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Pressing Valve's buttons: Hands-on with the Steam Link and Steam Controller

Hayden Dingman | March 6, 2015
"Who cares about Steam Machines?"

In my opinion, it's clear Valve would love to sell you a controller consisting purely of triggers, grips, and two massive haptic pads. But then it put that controller out there as a prototype and people went "I don't get it," so they added the diamond-shaped ABXY. Then they added an analog stick.

Now they'd like you to stop using them.

The analog stick and the ABXY buttons are like training wheels. At one point during my demo of Unreal Tournament I complained how hard it was to get my thumb over to the ABXY buttons and then back on the right haptic pad. Valve flat-out told me, "We've found that the best control schemes don't ever force you to take your hands off the pads." Those buttons are an extraneous compromise to people like me (and maybe you) who are so entrenched in an ABXY culture that we don't feel comfortable giving it up, even though the Steam Controller's touchpads click in and thus somewhat emulate the ABXY buttons on their own.

Valve's goal seems to be to trick you into taking advantage of the Steam Controller. By adding an analog stick and the ABXY buttons they've made it more palatable so you'll check it out. And then once you've checked it out, you'll (they'll hope) realize the old control schemes are way less efficient.

That's also why they're putting such an emphasis on customizability. The community can upload control schemes for any game — control schemes that can be voted on by the rest of the game's players. Whichever control scheme is highest-rated becomes the automatic Default for the game unless the developers provide their own.

It's a weird device, don't get me wrong. This is my fourth time using a Steam Controller and I stll barely know what I'm doing. But it has some benefits. The two trackpads are definitely more mouse-like than an analogue stick, and the haptic feedback enables you to do all sorts of things you couldn't before — like making the right pad (mapped to camera in every game I played) function as either a mouse (1:1 movement) or a trackball (momentum).

I think it'll take longer than an hour to get used to. But I'm willing to try.

Link to the future

I'm especially willing to try because it's supported out of the box by Steam Link, and I'm...well, I'm hoping Steam Link can live up to what I saw during my demo.

The streaming-only Steam Machine is exactly what I thought was missing during the original Steam Machine unveiling at CES 2014, so I was excited to get my hands on it. I've tried Steam's computer-to-computer in-home streaming already, as well as the NZXT Doko, Nvidia's GRID and Gamestream, and Microsoft's Xbox One-to-PC streaming — so I had some idea what to expect.


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