Steam Controller – 6 Months On

Alternatively: Why I Stopped Using it

I reviewed the Steam Controller back in March, when I bought it with the idea that it might become my couch gaming solution in concert with the Steam Link. By and large, I actually liked it – it offered a kind of precision aiming that you just don’t get with a thumbstick. But since then I’ve pretty much stopped using it. Why? Read on.

Updated December 2016 with further thoughts.

It’s Uncomfortable

This is the biggest reason I just stopped using it. It’s too uncomfortable for me. Constantly rubbing my thumb back and forth across the touchpad ended up causing a repetitive strain injury unlike anything I’ve had in the past. I get it a little bit with thumbsticks, but god damn did I feel it with this thing. It got to the point where I’d have to stop playing.

Also my hands aren’t exceptionally large, so the controller is a bit too big for me to comfortably use. I can reach everything, but sometimes the touchpad is a little bit of a stretch at the far edge, and the XYAB buttons are a nightmare to use, forcing me to fold my thumb down to try to activate them (and they’re kind of small and easy to mess up).

Update: Yeah, after a bit more time, it’s still fairly uncomfortable for me. My thumb suffers the most, but I got used to the XYAB buttons after a while. The entire thing still feels a bit big for my hands but it wasn’t quite so bad after a while. I guess with persistence I could keep up with it, but my thumb still protests with protracted sessions. I tend to do a lot more swiping and moving with the trackpad than an analogue stick.

Software Support is Spotty

When I got Doom (2016), I figured it’d be awesome with the Steam Controller. And yeah, it’s superior to a thumbstick (although I’ve gotten kinda good at it on PS4). But because it uses a mix of Xbox and KB+M controls, it’s easy for the game to get confused. I got trapped in the map screen frequently unless I played in pure Xbox mode – which turns the trackpad into an uncomfortable thumbstick and can be worse than just using a thumbstick.

There’s still a lot of games out there where the controller either doesn’t work, or doesn’t work particularly well (with some major issues). Unfortunately, getting it to work right has more often than not been an exercise in frustration – constantly swapping out or tweaking configurations that I just stopped having the patience for. Even some of the community bindings aren’t particularly helpful.

Update: Doom’s issues were fixed, so SC users no longer get stuck in the map screen while the game gets confused about input. Bethesda games remain borderline unplayable – the lack of simultaneous KB+M and controller input cripples any advantage the SC gives you. Even if you use it in purely KM+M mode, you’ll need to make heavy use of radial menus and creative binds to play something like Fallout 4 effectively. Also support outside Steam is variable – your Origin games will frequently be a problem (depending on how EA update the platform) since all this relies on the Steam Overlay to function (and updates to Origin can break this).

Other than that, you’re going to spend a¬†lot of time playing with it to get a binding that’s comfortable. Most of the popular bindings aren’t very good, and developers mostly add bindings as an afterthought or piggy back off the Xbox controller design. Unless you’re willing to invest the time in customising it, you won’t get much enjoyment out of it.

The Best Part is the Gyroscope

The Steam Controller is basically a trackpad on a controller. You could get the same kind of aiming sensation running your thumb across a laptop trackpad. That’s the kind of precision you’re dealing with. It’s not as precise as a proper mouse, and it never will be. What ultimately made it so much better was the gyroscope – it made it easier to do fine aiming corrections with motion that made sense. If I think about what made it easier to play FPS games when using it, that’s what ultimately did the trick. Not the trackpads.

That concept could easily be incorporated into pretty much any other controller with thumbsticks. What makes the Steam Controller special is ultimately nothing worth writing home about once you’ve used it for a while. You’re just running a thumb over a trackpad, nothing more.

Update: This still holds true – in fact, it’s the killer feature of the controller. The trackpad itself is awful for fine aiming, perhaps even worse than a thumbstick in some cases (the centre deadzone never seems to feel quite right to me), but the gyro is excellent. I really hope that similar concepts come to the consoles after a while.

Everything Felt Like a Compromise

This is ultimately what it boils down to – this feels like an unfinished idea that really doesn’t feel like an advantage when I consider the comfort and software issue factors. Can I play Civ V on my couch? Yeah I can, but it’s a lot more fiddly than just using a mouse and keyboard, and feels like an imposition. Can I aim better on Doom? Yeah I can, but my thumb joint starts to ache and sometimes it shits the bed and I get stuck in the map screen. Really, a lot of the time I thought “This would be a lot easier with a mouse” or “This would be a lot more comfortable with a traditional controller.”

