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First impressions: the Steam Machine and its confounding controller

Tuesday, 7th January 2014 15:47 GMT By Phil Owen

Phil Owen plays Metro: Last Light and Portal with Valve’s new controller and finds it an utterly bewildering experience.

When we pare it all down to the details, a Steam Machine is still just a PC. One intended to go in an entertainment center, sure, but the “what is it?” factor for the box itself doesn’t amount to a whole lot. The same can’t be said for the odd new gamepad Valve designed to go with these things.

The Steam Controller is utterly bewildering to look at, and as I discovered on Monday night at CES in Las Vegas, it’s just as bewildering, if not more, to pick up and use it. The haptic touchpads that dominate its landscape are utterly alien at first touch, and the confusion only mounted when I tried to use the other buttons – the unprecedented layout of these inputs didn’t help matters.

“The haptic touchpads that dominate its landscape are utterly alien at first touch, and the confusion only mounted when I tried to use the other buttons.”

I used the Steam controller to sample Metro: Last Light, Portal, Beatbuddy and Trine 2. The controller was operating in what Valve’s Anna Sweet referred to as “Legacy Mode”, in which the pad emulates, or attempts to emulate, a mouse and keyboard control scheme. And unlike how button prompts onscreen will change if you switch to an Xbox 360 controller on these games, I was still getting the keyboard and mouse prompt and having to translate them to this pad I quite frankly didn’t understand.

That sounds bad, but those are incidental bits; once the Steam Controller hits retail later this year, it’ll be less likely you’ll face trying to use it with all the control prompts as key and mouse buttons. It could be that when operating the Steam Controller with an intentional control scheme that it won’t be so frustrating.

My feeling today is that Valve likely showed us this hardware and software before it’s ideal for anyone, as a follow-up to the Steam hardware beta last month. Whatever the reason, I did find the controller to be particularly less viable than the standard mouse and keyboard or Xbox 360 controller. And unlike when, say, I first struggled to acclimate to playing shooters with twin sticks years ago, the Steam Controller will never be the only option any player has on a Steam Machine. A fact that could discourage wide adoption, even if the learning curve is eventually less steep, as an on-hand Valve employee suggested to me as I wrestled with the thing.

I don’t believe the acclimation period for this gamepad will be measured in minutes the way Valve staff insisted repeatedly. My initial dual-analog struggle I mentioned above lasted a couple of months before I became actually proficient to my standards and satisfaction. Learning to aim with a touchpad is its own new mountain to climb, not a short hike up a slightly inclined road. The prevailing principles of the gamepad sticks are there, yes, but I didn’t feel as if I made any progress towards being comfortable with the Steam Controller in my demo session.

Where this gamepad does shine is in its customization. In Legacy Mode I could retranslate the control scheme nearly as I saw fit. Naturally, there were limited options for remapping the pads themselves as there are few places to go from the left pad being WASD and the right being a cursor in most games. But after fighting for several moments to navigate menus I found I could increase the “dead zone” on the pads, or the size of the spot in the center of them that doesn’t do anything when you touch it. And if you think pressing down on one pad for spacebar (you’d probably never want to jump by clicking a stick) or the other for E is utterly wacky, you can move them. On the other hand, having Escape be explicitly a button on a gamepad won’t stop being strange for me; imagine the options button on a DualShock 4 taking you to the pause menu and also being the button for backing out of submenus.

Lastly, the haptic feedback on the touchpads didn’t feel strong enough, and I stopped feeling it after a few moments. That feedback could be crucial to the experience of using the controller, so hopefully it can or will be beefed up.

When a developer builds a control scheme for the Controller – or when a non-legacy mode uniform to the controller is built similar to dual analog pads on PC – it will undoubtedly all make more sense, but I was told developers have only just received controllers to work with and so no such thing exists yet.

“I don’t believe the acclimation period for this gamepad will be measured in minutes the way Valve staff insisted repeatedly.”

