A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to get my hands on the first prototype of the Steam Controller (it did not have a screen and no analog controls either, unlike the latest iteration). While it is not representative of where the game controller is now, I could at least get a good feeling about the haptic trackpads. I tried it for both Portal and FEZ.
The Controller itself is super flexible. In SteamOS you have a specific menu dedicated to mapping it, and there are basically settings you can select for each game you want to play. Users can share their configurations in the cloud so you can actually try and see which one works best for you, or create a new one as well.
My first impression when holding the Controller was that it’s really light. It’s probably because it was a wired version, but it was a little surprising since it looks rather bulky at first sight.
Once I started playing Portal with it, I must admit I felt lost a little. Unlike a regular pad, you should imagine the haptic areas as trackballs. I was keeping my thumb on the right, hoping to see the view scroll continuously just like on a regular analog pad, but it actually stops once your thumb stops moving. Just like on a regular trackball, you need to keep your thumb moving on the surface to keep scrolling. You kind of get used to it after a while, but it really took some time for me to understand it was using a different paradigm.
In FEZ, if I remember correctly, the left haptic trackpad was used for movement and was behaving just like an analog pad: keeping your thumb left made the character continuously move to the left. The right haptic trackpad was configured as buttons, and depending where you pressed on the surface it would trigger a different action. Press the lower part and the character would jump, for example. While it worked, it felt a little bit uncomfortable. Every time I had a jump without too much margin for error, I would miss my target, or press the surface too early. I’m pretty sure having actual controls for buttons is way better for that kind of games, and that’s probably the reason why they included such buttons in the new versions of the controller.
This may very much vary depending on the configuration you choose. There are probably better settings suited for each player among the choices available, and I may have had a better time had I tried some other one.
All in all, I was not convinced that this controller would be great for many types of games. And this may be my personal issue with the controller as well. Other folks around me were also trying it for the first time and several had no issues to get used to it in no time, and could perform way better than I did in both Portal and FEZ.
I would like to try the controller for a very different kind of game as well, such as strategy ones (Civilization 5, Crusader Kings II for example) to see how you can effectively replace the mouse in such environments where fast-paced action is not always needed.
Valve is probably on the right track to provide an “acceptable” solution for most games out there, but it may not be the best way to play all games and people like me may actually prefer good old controllers for other games. But SteamOS is going to be great in that regard, since there is no reason why you would not be able to plug a Xbox 360 controller to it and enjoy arcade games in the best way.