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Valve Steam Controller hands-on: Opening a new world of PC gaming possibilities

Hayden Dingman | Oct. 16, 2015
It took three long, intense days of swearing and messing around in menus and playing Portal 2, but it's official—we love the Steam Controller.

This week I played Civilization V on my couch. I played Deponia on my couch. I played Cities Skylines on my couch. Hell, I played Baldur’s Gate on my couch!

Steam Controller

It’s not always a perfect experience. The text in Civ V, for instance, is miniscule even on my fairly large TV. Baldur’s Gate asked me to name a character and then I realized I had no keyboard—although the software keyboard in the Steam overlay will work in a pinch. But those are kinks that can be worked out in the future as developers (potentially) learn to keep the living room in mind even for PC games. Growing pains.

The games worked, though. Games that have traditionally been confined to the bedroom or the office or whatever now run—and run well—on the TV, whether through a dedicated Steam Machine or Steam Link.

And it’s changed the way I think about entire genres. The point-and-click adventure, for instance. It’s such a story-heavy genre, such a low-key and relaxed and minimally-interactive genre—it’s perfect for couches, for sharing with other people in the room who might not play a lot of games but are interested in watching. PC gaming has always been more of a solitary pursuit when compared to console gaming, but not necessarily any longer.

Steam Controller

Will it replace your keyboard and mouse? Of course not. Will it replace your PC’s Xbox/PC controller? Eh, for some people maybe. Others, not.

It’s carved out a niche, though—one I plan to take advantage of. This week’s been revelatory in terms of the types of experiences I play in the living room, and that’s where the Steam Controller’s strength lies for me.

Learning curve

The hard part is, of course, getting used to the damn thing. I started out playing games the way I’ve seen my parents, for instance, playing games—moving, then turning the camera, then moving again. As I said it took me maybe three days to get comfortable. It may take you more or less time.

It’s a weird contraption. That single analog stick, the huge haptic pads, the batteries (two AAs) which slot into the grips—this is an unconventional beast. And it’s big, too. It took me a while to figure out how to hold the thing comfortably, as the weight and balance are at odds with any other controller I’ve used.

steam controller rear 
The batteries slot into the grips of the Steam Controller. Credit: Hayden Dingman

Despite its Frankenstein appearance, I think the Steam Controller’s actually easier to grasp than a standard dual-stick setup though. I’ve spent almost twenty years with Xbox/PlayStation controllers at this point so it’s hard to judge, but having seen people try to learn how to manipulate two sticks? Ugh. The Steam Controller still requires some creative muscle memory, but it’s a more familiar interface—lots of people have used a laptop trackpad at this point who’ve never used an analog stick.

 

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