Like the control schemes, SteamOS is also not quite ready for prime time, but it does provide some insight into its usability, and how it works with a Steam Machine. When I navigated to the video options on Metro: Last Light, I was greeted by only a slider labelled “Quality,” without any other options whatsoever. And when I booted up Trine 2 I found myself staring at its standard launcher with graphics options (minus a 3D option) stretched to 1080p, an uncomfortable assault on the eyes only exacerbated by the drop down menus – which when selected would take over the entire screen.

The possibility that graphical options will be simplified as with Last Light’s slider is legitimate, but don’t expect games to have locked settings based on whatever Steam machine hardware is being used, since there will be so many variations there from one manufacturer to the next. Origin PC’s Steam Machines will be just as customizable as any other PC you would buy from them, and so realistically the Steam Machine landscape won’t be much more limited than PC variety already is. The Steam Machines are about form factor, not spec standardization.

Sadly, the Steam Controller doesn’t give a particularly good first impression of what Valve is trying to accomplish with living room PC gaming, though that gateway could get better or worse from here as hardware manufacturers build their own variations on the pad. But at this early stage a console-style PC for an entertainment center feels like a noble ideal that could be marred by the accessibility barrier of the Steam Controller. After finally putting that strange thing to use, it appears to me that Valve built it more to make waves than to improve the gaming experience.

With half a year or more before the Steam Machines, SteamOS and Steam Controller are deemed fully market-ready, there is plenty of time for me to be wrong. But judging from my hands-on experience today, there is just as much cause to be skeptical.

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16 Comments

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  1. Tormenter

    Seriously? You find the Steam controller difficult to use?

    You are using your hands, yes?

    #1 6 months ago
  2. Dave Cook

    @1 Have you tried one? Just keen to see what you thought of it when you played it?

    #2 6 months ago
  3. wicktus

    I was pretty skeptical myself when I saw those two huge touch sensitive area, I’m pretty sure that, with enhanced standard sticks the controller could’ve been a big success, it’s clear that it won’t be

    #3 6 months ago
  4. Harrow

    I really want a blast. After watching people play with it on YouTube I understand the control scheme I just have doubt on weather it would every be accurate enough to replace my mouse and keyboard. Some of the vids of last light and team fortress are quite amusing.

    #4 6 months ago
  5. Arcnail

    It’s definitely different. I imagine some are going to like it, and some aren’t.

    #5 6 months ago
  6. TheBlackHole

    I’ve been saying this for ages. In fact, I think I said it earlier today in another thread.

    You can’t expect to replace an analogue stick with a touch pad and expect it to work.

    It needs a mode where the gradual movement of your thumb over the pad mimics analogue input. You can’t be constantly swiping in one direction to turn around.

    #6 6 months ago
  7. broketm

    #6
    >> You can’t be constantly swiping in one direction to turn around.

    Huh, that’s odd… I can swear I have done exactly that for almost all my gaming for 20 years.

    I haven’t handled a Steam Controller yet, but with time getting used to. How much different can a flick from the wrist be to a flick of my thumb(s)? In fact I find the analogue stick pretty awkward to use in any FPS/TPS game. And that’s likely only because I haven’t owned a console since the NES.

    If the steam controller is any good or not, I don’t think trackpads (or at least the principle of them) will be the issue.

    #7 6 months ago
  8. Bomba Luigi

    The best Thing about the controller is the Fact that you don’t have to use it. Take a 360 or PS Pad and it will work just fine. Same with M+K, works just fine.

    Games that are Designed for Sticks will always work better with Sticks, and Games that are designed for M+K will always work better with them, thats just normal.
    The Steam Controller looks like it is designed to be a middle-Thing, to be decenend in both Territoris but not a Master in any of them.

    Maybe I should give it a try befor I judge, but then I ask why should I? I have no need to move away from a Controller, because it works just Perfect. And I have no need to move a away from M+K, because it works just Perfect.
    But I’m sure the Steam Controller will find its fans and its Place, and thats great, but he wont change what most People use and what most Games are design for: Not him.

