I grew up playing video games dating back to the late 1970′s. So the idea of a controller or joystick has always been firmly in my mind when it comes to playing a video game. It was not until I was introduced to games like Zork that it would even cross my mind that games could easily be played on a keyboard and then later on, a mouse. I have owned one or more game consoles from each generation. In the late 90′s, I really got in to pc gaming. Twitch based shooters like Quake and Unreal became a passion for me. I spent years playing Everquest and World of Warcraft, raiding, questing, and more. My ability to play games with either a controller or keyboard and mouse was interchangeable. But what happens when someone tries to combine the two concepts in to one?
Steam Machine beta testers were given a prototype model of the Steam Controller for use during the beta. I must state that before I begin as I mentioned in the previous article that anything can change in the final design. The biggest change in mine is the lack of a touchscreen in the middle. Instead, I have 4 buttons that can be mapped out for use in games. The second change is that I have to have the controller plugged in via a very long and generous reaching usb cable provided by Valve. That being said, the current weight of the controller often has me sitting it on a table or a desk upside just out of habit already. it feels like the weight is on the top of the controller versus the bottom. The final physical form might alleviate that but in its current state, it takes me a moment to get adjusted before I can resume a game or pick up and start playing.
Getting a game set up to play with a Steam Controller gets easier every day. The reason behind this is that the gaming community has the ability to share their custom controller layouts with everyone else and can save you the trouble of having to do the set up yourself. Now,not everyone will want their same button layout as you but this will certainly help out a lot. There were some games I was not familiar with their buttons and the default controller scheme was less than helpful. Add in the fact that not every game will have a shared layout already provided. I was left with the wanting of the ability to easily shut a game down so I could move on to another. I do not know if there is an easy way to shut down a program in Steam OS built within Steam Big Picture but if so, I have not discovered it.
I do suggest having a keyboard available at the very least if possible. text based chatting in game or within the Steam OS is very time consuming. You first have to highlight a block of letters using the left pad and then out of that four letters, you would use a right stick to select a single letter and enter it. To be honest, this feels less intuitive than it might appear given the nature of the pads and how easy it is to select the wrong block of letters or just get all out confused on what you are needing to press next. I think adding a physical on screen keyboard similar to like the qwerty keyboard PS3 uses might be a helpful addition. In the controller’s current state, i keep any typing down to a minimum out of lack of wanting to spend minutes to convey a single thought. I personally doubt that usage over time would improve this.
With the wrong button layout, trying to play a game can be a fumbling mess. Once set up right, the learning curve for using the controller gets easier each day you use it. Some of the games I most recently tested and it played out well were Euro Truck Simulator 2, Pixeljunk Monsters Ultimate, Dust: An Elysian Tail, and Ittle Dew. Games that were playable but not as easy were Team Fortress 2 and Shadowrun Returns. Right now, the option to adjust the sensitivity for each pad does not exist and is needed. It can be very hit and miss on whether its too sensitive or not enough. This includes whether trying to browse Steam Big Picture, navigate Linux, or play a game.
Having 6 different trigger buttons at the moment is one hurdle I am facing. I often hit one button when I intended to use another. Given the spacing between buttons, the top two on each side are not easy to distinguish which is which on a second’s notice. Because of this, my hands will go for the buttons most used and forgot the ones that are not used as often. Maybe if the shoulder buttons had a slight texture difference to them or something to indicate by touch which is which, it would improve handling quite a bit. I would not expect to see this controller in an eSport’s players hands in the middle of a match any time soon. In the future, it is possible but it would take some much needed time and training to fully utilize all it has to offer.
The controller currently has a nice weight to it but I feel like the bottom of it needs a little more weight to balance it out. Physically, it is very large but even my four year old son’s hands can easily grip it. Buttons like the A,B, X, Y are easy to access with your thumbs and can serve as good alternate button to use in games if you are worried about constantly clicking the pads. I have not seen a lot of games that make good use of the center four buttons (which is where the touchpad will be) but they are handy to have available for mapping out lesser used commands like calling for a Medic in Team Fortress 2 or announcing a Spy is cloaked and running around. The center button on the bottom set of three acts like a way to return to the Steam Big Picture interface for chatting, changing button settings, looking up guides, and more. To the left, by default that button is used for bringing up text input and to the right of of the center button is commonly mapped out as an ESC button.
The touchpads are where the greatest aspect of the controller lies and at the same time, they can be its weakness. The sensitivity of them tends to migrate quite a bit and not always easy to manage. But if you get used to them, they have the ability to act like a mouse in quite a few games. I do find myself accidently clicking in on the pads when I do not mean to quite often. This brings me to often wanting to map the more important buttons to outside of the pads to ensure I can use that button when I want to and not constantly accidently clicking it.
Overall, I think with better marking on buttons, more options for customization (like sensitivity), this controller could go a long way. I look forward to see how a finished product might end up, and how much the cost of this controller will be. Given how many people use Xbox 360 controllers and PS3 controllers already on PC, the cost factor will play an important part in this controller’s future. Also, with the gaming community producing custom button layouts for games, it will become as simple as having all the buttons mapped and ready so you can game when you want to and not waste time setting up the controller. I think that will help bring the Steam Machine one step closer to competing with game consoles in terms of easy to access and use.