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Hands-on: Valve's Steam Controller tries to replace your mouse and keyboard

Hayden Dingman | March 26, 2014
It's been a solid decade since we've made any significant advances in gamepad design. The last major innovation was Sony's DualShock for PlayStation, released in 1997, which had all the pieces we now consider standard: two clickable analog sticks, rumble feedback, four triggers, four face buttons, D-pad, Start, Select.

It's not a friendly interface if you're trying to keep your eyes on the display. Instead, it's a bit like trying to type out a message on a smartphone screen without actually looking.

That being said, the pads are better for slower-paced games. Directing a cursor around the screen for a point-and-click adventure like Broken Age is easier on the Steam Controller than on an analog stick, though it's still not as intuitive or precise as a mouse.

The built-in haptic feedback is also a pleasant evolution of rumble feedback. Each pad can be keyed to vibrate in different ways. Alas, every game I've played with the Steam Controller so far just vibrated in the same way regardless of where I put my thumb, but I'm sure there are great applications for the tech.

An abundance of buttons

The Steam Controller was originally slated to have a touchscreen in the center, with four buttons arranged around the outside. The touchscreen was Valve's solution to the gamepad's primary problem when compared to a keyboard: its lack of buttons. Supposedly the touchscreen would hook into the game UI, allowing you to use a game's more obscure keyboard shortcuts even if they weren't mapped to the Steam Controller's hardware buttons.

That's gone. I don't know whether it was due to cost, hardware limitations, problems with the UI, or ambivalence from developers and Steam Machine beta testers. Whatever the case, the Steam Controller will no longer have that central touchscreen.

All that extra room is now repurposed for a more traditional button scheme: two central, diamond-shaped sets of four buttons each, one of which features arrows similar to a D-pad (though without a D-pad's "plus-sign" shape) and one of which is labeled with ABXY. The Start, Select, and Guide buttons, meanwhile, have moved into the space originally designed for the touchscreen.

The controller suffers a bit from gigantism. Even in my fairly large hands — I actually like using a phone with a 5.5-inch screen — it's a bit awkward to reach the farthest buttons (the right arrow and X).

A paucity of PC gaming potential?

Unfortunately, the loss of the touchscreen removes one of the most compelling features from the design. I'm now less sure whether the Steam Controller will be a comfortable experience for keyboard-heavy PC games like Civilization V or Paradox's grand strategy titles.

It's hard to know, considering Valve hasn't publicly displayed any of those games running on the new Steam Controller.

I messed around a bit with Europa Universalis IV at a Paradox event, but it was on the original touchscreen-enabled Steam Controller, and I didn't dig into the control scheme enough to know how you'd make up for the loss of keys. Other games I've demoed were either built for a controller in the first place (Left 4 Dead 2) or didn't even max out the keys Valve's provided (Broken Age primarily used the right touchpad and the right trigger, and that's it). As a result, the Steam Controller's potentially incredible features — specifically, the buttons on the underside of the controller that turn what's normally wasted space into something functional — are underutilized in these demos.

 

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