October 16, 2015

599 words 3 mins read

The Steam Controller is here!

This week saw the first major shipment of the Steam Controllers for those who pre-ordered early. The controllers have been a long time coming as Valve has been talking about their concept units since 2013. As Valve hasn’t been involved in the hardware business in the past, nor is there a solid baseline for what a PC game controller should look like, it wasn’t a surprise for the development cycle to take so long. Now that the units are out in the wild, the first real world reviews have started to come out with generally positive outlooks. This morning my own Steam Controller arrived and so I too will share my first impressions on the controller hardware and functionality.

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The most important thing to keep in mind with the Steam Controllers is that they are, for all intents and purposes, an entirely new method of PC gaming input. While hooking up Xbox controllers (or clones) to a PC is not a new concept, they were limited in use to a very few games that had been specially designed for those inputs. The Steam Controller in its core concept, is an input device that should be able to work for all types of games — even if they weren’t designed for it. That is a grand notion, however it’s going to have some growing pains.

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While I don’t play many shooters these days (which tend to be the target for controllers/gamepads), I do play a bit of Cities: Skylines. Typically strategy and sim games are not well suited for controller usage (with the exception of Halo Wars), which made this an interesting test. What I found was an official “controller binding” that Paradox Interactive (the game’s maker) had already put out, which was quite functional. I had no issue getting into and playing a sim game… with a controller.

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However, what Valve is banking on for most games is community contributed controller schemes. Very quickly I located an alternative to the Paradox provided bindings that made a small, but welcome change. There were a few dozen other options I could have experimented with but even those small tweaks satisfied me. It was far more interesting to play with the Controller than sit there futzing with the bindings.

Did it work? You bet! Not that I spent a huge amount of time playing, but it was actually a really nice experience to play Cities: Skylines with a controller. In fact, I’d say that some aspects of game play were easier and more natural feeling that they were with the keyboard. Sure, I had to remember some bindings to get what I wanted done, but it was much easier to remember “right pad to control camera” over “Q/E for rotate and HOME/END for tilt”.

While not every game will work quite as smoothly as my experience with C: S, Valve is really banking on the community to build the perfect control scheme for every game. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if you saw a generation 2 controller come out within the next year that fixed a lot of the soon-to-be-found issues with this controller. Just like any generation 1 hardware, there are going to be “issues”, such as some of the complaints about touchpad texture.

That being what it is, I love my controller so far. It feels really nicely built, has a lot of inputs and feels solid enough to take a toss across the room (or two, not that I plan on testing that purposefully). Oh, and it works in Windows as a mouse — how fun is that?