Update: And really this is still why I can’t use it. It always feels like a compromise. I always feel like I’m fighting the various games to get a setup that works naturally, and in some games (like Fallout 4) the best configuration is merely adequate. You still need a keyboard nearby too, because sometimes the on-screen keyboard doesn’t work, or you’ll need it to adjust keybinds easily. There’s a lot of power here, but sometimes it feels like a workaround for a problem that isn’t worth solving.

But It’s Not All Bad

Ultimately, this is about ergonomics, and the Steam Controller is just an infant in many ways – the start of things to come, if we’re lucky. It’s uncomfortable, chunky, and has an odd button layout – but the concept is definitely sound and well worth progressing with. The gyroscope aiming feature is a stroke of genius and something I wish more devs would use. Also worth noting is that plenty of people don’t have a problem with using it and find it comfortable, so it’s clear that Valve just need to play with the concept some more to get it right.

But what isn’t so encouraging is how software support seems to be all over the place, and isn’t actually getting better. So many games ultimately come down to a compromise between controller and PC controls, and sometimes things break. Sometimes you just end up emulating a 360 pad, which isn’t the best use of the device at all.

So do I still recommend it? Well, maybe not anymore – mostly because of the software issues, but if you’ve got smaller hands it becomes a pain in the thumb to use for extended periods. I don’t regret buying mine, but at the same time, I don’t think I’d get another one.

December 2016 Additional Thoughts

Both the Xbox controller and the PS4’s venerable DS4 are now PC-functional, with Steam offering extra support for the DS4. Given that the DS4 can just stand in for a 360 controller (the most popular on PC), that means that many games either work with them out of the box, without compromise. And in those games the Steam Controller ends up being more of a compromise than a boon – at least for me. I can either play it with a controller as intended, or I can just use a mouse and keyboard… or I can fiddle with the Steam Controller until I find something that feels merely adequate but never quite comfortable. The initial promise I saw in the controller has largely evaporated with extended use.

Granted, there are some games that are purely M+KB where the SC is the only way you’ll get any decent couch-gaming done… but I still feel like it’s a compromise that ultimately makes me wish I was just sitting at a desk instead. And that’s largely why I don’t use it anymore – I either wish I was just using a regular controller, or wish I was using a mouse and keyboard. The Steam Controller sits somewhere between and leaves me wanting. If the game is better with either a controller¬†or mouse and keyboard, the Steam Controller doesn’t seem to offer any benefit for me; it’s just an uncomfortable middle ground. This is particularly true in Fallout 4 or similar, where you get one or the other option, and can’t run a controller and a mouse at the same time.

So do I still recommend it?

For some, the Steam Controller works really well and they find it superior to other controllers. And that’s great! Some people find it awesome, and there’s definitely a lot of potential here for the controller to be an awesome alternative. That said, some people prefer the DS4 over the 360 controller – it’s personal preference, but the two are functionally similar. The difference between M+KB, traditional controllers, and the Steam Controller is massive though – and this is why I have trouble recommending it. It’s best to go play with it for extended periods before deciding whether or not it’s worth buying. You may not like it, you might love it. That said, if any of these apply, I’d lean towards not recommending it:

  • You have smaller hands and find large controllers uncomfortable
  • Most of your games aren’t on Steam (or worse: they’re on Origin)
  • You aren’t prepared to spend the time tweaking the controller
  • You’re unwilling to invest the time into learning how to use it
  • You don’t like mouse controls to begin with

Do I regret buying it? Nope! It’s a fun experiment and every so often I pick it up again and have a play around. For some games it’s still the only way to “comfortably” play them – where “comfortable” means not trying to balance a keyboard and mouse on your lap. But it almost always feels like a compromise that hints at greatness, but never quite gets there. Maybe that’ll change in the future, but that very much depends on Steam. If developers abandon Steam, or go out of their way to break Steam Overlay support, the controller is doomed. And given that Steam has become a shovelware platform full of absolute shite, and that we now have alternatives, I don’t know how much popular it’s going to be for developers.

But hey, horses for courses.

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