalo fake-SNES controller is still preferable though)
  • RymdResa (Space Roguelike, works fine using only buttons and analog. Noticed it’s crazy easy to accidentally use a consumable bound to “light press” of the triggers though. “Destructive” actions should be mapped to hard press not light press.)
  • Captain Forever Remix (Space shooter Roguelike, worked fine, no trackpad use outside of menus. Official config.)
  • Earthtongue (Sim game, mouse only and very fussy, recommend mouse instead.)
  • Mighty Switch Force! Hyper Drive Edition (Puzzle Platformer, worked fine. Zero trackpad use. You can use the d pad, if you hate yourself.)
  • Civ 5 (just kidding I don’t own Civ 5 but you were going to bring up that I should test the controller with it instead, right? It probably plays fine, sure.)

Summary: Anything that doesn’t use the trackpads in any regards works fine. Isn’t that suspicious. The trackpads are basically only okay for RTS with non-mouse camera panning or games with extremely minimal mouse movement.

 

Addendum

Turns out it’s not just non-steam games, any custom config I make simply doesn’t actually work. Custom configs are a primary feature of the controller, and they cannot be expected to work. Do not purchase a Steam Controller.

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Author: Sir TapTap

Opinionated gaming spikeball dedicated to showing cool games and making games more enjoyable for everyone.

  • Shaun Hall

    Great review and spot on, I wish I had seen it before I bought one as a treat for myself as I am returning it already.

    Took it out of the box and it immediately feels cheap. I cannot stand how loud the buttons are on this unit and as for the haptic feedback, well its useless and serves no purpose apart from making it even more noisy to use.

    Played a few games, well tried and its just the worst experience. No other controller is that hard to learn and half of the buttons do nothing most of the time. Having a massive pad that you have to press first before it becomes usable is silly and this takes too much effort.

    I’m going to return mine hopefully but I am not sure how I go about it. For Valve, this is really is a bad controller with no real positives to it. Going back o my 360 controller and I will just have to wait and see if this gets changed in the future.

    • I have a small bit of good news and a ton of bad news. You CAN return/refund a Steam Controller, I almost did. There initially wasn’t a way to do it at ALL, then they added an option. But you still have to pay shipping to return the item, so you’re net negative, which is GREAT. And. I tried just now to find it to link you, but I can’t find a goddamn thing because steam’s support site is an unholy trainwreck. I have a headache now. Good luck finding the return link, brave soul.

    • God what a mess. Okay, what you have to do is go here https://help.steampowered.com/ , log in to Steam, go to Games and Software from the “select an issue” option, search for Steam Controller, go to Technical Issue then request a refund. But yes, you’re going to have to pay shipping, even though you already paid shipping to GET the defective item. Good service.