How motion saved the Steam Controller

Change! Innovation! Weirdness! These are all things that led me to buying a Steam Controller. My experience since then has been a mix of wonder, excitement and frustration.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Steam Controller ($49.99 at Amazon) looks like this:

The Steam controller with included batteries, USB wireless dongle and PC attachment.
The Steam controller with included batteries, USB wireless dongle and PC attachment.

That might look kind of flipped when compared to this Xbox One controller, which you’re probably a little more familiar with:

An Xbox One controller
Credit: Microsoft

That’s because the front of the Steam Controller actually bends inward (concave for you geometry fans). This is to make it easier to access the signature feature of the Steam Controller — touch pads! Yes, touch pads have replaced traditional control sticks. (Except for that one stick they threw in at the last-minute when people freaked out … but it’s only one and most games use two.)

So do the touch pads they work for gaming? Yes … but it takes a lot of getting used to. I read in another review somewhere that this is like an “alternate universe” controller that decided against control sticks. Pads can work just as well, but the problem is our thumbs have become accustomed to the movements associated with pushing a stick.

As you might expect, then, the pads work best as a replacement for a mouse in games built for a keyboard/mouse setup. I found Valve’s flagship Portal 2 to work pretty darn well with this controller. However, in a game made for the Xbox controller–such as Batman: Arkham Knight–by default you have the pad simulating a control stick, and it’s kind of weird.

Also read: Steam Link: Great for console fans, but you might want to wait

See, when you simulate a mouse with the pad, as in Portal 2, it acts a lot like a trackball. Keep rolling it in the direction you want. It even feels good thanks to haptic feedback. But when it’s simulating a game pad, you’re “holding” an imaginary stick in the direction you want the camera to turn, and then returning your thumb to the center of the pad when you’re done moving it.

After about a week of play, I did find myself getting better at this. I could definitely play Arkham Knight and do well. However, I always felt handicapped anytime I needed to make small, accurate movements such as aiming the cannon of the Batmobile, or checking on the position of unsuspecting criminals before making a sneak attack.

Gyros and customization to the rescue!

After more time spent with the controller and hanging out in the Steam community, I found two solutions. One that made me feel a little better about the Steam Controller, and one that makes me think it might even work better than an Xbox controller.

The truly cool thing about the Steam Controller is that you can customize just about everything with the controller. This includes more than what the buttons do in a game. You can adjust sensitivity of inputs, turn the touch pads into a keypad and much more. And if that’s all too technical, you can simply apply control schemes uploaded by either the game developer or other people in the Steam community. Meanwhile, Valve itself continues to add more functions to the controller as users provide feedback.

The first thing I discovered that made Arkham Knight play more easily was the ability to change the behavior of the right touch pad (which stands in for the right control stick and controls the camera) to work as a “mouse-like joystick.” This mode, Valve says, is built for games that don’t let you play with a gamepad and mouse at the same time (actually I don’t understand how a two-handed person would do that anyway). Through magical engineering (or something), this just lets you use the pad as if it’s a rolling trackball.

That feels far more intuitive, at least, but it still does not feel super accurate, especially when you’re under fire in a Batmobile and a helicopter keeps dive-bombing you.

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That’s when I discovered motion controls. Or, I should say, the Steam community discovered them. Turns out the Steam Controller has a gyro sensor, much like the Nintendo Wii controller, which allows it to track physical movements of the hands. Well, what happened is that some genius (not sarcasm) in the Steam community got the idea to turn this feature on in addition to the mouse-like joystick behavior.

When I switched to this control scheme, I kid you not — it was like removing a neck brace

To turn this on, go to the controller customization settings and select the gyro icon under the center of the controller diagram (it looks a bit like an atom). Set this up as a mouse joystick and you’re good to go!

The motion controls let you adjust the camera (or your cross-hairs) by moving the entire controller up, down, left or right. To ensure you don’t do this accidentally, it only detects movement while your thumb is on the right touch pad.

This would never work by itself, because you’d basically have to turn away from the TV if you ever wanted to do more than 45-degree turn. But for small movements–lining up the cross-hairs or taking a quick peek at something peripheral–it feels very natural. When you do want to make a bigger turn, you swipe the touch pad like before … and to be honest it’s fine for that.

When I switched to this control scheme, I kid you not — it was like removing a neck brace. In fact, now I really can’t imagine going back to the old way.

Worth the trouble?

You might be thinking to yourself: “That sounds cool, and it’s great that you got the Steam Controller to work for you … but the Xbox controller already works for me. Why bother?”

Yes, I would agree that is a fair point. If you’ve got an Xbox controller already, and it’s working for you, and you have no desire at all to try something new, there really is little reason to get a Steam Controller.

Besides the pads, the Steam Controller’s other big issue for me is the placement of the A, B, X & Y buttons. While in reach, the placement of this diamond arrangement feels a bit low and could lead to some wrong presses until you get used to it.

Also, I should caution that I’ve only tested the Steam Controller in console-like action games. I’ve not tried it for mouse-intensive genres like real-time strategy. I’ve written this article from the perspective of someone who wants a controller for games made for controllers.

However, if anything about the Steam Controller intrigues you — perhaps the customization, or maybe just the fact that it’s not made by Microsoft or Sony — I am here to say that it is in fact a solid controller that can do a lot now and has promise to do a lot more in the future. Buying a Steam Controller is not the equivalent of buying a knock-off Mad Catz Xbox controller (sorry, Mad Catz) to save $10 off of the official brand.

You do have to go in knowing that it’s not necessarily going to work perfectly from the moment you start up a game. There will be fiddling. In the future, there will be more community control schemes available that will make this fiddling easier. But you’ll still have to fiddle to make the Steam Controller work for you.

Also check out my impressions of the Steam Link!

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