Steam Controller: Impressions


Why Valve all of a sudden started making hardware will always remain a mystery. Why the controller went through a couple of different designs is also a head-scratcher. What I do know is, for a measly fifty bucks (that is, if you’re in ‘Murica), you can get your hands on something nice - the Steam controller. It’s Valve’s attempt at making couch-gaming on the PC possible by allowing the emulation of the keyboard and mouse. And what I have to say, for the past couple of weeks I’ve had it, is that it gets the job done fantastically.

Many folks will tell you it takes a bit of time to get used to. That is indeed true. Never have we really seen a controller with trackpads and without a second analog stick. Spend a few hours with it, though, and I think you might like what you get.

Feels lightweight and plastic-y. Runs on AA batteries, which I actually like, because a specialized battery might add weight and replacing it can cost a lot. Apparently it has a gyro feature? Along with clickable left and right triggers, a clickable trackpad that in most cases represent the mouse, another trackpad with an image imprinted on it that resembles a D-pad, two paddle buttons on the back, and wireless connectivity. Otherwise, it’s got most of the buttons your traditional Xbox controller has. It can act as a keyboard and mouse emulator too, which makes games with little to no controller support possible to play, without having to run an external joystick-to-keyboard emulator, and the Steam client packs lots and lots of customization options. This means you can also navigate your desktop with this thing. Pretty neat.

This is where the batteries go. One on each side. This is where the AA batteries go. One on each side of the controller, an unusual choice.

Battery usage is pretty dang good. I’ve been using this controller for the past two-and-a-half weeks using the same pair of batteries that the box shipped with. Although, they’re Duracell batteries, which might explain it. Heh.

Still on 100% after two weeks of use...? Still on 100% after two weeks of use…?

Getting it to connect for the first time on Ubuntu 15.10 was a huge pain in the arse, even after Valve added support for this specific OS. How I finally got the controller detected I can’t remember - probably a Steam client update. After that, connecting the controller is as easy as turning it on with the Steam button in the center.

Depending on the game, the key bindings may need little to no tweaking at all; others, a lot. Steam includes three different configuration templates - one that acts as a gamepad, another, as the keyboard and mouse, the third, uh, somewhere in between that - from which you can modify to your liking. You can then upload these configurations to the Internet so others can use it. Sometimes, though, the game will already use an official configuration made by the developers or the community.

In brief, for games that require high precision, like shooters, the controller works great. For fighters, I don’t see any benefit in using it over a traditional controller.

I notice my aim is much better in Storm United than when I was playing with a combination of the joystick and mouse, and even better than using a joystick alone. Headshots? No, not really. Sniping? No, not really. Still get beat the shift out of by good players? Yep. Keeping the crosshair still is fairly difficult with the trackpad, so it’s more optimized for, say, mid-range combat with an assault rifle - but man, I can’t think of a better alternative rather than using the keyboard and mouse - something that’s always been an awkward transition for me. The two paddle buttons on the back of the controller makes jumping and reloading easy mid-combat, and aiming is much more smooth and swift. Here’s some footage of the game:

This is what the interface looks like when changing the mappings on your Steam controller This is what the interface looks like when changing the mappings on your Steam controller

Then there’s Skullgirls. I won’t be using the Steam controller anytime for this one; it plays pretty much the same as a regular Xbox controller, seeing there’s no use for the trackpads or clickable triggers, plus the different placement of the button layouts takes a bit of time getting adjusted to. I also notice my combos are a bit more difficult to accomplish, because, for instance, the analog stick registers my thumb pressing down (down arrow key) even though I’m pushing it to the right. Now I can’t finish off my opponent with Beat Extend (Big Band) because my character either ends up either crouching or jumping and my opponent has already left hitstun.

Yeah okay, so maybe these are really the only two games I’ve been playing lately on Linux. The controller might be good for racing titles (GRID Autosport, where are you?), as one can change gears with the back paddle buttons, and maybe even strategy games, but obviously I can’t make that judgment yet.

My only gripes:

  • Valve recommends using the beta version of the Steam client to get the most use out of the controller - which I can understand, but really? Be exposed to the problems that a beta can bring just to enjoy that new mouse region feature?
  • Requested a refund after pre-ordering a second controller on Steam before it shipped, but now that it’s here, I have to request the refund again and ship the dang thing back to them.
  • Almost any customization to the controller has to be done through Big Picture Mode. Not everyone wants to use that buggy interface just to rearrange some keys.
  • I might be wrong on this, but I’m pretty sure the 4.2 kernel does not have native support for the Steam controller. As a result one has to modify the key bindings so that it emulates the keyboard rather than act as a gamepad for most games.
  • Some official controller configurations might actually not…be totally usable for all users and needs to be modified slightly (ex. aiming sensitivity needs to be lowered).

Other than that, it has been an awesome addition for me. Can’t quite compete with the traditional keyboard and mouse, but still much better than a regular gamepad for shooters.