I received my Steam Controller last Friday and played with it pretty extensively over the weekend. I haven’t tried a ton of different types of games and I haven’t thoroughly explored all of its settings, so don’t consider this a real review. If you’re not already familiar with what it is and how it’s differentiated from other gaming input methods, I recommend checking out the link above.
I’m also going to assume assume you’re already familiar with other types of controllers (specifically, dual-thumbstick gamepads and mouse-and-keyboard) and why the mouse is a faster and more precise input for aiming and view control over a thumbstick. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact, and I could write an entire blog post full of diagrams explaining why that’s true. If you don’t believe me, then some of my conclusions likely won’t apply to you.
One of my most played genres of games (particularly on PC) is first person puzzle/exploration games. I’d lump games like Portal, Talos Principle, and Gone Home into this bucket. For this type of game, the Steam Controller is my new favorite input device. My general setup is to use the thumbstick for movement, and to use the right touchpad in mouse mode with trackball and haptic feedback enabled for aiming. For games which make heavy use of a single “use” or “interact” button (Talos Principle comes to mind here), I can even map that button to a click of the touchpad, so I can do almost everything with just the one thumb. While it doesn’t have quite the precision of a mouse, in this type of game that factor is less important, and the ability to sit on a couch and play the game comfortably is a huge advantage over a mouse and keyboard.
Almost all types of games are more well suited to a specific type of controller. For example, shooters will require the extremely fast and precise aiming of a mouse and keyboard, while racing games are usually designed for the directional control of the thumbstick on a gamepad. For many types of games, the Steam Controller might be the second-best option, but it’s probably never the worst option, and any game I can imagine which was designed for either a gamepad or mouse and keyboard should be at least comfortably playable on the Steam Controller, which is not something I can say for both gamepads and mice and keyboards.
TL;DR: The Steam Controller touchpads are not as fast and precise as a mouse for aiming and view control, but they are very close, and are dramatically better than a thumbstick. In my opinion, the tradeoff between the extra precision of a mouse and the form factor of a handheld controller make the Steam Controller my new preferred input method for games designed for a mouse. While it may not be the best option for a particular genre of game, it’s likely at least a close second for all genres.
Now that you’ve read my conclusion, below you can find a full list of semi-organized thoughts with more detail about individual aspects of the controller.
If you have any specific questions about the Steam Controller or want me to clarify anything from this post, reach out to me at @connor_g on Twitter.
Everything but the Touchpads
- The build quality is good, not great. It feels a bit plasticky. Some of the button feel is not super consistent, for example, the triggers on my unit sometimes click sharply and other times it’s more or a soft click. Neither of these is better or worse necessarily, just inconsistent.
- It’s a bit big but not huge. I do sometimes struggle to reach the shoulder buttons, and I end up pressing them with the tips of my fingers instead of the pads of my fingers.
- The thumbstick and face buttons are placed lower down on the face of the controller, so using those requires stretching your fingers down to reach them. I’ve seen some people on Twitter say that the face buttons are hard to reach with their thumbs, but it’s been okay for me even with long sessions of Rocket League (which uses the thumbstick and face buttons almost exclusively).
- The top of the thumbtack has a convex surface instead of concave (like the Xbox 360 controller), but it does have a ring of friction-y bumps around it. I haven’t had any problems with my thumb sliding around on it.
- The face of the controller is a bit recessed below the grips which is very unusual, but didn’t bother me after the first few minutes of use.
- The “paddle” or “grip” buttons on the underside of the controller where your last two or three fingers rest are a nice addition, and since most games aren’t designed with them in mind (so far, at least) you can use them to remap buttons which are otherwise hard to reach, or to shift the controller between multiple input modes.
- The haptic feedback is subtle so it feels really nice without being annoying. It’s nothing like the rumble you’re used to in most game controllers, it’s more like a clicking feeling that happens while you use the controllers. It mostly comes into play with the touchpads which I’ll get to later, but it can be used for other things to. For example, when navigating the Steam interface using the physical thumbstick, you feel a haptic click each time your selection moves from one interface item to another. You can configure the strength of the haptics or turn them off entirely.
- The interface for adjusting controller settings is really well done, and really easy to manage from the Steam overlay in any game. It has a few default control templates available in any game, and you can browse a list of other users’ saved configurations for your current game, ranked by popularity. Even though the controller has only been in people’s hands for a few days, I’m already seeing really good configurations bubble to the surface for most games. And of course, after selecting a configuration (template or from another user) you can customize it as much as you want and save it yourself, privately or publicly.
- The touchpads are the main differentiating feature of the Steam Controller and it’s pretty obvious from looking: they’re big and they take center positions on the face of the controller.
- They’re large enough to have plenty of room to slide your thumbs on, but you’re still able to reach from one side to another without a problem.
- They’re plastic as opposed to glass which is a bit of a bummer but they still feel nice, and it’s an understandable compromise for a $49 device.
- They’re raised about a millimeter above the surface of the controller, so your thumb can feel the edge of the touchpad before hitting it but still continue to move until you’re touching the very edge, allowing for use of the full surface.
- Each touchpad can be physically clicked inwards to act as a button press, but the force required to click them is pretty high, higher at least than most real mice or trackpads.
- The left touchpad has a plus-shaped d-pad embossed into the surface which is useful for feeling where your thumb is positioned on the touchpad without having to look at it, while the right one is smooth. As a result, the left one is more suited to tasks which require absolute positioning of your thumb on the touchpad (like moving a character in a specific direction) while the right one is suited towards movements which are based on relative position and motion (like dragging your thumb to adjust your aim in a given direction). But the configuration options for each touchpad are identical and you can configure each one any way you want to.
