Watch Us Critique Valve’s Steam Controller

By Nathan Grayson on January 8th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.

Why yes, I do groom that thin film of arm hair meticulously every day. Thank you for noticing

Valve’s robot owl Steam controller has been the talk of the town since the town learned to talk, but talk is cheap. While attending Valve’s recent CES Steam Machine event, I realized I had light and a camera, so it was time for action. Go below to watch me comment on (and gripe about) a beta Steam controller’s many, er, eccentric ins and outs while playing games like Metro: Last Light and Starbound. Valve’s onto something, I think, but there’s still a worrisome amount of work to be done before primetime. 

All told, I don’t dislike the Steam controller. I just think it needs work. A whole, whole lot of it. Beyond the criticisms I offered in the above video – in between chewy mouthfuls of my own buttocks, which were being politely handed to me – I also hit a few other bumps in the road. Placing buttons smack-dab in the center of the thing made for a rather counter-intuitive experience, especially given that the big center buttons acted like continents to A, B, X, and Y’s nigh-uncharted islands.

The pads were largely better, with frequent rumbles helping guide my otherwise blind fingers, but even the slightest squeeze or press yielded an often unwanted click. Then I’d hop (note to whoever configured Metro’s controls that way: NO NEVER BAD I HATE YOU), crouch, or what have you and become even further disoriented in the process. Eventually, I took to sliding my fingers across them as gently as possible for movement, in sort of the way you might use a laptop trackpad. It wasn’t ideal, but it got the job done.

Perhaps I’d have adjusted better to all of this given more time, but after 20 or so minutes the setup felt only slightly more natural than when I started. That doesn’t really gel with Valve’s claims of a short acclimation period, so color me worried.

Really though, the whole controller felt every oh-so-slight ounce of what it was: a beta product. It was overly light and flimsy, with many buttons an uncomfortable mix of too sensitive and insubstantial to the point of incorporeality. Valve later confessed to me that rumble motors, better materials, and even batteries weren’t in yet, and I wasn’t surprised. The movement/other stuff pads’ haptic feedback capabilities offered a promising glimpse of what the controller could ultimately become, but everything else felt as though it was seconds from dissolving to dust in my hands.

And even the haptic feedback was far from perfect. It was an improvement over using, say, an analog stick to direct a cursor, but not a hugely significant one. And well, you saw how I fared in Metro: Last Light. Let’s just say I would’ve felt far more at home with a mouse-and-keyboard, and even a regular controller would’ve made me much less of a sitting/flailing/screaming duck.

Moreover, for all Valve’s talk of how surprisingly great the controller is with cursor-heavy games like Civilization V, nothing like that was on display. In some ways, Valve sabotaged itself with this showing. It’s a shame too, because I think there’s an appeal to kicking back on the couch and contemplating my way through the ages, but I’ve yet to experience it firsthand.

On the upside, almost all of the things I just mentioned will be customizable. If you’d prefer the haptic pads to feel like crunchy bug carcasses rather than gently flitting kitten eyelashes, then tweak to your heart’s content. To some, however, that might sound like a daunting or tedious prospect. In those cases, Valve is leaning on community control configurations, the most popular of which will be the automatic defaults for various games. Don’t like the default? Then you have the option of scrolling through every other community configuration in lieu of making your own.

Basically, the ideal vision of Valve’s concave pectoral muscle of a device is brilliant, but the path to realizing it is fraught with perils. It does, in fact, feel like its own beast – a fusion of a keyboard/mouse and control pad, but with its own dimples and curves. Every once in a while, it all clicked for me, and I felt like I was hopping, shooting, and navigating menus with the best of both worlds. But at this point, there are countless kinks to work out. Valve told me a second iteration that addresses many of my concerns is already in the works, so we’ll see where that ends up. Let us hope it improves by leaps and bounds, not crawls and wobbles.

Check back soon for an interview about Valve’s plans for the next iteration of the Steam controller, release windows, and more.

__________________

« | »

, , , , , .

57 Comments »

  1. frightlever says:

    Hmm. Pity. Guess it could come good.

    I wonder will Valve open up the controller design to other manufacturers or is it going to remain proprietary to them.

    • djbriandamage says:

      Valve has stated (sorry, can’t find a link) that they will allow other manufacturers to create Steamboxes but only Valve will supply the controller. However, according to the Openness section in the official link below, they will encourage end users to modify the controller.

      http://store.steampowered.com/livingroom/SteamController/

      • Andy`` says:

        Valve has stated (sorry, can’t find a link) that they will allow other manufacturers to create Steamboxes but only Valve will supply the controller.

        I’ve seen mention of this before as well (also don’t recall where) but it seems during this CES, there have been mentions that while Valve are creating their own Steam controller, other manufacturers will also be able to create them too.

        Ars: “Newell said Valve will produce its own Steam controllers while others will also make controllers.” http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2014/01/valves-gabe-newell-offers-more-steam-machines-than-speaking-minutes-at-ces/
        Techradar: “Now Valve won’t be the only one making a Steam controller, those third-party hardware partners will be entering the fray as well.” http://www.techradar.com/reviews/gaming/games-consoles/controllers/valve-steam-controller-1212868/review

        Whether this was the case before or not, and what this actually *means* in reality, I do not know

        • djbriandamage says:

          Many thanks for your well-documented correction! I think having both Valve and third parties will be best for customers.

          • frightlever says:

            Agreed, seems best for the consumer. Choice is good.

