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Hands-on: Valve's Steam Controller feels as innovative as it is unfinished

By Mike Jackson on Friday 10th Jan 2014 at 11:41 AM UTC

Valve has introduced what is the most unorthodox primary controller for a platform since the Wii Remote - perhaps longer.

Sure, Nintendo's wand-like interface was odd in shape and popularized then-novel motion control, but it wasn't completely mad. It still had three fairly conventional action buttons. It had an extension port into which - for most of the best Wii games - you connected a conventional analogue stick. It still had a d-pad. That's Nintendo's mainstay input since the very beginning. Was it truly as bold a change as we first thought? Perhaps not.

The Steam controller is unquestionably bold. Fearless, even. It throws 30 years of cemented convention to the wind. Forget the d-pad. Remove the analogue sticks. Eschew typical face buttons. The only thing familiar about this controller are the shoulder buttons and triggers that adorn its upper surface.

The main act in this freak show is the pair of unorthodox circular touch pads that sit where your thumbs rest. Between them are some almost equally bizarre buttons - four large square inputs and four smaller triangular ones. Hidden away on the back are two large buttons, which rest underneath the three fingers that you would conventionally use to grip each side of the controller.

On paper, the basic controls for, say, an FPS game make sense. The left and right touch pads essentially do the same jobs as the left and right analogue sticks on a 'normal' controller. Or, if you're a PC-type, the left touchpad is your 'WSAD' keys and the right one is your mouse.

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Easy, right? It really isn't. Even with extensive experience with both console and PC control mechanics, we seriously had to put the training wheels back on while getting to grips with the touch-based interface.

Seizing an opportunity at a Steam Machine event at CES this week, we grabbed the controller and fired up old favourite, Portal. Its slow pace and methodical gameplay provided the ideal initial test for a controller intended to serve as the living room alternative to the mouse and keyboard - a relaxed yet versatile first-person game with no enemies to worry about.

The first touch and initial feel is just... strange. Our aiming was all over the place. You know what you want to achieve, but your analogue-stick-trained fingers will let you down at first. Valve would have you believe that fully acclimatizing to the new control style will take five minutes. We'd say it'll take at least five hours to be even just competent at games you've been playing masterfully for years.

"Initially the Steam Controller feels odd to use because your thumbs are required to perform very different actions."

It's not the fault of the controller in terms of quality, but instead the sheer break from convention when using it. The touch pads, as unusual as they may be, are responsive, sensitive and accurate. Circular grooves in the plastic dishes give you a firm sense of your thumb's position. You're not left unsure of where the center of the touchpad is, or how far from the edge you are.

Haptic feedback in both touch pads relays a subtle clicking feel under your thumbs as you slide over the smooth surfaces. This small tactile detail is ingenious, because it gives you an accurate sense of how far your thumb has travelled based on the number of clicks you feel - much like the clicking of a mouse scroll wheel.

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Part of the reason why the Steam Controller feels so odd to use, though, is because your two thumbs are required to perform very different actions - at least in an FPS game. Your left thumb is pressing a point on the touchpad to make your character walk or strafe in that direction, just like the WSAD keys. Meanwhile, your right thumb is swiping across the surface of its touchpad - just like a mouse - to drag your 'look' view around.

It's like trying to simultaneously rub your stomach and pat your head for the first time. You'll catch yourself swiping the left pad to strafe, or pressing a point on the right touchpad in a futile attempt to look in that direction.

"We were less convinced by the controller's unorthodox face button array."

Equally as strange is the sensation of clamping your three grip fingers on the underside buttons, which in Portal's case is used to jump.

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Admittedly we were rubbish at using it, but it does fundamentally make sense, and by the end of our play test we were getting better. Over time, we could see the touch pad configuration offering superior accuracy at aiming than an analogue stick, but it'll certainly take plenty of practice.

But we were less convinced by the controller's unusual face button array. The four square buttons are clearly not intended to be action keys like typical ABXY buttons, but they just seem clunkier than they need to be and aren't labelled, so you're not sure which you're supposed to press.

The XBYA arrangement on this controller are the four triangular buttons spread over the four corners on the central square - all miles apart and not particularly comfortable under the thumb to begin with. And it doesn't help that all of the on-screen button prompts were for keyboard keys.

Even the three buttons on the lower half of the controller (approximations of your typical Start, Select and Menu buttons) are oddly placed and unpleasant to touch. The whole controller has a generally cheap feel to it, though it is the unfinished model, though the first official Steam Machines will be available to the public this month.

Despite our reservations, consider us believers in the disruptive twin touch pad configuration. Sure, it's odd to begin with, and you'll be infuriatingly amateur at games you used to be the master of for a short while. But it does solve one fundamental limitation of analogue stick-based inputs; you can only move a character's aim as fast as your sensitivity setting.

A mouse is fundamentally superior because your character will move as fast as you move your hand. A skilled player can snap to any target in a fraction of a second with a mouse. A touch pad essentially opens up this level of 1-to-1 control to controller users, and that's pretty exciting.

But there are a vast number of improvements that need to be made for the pad to feel more 'final'.