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Hands-on with Valve’s latest Steam Controller

Friday, 21st March 2014 08:32 GMT By Phil Owen

We get to grips with the latest controller build from Valve – how does it compare to Xbox and PlayStation pads, and why is it so damn big?

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“I have some big-ass hands, but the Steam controller is too expansive even for me to comfortably move my thumbs from these large pads to the buttons.”

The Steam controller as it existed two months ago when I played some games with it at CES was an alien entity that could easily be confused as something other than a gamepad, with haptic touchpads instead of sticks and a truly bizarre button layout, it was a weird thing to figure out in 15 minutes of hands-on.

But at least with that version of the pad, you knew before you picked it up it was going to be weird.

The new prototype Steam controller, which Valve brought to GDC for us to try out, is intended to be more visually familiar for a PlayStation or Xbox gamer and thus less intimidating, but I think it actually is more annoying to use than the version that wore its weirdness on its sleeve.

The new layout, as you can see in the image above, still has two dominating touchpads that work like sticks on that standard pad. And now, below and inside them, are eight buttons in two diamond arrangements: ABXY on the right and a d-pad on the left.

And as soon as I tried to use these buttons, I found myself rightly frustrated for a few reasons.

  1. I have some big-ass hands, but the Steam controller is too expansive even for me to comfortably move my thumbs from these large pads to the buttons. When playing Dirt Showdown, a seriously floaty and tricky game that requires a deft touch, needing to feel around for the e-brake button during a race is not so fun.
  2. Though Xbox and PlayStation controllers are different in a couple important ways, one of the most important things they have in common is that the face buttons are above and outside the right stick. Valve reversing those positions is surprisingly tough for me to wrap my head around. But with so many years of using these buttons often in most games, and those buttons almost always being in the same spot, have trained me to use a controller in a certain way. Changing that now is strange.
  3. The D-pad is not actually a pad, but just more buttons that look and feel like the ABXY buttons. Obviously, that is confusing to the touch, and a quick glance down at the pad during play doesn’t immediately rectify that problem because they don’t look right either.

These are not at all insurmountable problems, of course. At this point in my life I’ve long been able to switch between a DualShock and Xbox 360 controller with not even the slightest case of X button confusion or any sort of issue with my left thumb finding a d-pad when switching between them. But I didn’t have alternatives when using those; if I wanted to play Uncharted I had to use the DualShock 3, and if I wanted to play the original Mass Effect on launch day I had to use the 360 controller, and so on. The platform dictated I had to use its controller. Steam Machines don’t do that.

“The presence of the face buttons and d-pad-esque buttons tricked me into thinking the Steam controller is less inscrutable than it is.”

But the bigger issue that I see is simply that I still don’t find myself being able to play most of the games I’ve tried all that well with the touchpad instead of sticks or a mouse and keyboard, and the presence of the face buttons and d-pad-esque buttons tricked me into thinking the Steam controller is less inscrutable than it is. That these buttons are at this point not so well implemented makes that worse.

So while the old controller may have been more difficult to deal with – that’s still hard to tell without using them in the wild one after the other – that it looked like a totally insane thing meant you had some idea of what you were getting into when you picked it up. And so when it’s immediately awkward to use most people probably will be more forgiving of the learning curve for a bit. But when you pick up this controller with familiar elements like face buttons that are a struggle to use for the first time in your life, I wouldn’t expect much forgiveness at all.

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11 Comments

  1. ij 44

    Well very few people are going to buy this, even less than the steam boxes.

    This can’t be valve’s future or they would have got it right – doesn’t really make sense – we can easily plug a xbox360 controller into a PC if we want.

    Is this a “we have to be seen to be doing stuff” project – like MS used to do (eg Zune) – and they don’t really care if it fails??

    #1 9 months ago
  2. silkvg247

    Yeah with tiny hands I’m not holding out much hope anymore. Surely a more revolutionary idea would be to put the buttons behind the pad.. so your thumbs are on top your fingers at the back. Would feel more natural to me anyhow.

    #2 9 months ago
  3. gomersoul

    So the naysayers were right. Doesn’t bode well for vr. A lot hanging on these steam boxes

    #3 9 months ago
  4. freedoms_stain

    How long did you have to play around with it?

    Reads like someone who hadn’t used it very long.

    #4 9 months ago
  5. TheWulf

    I don’t think this is their final design, even, is it? The last I heard is that it’s still a work in progress, and apparently they still have a long ways to go. Still, to say exactly what I said before, I’m glad that someone is trying to innovate and I hope that eventually it’ll inspire people to improve upon the design.

    And I hope that Valve will take criticism like this to heart and use it to build a better pad. I have tiny hands, too, so I know I wouldn’t be able to use this. I think they’re excluding a good amount of people by making it too huge.

    I’d be genuinely surprised if they were clueless about that.

    So, we’ll see where it goes. It might be futile and a fruitless exercise, but any attempt to move the gamepad better and make it into a superior controller is a good thing. Gamepads, as they are now, are horribly inaccurate things. There needs to be some solution, somewhere down the line.

    #5 9 months ago
  6. TheWulf

    @3

    That’s the most peculiar logic I’ve ever heard.

    Man, that new Samsung tablet is a bit poor, that doesn’t bode well for future Ferrari cars.

    (Which is a fair point, since they’re very different pieces of hardware made by very different companies.)

    #6 9 months ago
  7. TheWulf

    I can see where #3 is going wrong, though. They’re thinking of everything as one big STEAM brand, which is dumb, but very typical tribalism. It’s hilarious though considering that even Sony has VR in the works.

    Every time I see dumb brand tribalism I just want to bash my head against the nearest desk. That’s something that needs to go away.

    #7 9 months ago
  8. polygem

    i switched back to pc in 2014. i love controllers. the 360 pad still is my favourite pad to play videogames with and i cannot wait to get the one controller for pc.
    i can play games with mouse and keyboard – for some games it even works better, sure but i never was a fan of this.

    i still can´t understand why noone in the industry is desinging something like an analog stick that you can connect to your keyboard for your thumb (underneath the space bar for example) to replace wasd and then allows you to use the keboard and mouse for everything else. that setup would be perfect imo.

    the logitec g13 is partly trying that but i think there should be a much more elegant solution than this.

    that said, i cannot wait for the steam controller. it´s an optional device, you can still use mouseb & keyboard or many other pads but the steam controller might be the perfect solution for me for certain games.

    i will buy one of these things day one. i have been waiting for something like this for over a decade. maybe it will deliver, maybe not – at least someone finally is trying – and that´s great.

    #8 9 months ago
  9. polygem

    @polygem: no edit – more typos

    #9 9 months ago
  10. gomersoul

    @ The Tribal Wulf. I was merely expressing my opinion that sometimes people who say things are shit are right, it’s got nothing to do with the different products available. People said this would be shit and they were right so that means if some say V.R. is shit they could also be right, right? Valve looks to have really wasted their time on this and the steam boxes. Doesn’t matter which company makes it to me, they are all capable of making pieces of turd. Please go back to your pot noodle and look at girls on facebook you can’t go out with. Stop pretending you’re more intelligent than everyone else.

    #10 9 months ago
  11. OneLifeCycle

    I want to like it but the reviews along with my first thoughts on it simply based on the design aren’t doing my optimism any favors.

    I like the innovation but they’re missing the mark with this one.

    #11 9 months ago

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