- Each touchpad can be configured into one of three main modes: d-pad, joystick, and mouse. (The Steam configuration interface uses the term “joystick” to refer to the input device I’ve been calling a “thumbstick”. In my mind, a joystick is something you hold in the center of your hand, but for consistency’s sake I’ll continue to use “joystick” to refer to the input mode and “thumbstick” to refer to the input device.)
- In d-pad mode, each cardinal direction on the touchpad maps to one of four buttons (typically either the Up/Down/Left/Right arrow keys, or W/A/S/D for many types of PC games). There are two main configuration options for this: 1. Do you have to click down on the touchpad to activate the simulated button, or just touch the surface of the touchpad? And 2. Can you touch in between the cardinal directions to simulate pressing two buttons at once (e.g., pressing near 45º to simulate pressing Up and Right simultaneously)?
- To utilize d-pad mode for character movement, you’ll likely want to enable touch-to-press (as opposed to click-to-press) and intermediate directions. I haven’t tried this extensively but it feels nice for games which support d-pad movement in eight directions. A cool bonus here is that the controller gives you a single haptic click when your thumb moves between the eight (or four) direction zones.
- For using a d-pad to control menus or switching weapons, for example, you’ll likely want to set it to click-to-press and disable intermediate directions, to prevent unintended presses. For this purpose, though, the simulated d-pad is only mediocre. It’s a lot bigger than a real d-pad, and it takes more force to click in than most d-pads, so you can’t “roll” your thumb around on top of it to quickly navigate menus like you can with a real d-pad.
- Joystick mode works a lot like an on-screen thumbstick you might have used in any number of iPhone and iPad games, which is to say, not great. But, as opposed to an onscreen thumbstick, this has a few big advantages: the embossed +-shaped d-pad and haptic feedback really improve your ability to use it without your finger “falling off” or losing the sense of where the center of the simulated stick is. It’s also hugely customizable, maybe more so than any other part of the controller.
- You can change the shape and size of the center deadzone and outer deadzone (which is not so much a “deadzone” as a “max input zone”), change the acceleration curve as your finger moves from the inside to the outside of the pad, and even set extra keys to bind when your finger reaches the outer zone (for example, if a game as a “sprint” button you can configure the controller to press that button when your finger reaches the outer edge of the touchpad).
- You can also change whether the simulated thumbstick is positioned at the absolute center of the touchpad, or whether it centers at the position where you initially put your finger on the pad. That option is really nice in iOS games where there’s no way to feel where the center of the stick is, but on the Steam Controller it’s pretty easy to feel the center and the edges of the touchpads so I keep it turned off).
- This is a better implementation of a simulated thumbstick than you get in most touchscreen games, but still a far cry from an actual thumbstick. If a game is designed for thumbstick input, you’ll probably want to stick with using the physical thumbstick on the Steam Controller.
- Mouse mode is the real winner on the Steam Controller which sets it apart from any other game controller. Mouse mode works a lot like a trackpad on a laptop, where you drag your finger in any direction to move your cursor (or your aiming reticle, view angle, etc.). The touchpads aren’t quite as smooth as Apple’s trackpads but they’re a hell of a lot better than any PC laptop trackpad I’ve ever used (and again, plastic instead of glass).
- Mouse mode has an optional trackball behavior which, when enabled, causes the cursor to continue moving after you lift your thumb off the touchpad (and stop when you touch it again). This allows you to, for example, make a fast 180º turn by flicking your thumb to one side and then moving your thumb back to the center of the pad to stop spinning. You can customize the simulated friction of the trackball to adjust how quickly the cursor slows to a stop after you release it.
- When haptic feedback is enabled here, you feel a series of clicks as your cursor is moving, relative to the speed of the cursor. So fast cursor movement causes a fast series of clicks, and slower movement has more delay between clicks. This also applies to trackball mode which is really nice as it allows you to feel how fast your cursor is moving even after you’re not touching the touchpad.
- You’ll want to spend some time adjusting the precision and speed to find the right balance for you and the type of game you’re playing. When I was trying to do very precise aiming, I did find a tendency for the cursor to wobble a little bit even when I didn’t feel like I was moving my finger appreciably. In addition to adjusting the speed of cursor movement relative to your finger speed, you can also enable an option to have the cursor accelerate faster than (but proportionally to) your finger and adjust the level of this effect. I haven’t played around with it much but this should allow you to have both precise motion for fine aiming but also fast motion for quick turns.
- You can even set both touchpads simultaneously to control the mouse input, which is nice for games that are primarily cursor-driven. When you’ve got a setup like this, you can make long cursor movements by switching between your two thumbs when one thumb reaches the edge of the touchpad and needs to lift up to reset. I played a little bit of World of Goo and Papers Please using this method (with trackball turned off) and while it’s a far cry from an actual mouse, it’s lightyears better than you could ever do with a traditional controller, and with some practice I bet you could get pretty good at it.
- One caveat here is that, while a mouse can remain very stable no matter how hard you jam on the keyboard, the Steam Controller tends to shake a bit when you press other buttons on it. In particular, I’ve found that both the shoulder buttons/triggers and the physical click on the touchpad require enough force that it tends to cause my thumb on the touchpad to wobble off it’s aim. I’ve already had more than a few frustrating experiences where I positioned my cursor over the thing I wanted to shoot or the item I wanted to interact with, and in the act of pressing the button to accomplish that task, my cursor fell out of position, multiple times in a row. Even in just a few days, though, it’s happening less and less as I get more experience with the force required by those buttons.