Hands-on with Valve’s latest Steam Controller

Friday, 21 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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