No, I’m not crazy, nor am I a collector of failed technology. For the past five years, Steam Controller has been my primary driver for PC games from the couch. I’ve tried Microsoft’s controllers, DualShock and DualSense, and even the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller. No one even comes close.
Valve killed by Steam Controller last year. It was widely regarded as a commercial error – as it were, with only 500,000 life units sold. But more unfairly, it has been characterized as a “bad” controller, with reviews criticizing everything from build quality to software, and the process of just making the damn thing work.
Some of this is justified.
But the rest is the story of how a bad launch day experience and impatient reviewers killed what could have been the biggest paradigm shift in game input since Sony introduced dual analog sticks with Dualshock in 1
A much-loved Steam controller – Photo: ALensAndSomeLuck
But what went wrong with Steam Controller? Is it as bad as the first reviews did? And what does the future hold for the new technologies it introduced?
You are using it wrong! The case of the missing gyroscope
- It offers a mediocre gaming experience most of the time – IGN
- Every time I put it head-to-head against a standard Xbox 360 controller, Microsoft’s stock gamepad came up – TechRadar
- This was what they came up with? There was no better way? – PC player
When the Steam controller was launched in 2015, reviewers across the industry panicked, not only for being difficult to use, but somehow less accurately than a standard dual analog stick controller.
Review of Initial Reviews stands out one key area due to the omission: apart from an Engadget recipe, it seemed almost as if anyone who reviewed the Steam controller at launch had any idea how gyroscopic aiming works on it.
Gyro sifting is essential for the Steam Controller experience
Gyro with a view to the Steam controller is not a Sixaxis-style gimmick: it works with the right trackpad to provide mouse-like accuracy. In almost all of the initial Steam Controller reviews, reviewers seemed to use the Steam Controller with the gyro disabled, relying only on the TouchPads.
It’s hard to stress this enough: gyro goals are a critical part of the Steam Controller experience.
In first-person shooters, users should use the pads to swing the view in the general direction of a target, and then use the gyro for fine targeting. By default, the gyroscope is activated by the “right pad touch.” It is only activated when the thumb slams on the right cushion. The joysticks themselves are designed to aim for speed, not for accuracy: swiping on the right touchpad is meant to get your scope close to a target, far faster than an analog stick. When you are plus / minus a few pixels from your target, the gyro kicks in to help you line up your head shot.
Reviews, such as this one on IGN, lamented how difficult it was to aim with the Steam Controller touchpad in games like GTA V. The touchpad is only half the Steam Controller experience. Using it without gyro aiming enabled will degrade your accuracy.
Quite funny, the New York Times declared “after 15 hours of research and testing” that DualShock 4 was the best PC game controller, saying they would not recommend the Steam controller “until Valve releases better hardware.”
Imagine giving a caveman a revolver: he shoots himself and tells you what a terrible club he’s making. That analogy is perhaps best suited for Steam Controller’s launch day, gyro-free review debacle. The Steam controller was not dirty hardware. The valve just failed to communicate who it was for and how it actually worked.
Lack of communication
Gyroscopic screening is a complete paradigm shift, and Valve apparently did not feel the need to educate the public or users about it before the controller started. And it’s definitely their fault. Take a look at this Steam Big Picture update, from a month after Steam Controller’s launch:
“One of society’s biggest discoveries was how well FPS visibility worked when you combined trackpad and gyro input.”
It seems that Valve itself was not fully aware of the importance of gyro-aiming, at least at launch. Valve talked about the Steam Controller’s gyroscope, and button / input mapping before release. However, it seems that they have never put two and two together until after the release. Members of society, presumably disappointed by the poor accuracy of the trackpad, were the ones who later discovered the combination of the trackpad + the gyro.
While YouTube videos with gyro-aiming and follow-up follow-up helped with damage control, it was already too late at the end of 2015. Players viewed the Steam Controller as a failed piece of hardware, and the lack of trust led to the possible commercial failure.
Software and compatibility issues: too little improvement, too late
When it actually works, the Steam Controller is something weird. The problem, however, is that Valve’s firmware and the launch of the Steam Big Picture software were simply not mature enough. Over the years, iterative updates and community-built solutions such as GloSc have almost completely addressed these issues.
But at launch, and for at least a year afterwards, the Steam Controller software and compatibility experience were fine. Doom was the first game I ran on Steam Controller, and it was a flawless experience: at the same time the input of controllers / keyboards worked, so did vibrations. The large image overlay did not glitch out and the gyro touchpad sight was decadently smooth at 100+ FPS.
Just about every other game had some sort of problem: the gyroscope would not work in GTA V, Big Picture Overlay would not appear in any game, others like Fallout 4 did not support simultaneous keyboard / controller input, forcing me to use the cumbersome option ” mouse joystick “.
SteamGridDBManager enables seamless Steam Controller support in Epic and Uplay games
Many games simply refused to work with Steam Controller at all. This was in mid-2016, almost a year after the Steam controller came out. It hurts to imagine what the software experience on launch day would have been like.
I had taken a year off from the game and only took my (worn and dusty) Steam Controller out of the closet once at the end of 2018. By that time, the software had matured enormously. When it comes to actual Steam games, compatibility issues were a thing of the past. Small improvements in quality of life, such as enabling Steam Controller bindings without having to run Big Picture mode, provide a seamless experience. Making non-Steam games work was still a bit of a problem: games released through uPlay and Origin were hit and miss, and Microsoft Store titles did not work at all.
Fortunately, there were now a plethora of community solutions available. SteamGridDBManager adds games from other store fronts to your Steam collection, with no compatibility issues encountered when using Steam’s own “add a non-Steam game” feature. And Alia5’s Global Steam Controller (GloSC) enabled Steam Big Picture controller bindings globally, across Windows. This eliminated remaining compatibility issues and made it easy to play Microsoft Store games.
As far as I’m concerned, the way forward right now is to track down unopened, new Steam Controllers on eBay, and to refill. My first Steam controller lasted for well over five years, and put the rest problems in the build quality that was raised in many launch day reviews. My current and a backup or two should last, at least as long as the controllers themselves are relevant game input devices.
But in the larger form of things, the best thing to do would be to look at the impact that Valve’s unit has had on controller design. Even in 2021, the Steam Controller is ahead of its time. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have all taken pages out of Valve’s book.
Switch Pro and DualSense both have HD haptics and accurate gyro aiming, the Xbox Elite controller has custom paddles under the L2 / R2, the HTC Vive controller has two trackpads. Valve itself has opened a control connection – one of Steam Controller’s highlights – to all controllers that work on a PC.
HTC Live controllers have touch pads that are very similar to those on the Steam Controller
Pieces and parts of Steam Controller’s legacy can be found in every modern controller. When all this came together in Steam Controller, it got rogue. As Engadget put it, “we hate Valve’s Steam Controller because it’s different.”
Less than two million Steam Controllers have been sold in the last five years. Even in 2016 – the unit’s heyday – Valve reported only 27,000 units in active, daily use.
Recent patents indicate that Valve can work on a new Steam controller with replaceable components. Patents do not always become products. Waiting for a new Steam controller can end up like waiting for Half Life 3. Still, there is always hope, and the possibility that we will see more trackpad-based controllers in the years to come.
In the meantime, my Steam Controller got a couple of years left.
Masthead Credit: 3dartistav