    #8 6 months ago
  9. Tormenter

    Dave.

    I’ve seen it used and I see no operational problems with it… If you can use touchscreen controls.. then there is no difference in using this except for the fact that it works better than a touchscreen.. You may be unused to this controller, but it should take no longer than 5 minutes to become acclimatised to it, have any pads, in the past, taken longer for you?, they haven’t for me. It may be unfamiliar but that hardly equaltes to ‘difficult’

    As for the comments about multiple sweeping action with the thumbs to emulate an analogue thumbstick.. in practice it’s far more accurate and faster than thumbstick. You may not be able just to hold down a direction to turn, although you can to move, but the full range of movement available on the pad means you can turn at your own pace with more useability, accuracy and control than has ever been available on a joypad with sticks, however this is all entirely moot, as you can set the turn radius to anything you want from a few centimetres per full swipe to multiple revolutions. It doesn’t have to take multiple swipes, it all depends on your set sensitivity.

    I’m not entirely sure it would emulate the keyboard with any satisfaction, it seems to be shy still of a few keys for that job.. but it’s CERTAINLY going to kick the shit out of any existing joypad on the market.

    #9 6 months ago
  10. xxJPRACERxx

    Can’t wait for this. I use a trackball (thumb operated) on my PC and I think the learning curve will be short (if the sensitivity is similar).

    #10 6 months ago
  11. nuisance

    So… how does it compare to playing games on a laptop with no mouse? If it’s that, except comfortable, I’m in.

    I ask this because the comparisons between a relative-input device (trackpad) to an absolute-input device (analog stick) makes absolutely no sense to me. Apples and oranges, etc.

    #11 6 months ago
  12. Telepathic.Geometry

    I actually relish the necessity to acclimate to a new controller. The Wii U was disappointing in this regard, it was the first Nintendo controller in literally decades where I didn’t need to acclimate. I love the feel of a new control scheme, advancing the dexterity of my hands to be able to deftly control new games.

    It might be an idea to turn down the difficulty of the games you play until you get there though, eh. Walk. Run.

    #12 6 months ago
  13. RicardoReverr

    my Aunty Ella got a six-month old MINI Cooper Paceman by working parttime from a home pc… check this site out http://goo.gl/W1m69V (Home tab more info)

    #13 6 months ago
  14. sebastien rivas

    Why do we still go back at the fact Steam is a PC.
    we know Steam is a PC, it was a PC, it is a PC, and will remain a PC but with another OS that is Steam linux.

    Same goes for PS4 and Xb1 even though no one want to see it the truth is that both machines ARE PC based but the OS is not Ms windows, that is the ONLY difference so please don’t bring back the fact Steam is PC based. We already know that and as far as I remember n0ne of VG staff brough this fact up at worst as often for Either console giants for example… just saying guys… just saying.

    @1 You can’t just expect something NEW to be perfect before launch, that is nearly unrealistic. Although Thanks Phil for showing us that Steam is heavily going on PR around their controller.
    I believe it will work well even though I am no controller user beside wii remote or K.M.
    Steam should really start kicking next gear well and concisely, constructively, and intelligently, especially with their controller.
    The “its ok it is only native layout to K.M because it’s like that for now can only work for a very very short period of time!
    Bring us Elite with Haptic, that might be easiest for anyone to navigate in space.

    #14 6 months ago
  15. Fin

    @Tormenter

    “I’ve seen it used”

    PROTIP: That means your opinion isn’t as valid as someone who’s actually used the thing.

    #15 6 months ago
  16. OwnedWhenStoned

    I’m sure this has been asked before, but can Steamboxes still be used with a keyboard and mouse?

    As someone who only has one proper thumb, that looks even harder to use than a Xbox / PS3 controller.

    #16 6 months ago