The camera is spinning wildly. Before I can make out if I’m staring at the floor or the sky, everything spins again. I stare at the controller in my hands, unsure of what to do. I have just spent twenty minutes messing with settings from sensitivity to response curve to haptic level, and I’ve completely sodded it – all in an attempt to emulate a thumbstick on a touch pad. I reset the controller profile to a gamepad default and the camera calms. Attempt #4 has failed.
The Steam controller isn’t for people who expect things to ‘just work’, and it certainly isn’t for console gamers – it’s the most personalisable piece of hardware I’ve ever used, it’s beautiful, it’s exciting, and sometimes it just doesn’t work. The Steam controller hates you. You should buy one.
The Steam Controller (SC from here on) has been a long time coming. The first video of a prototype in action was posted by Valve way back in October 2013, a bare-bones and rugged version of the hardware finally released in November 2015. It went from a dual touchpad with a touchscreen in the middle to 4 buttons in the middle, through numerous adjustments the public never saw until the final build – a thumbstick to help ease the transition, face buttons in the vein of a 360 pad, dual triggers, back buttons – and the real centre piece – dual touchpads. Think along the lines of a laptop trackpad except not terrible. Oh, and a gyro for good measure.
As part of the 3 tiered attack of Steam OS, Steam Machines and the SC, Valve presented the controller as a middle ground of sorts – somewhere between the practical but limited controller and the all-consuming but lap-unfriendly keyboard and mouse (with accuracy aiming for the latter). And in this, the SC succeeds. It feels less a fusion of the two and more something of its own as-yet unseen, the level of user uniqueness simply not seen in hardware anywhere else; the closest analogue being the Xbox One Elite controller. Everything about the controller can be messed with – gyro controls can be enabled, all buttons can be mapped to any (even multiple) keyboard or game inputs. If there’s something you don’t like, change it – I’ve got myself a setup for LEGO games that makes it so my thumbs never leave the pads, for example.
But with this freedom comes the natural opportunity for failure. Some games just flat out won’t work, with the user fiddling with config files or treating the pad as a keyboard when there is supposed controller support baked in. But therein lies perhaps the SC’s ultimate strength – games don’t have to be optimised for it at all. I sat and played Star Wars: Dark Forces – a DOS game! – with the SC yesterday. All it took was a little fiddling, working out exactly where I wanted each button and input to map, and voila, the unthinkable was effortless. The SC is one’s own, but the initial time investment required will no-doubt turn many away.
PC gamers are, more so than their console brethren, used to tinkering. Graphics card errors, random crashes, you name it – and this is why the SC can thrive. Community layouts can be shared and posted, meaning the tinkering community likely already has the perfect layout for whatever game you want to play. Bully? Sure! Virtua Tennis? Of course! Skullgirls? No problem! Hate everyone else’s input style? Go nuts! Hell, so long as you can launch it through the Steam front end, you can use the SC, so even non-Steam games like Minecraft, Diablo III or emulators can be used with a little more fiddling. The touchpads are perfect substitutes for the N64’s stick.
Of particular note are the gyro functions. So far as I can tell Valve didn’t even mention the gyro prior to release, but PC gamers have leapt on them. As a Wii and SixAxis survivor I instinctively steered clear of gyro at first, but the community seems determined to make motion control work – from the obvious use as a steering wheel to fine-tuned aiming – the closest comparable example being the Vita’s Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Use the thumb pad to line up your sniper, say, then use gyro for sub-pixel-like precise movement.
Another thing which keeps the SC ahead of traditional controllers is updates. Valve keep the SC on a regular loop with new improvements and even features, from a touch menu – think hotkeys – to the aforementioned non-Steam game support to being able to save controller profiles to take with you. It is no small feat that I can sync my SC to my brother’s PC and have all of my customised and strange configurations with me, ready to go. The dual back pad buttons are also a rare input, ideal for switching control types or lean in shooters.
There simply hasn’t been an input like this before. I can just as easily use the pad as a traditional controller in, say, Life is Strange or GTA IV, as I can use it in weird and wonderful ways for games released decades ago. Hell, we finally have a controller with enough inputs to play Street Fighter properly! The SC isn’t a matter of preferring the layout of pads ala the DualShock 4 and Xbox One pad, more so a question of how much time you’re willing to sink in searching for your perfect layout. I’d never have seen myself using a pad to play Kerbal Space Program or Civ 5 before the SC, but more often than not I find myself leaving my keyboard to gather dust now. The future looks bright for the SC, and we – the gamers – will be as crucial to its development as Valve themselves.