          • Smoky_the_Bear says:

            Choice is good, also I would imagine the stock controller to be reasonably priced ($30ish maybe?).
            Giving permission to Razer and others means they can go crazy with it and produce some more feature heavy but more expensive versions of the controller. Look at the XBox pad, there are some really nice 3rd party versions of that controller with extra buttons, triggers, all sorts of cool stuff on there.

  2. rustybroomhandle says:

    Maybe you are playing it wrong. It was designed to be played on a couch. *nod*

  3. kael13 says:

    Y’know, RPS’ janky video production has a certain indie charm to it all.

  4. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    This is but cunning ruse and misdirection.

    The Steam Controller is meant to be worn upon the face, where it stimulates the optic nerves by sonic induction and reads your input through unconscious micro-twitches in your eye muscles. It is the ultimate successor to both traditional controllers and the Oculus Rift.

  5. Brosepholis says:

    Wait, this Grayson chap was a bloody yank the whole time? Good heavens!

  6. Perkelnik says:

    So they are making Steam Controller 2? I guess if we also get Steam Controller: Episode One and Episode Two and that will be it…

  7. jealouspirate says:

    Everything about the Steam Box, including the controller, are just weird to me. I just don’t get the appeal. I’d rather bring my living room to my PC than my PC to the living room. Both my monitors are far higher quality than my crappy old TV that I never use.

    Forbes had a great article up about it the other day.

    “Let’s say you want a gaming PC. This PC is different, though — you want it to run through a TV in the living room. Which any gaming PC with an HDMI out can already do. You want it to run an OS with only a fraction of the games and little of the other functionality of Windows. Why you want this, I can’t say. But one thing is certain — you want to spend a lot of money on this. Luckily, Valve and its manufacturing partners have an answer for you: Steam Machines.”

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidthier/2014/01/07/steam-machines-are-no-competition-for-anything/

    • djbriandamage says:

      I feel exactly the same way. Steambox is Linux with less functionality that runs a tiny subset of the games available on Steam. Of course, this is almost the exact description of Steam back in the Half Life 2 days and that worked out unbelievably well.

      Steambox must be trying to forge a brand new market because right now it appears to be an answer to a question no one asked.

      • leQuack says:

        Isn’t the market full of this kind of crap? Who really wanted a smartphone or a tablet (to name just a few) before they were developed?

        I can see one clear positive for the Steambox and SteamOS at least: competition for Windows as the goto PC-gaming platform

        • Don Reba says:

          Smartphones grew naturally out of electronic organizers. Tablets have been tried for a long time before they finally caught on.

          • Geebs says:

            So, what you’re saying is that this will only catch on when Apple does it?

          • The Random One says:

            I still don’t know why people use tablets. They’re either a smartphone that doesn’t fit in your pocket or a netbook that’s even less powerful and doesn’t come with a keyboard.

          • Nogo says:

            They’re perfect for web browsing. Which is pretty much the only thing small computers are used for these days.

            A netbook is nice and all, but a keyboard and extra power are two things I won’t need 90% of the time I’m using it. And there’s nothing stopping me from connecting a keyboard, so a netbook is pretty much just heavier and more difficult to interact with (touchpads and nubs, no thank you.)

        • djbriandamage says:

          You’re absolutely correct. Tablets are devices for people who need computers between phones and desktops. Seems frivolous but the concept exploded. To this end Steambox is very tablety.

          • Nogo says:

            I’d pay $400 for an updated version of my original modded XBOX.

            If that’s what these end up being, lemme know when they come down to not-Mac prices.

    • XhomeB says:

      I agree, SteamBox is a disaster in the making. Everything Valve could have done wrong, they have done wrong. They might claim they’re not competing with consoles for the living room space, but the harsh reality is that they are, SteamBox in its current form offers nothing PC gamers or console gamers could be interested in.
      - a lot of hardware configurations instead of two-three, which means utter confusion for people who were supposed to be Valve’s target group: computer illiterate folks incapable of building their own machines.
      Like we needed even more fragmentation in the PC gaming space!
      - a lot of drastically different cases instead of two-three at most for low-end and high-end SteamBoxes – again, confusing as hell for an average user, people should be able to see a SteamBox and recognize it immediately. From a marketing standpoint, that would be really smart.
      - it’s a device for nobody, really. SteamOS has too few games for PC gamers to care and zero functionality whatsoever apart from running the Steam client… Also, it doesn’t offer anything consoles don’t – in fact, Sony’s or MS’s machines are much more feature-rich than SteamOS is.
      - the controller doesn’t seem to excel in any area – it should be on par with x360 pad at least when it comes to specific console-friendly genres, but it isn’t.
      - the sheer amount of “why should I bother with this thing, what does it offer me?” comments everywhere proves Valve failed to get their point across. It’s becoming apparent Valve themselves have no idea what to do or what the purpose of this machine is. They’re convinced rabid Steam fanatics will buy this device solely because GabeN has given it his blessing. They’re in for a rude awakening.

      SteamBox did have potential and was a good idea on paper, it’s just Valve have made every possible mistake they could have made – they’re out of touch with what gamers actually expected from this thing.

      • Pliqu3011 says:

        You realise you’re criticising a prototype console platform with a prototype controller and a prototype operating system right?
        -People see regular PC’s having different cases but they still know that it are PCs. How does that work?!
        -People buy regular PC’s having different hardware all the time and don’t worry about it. “Bigger numbers means better” etc. Same goes for steamboxes.
        -Tablets used to be considered “a device for no one”, and look where they’re now. I’m not saying that Steam Machines will be an equally huge success, you just can’t know it for sure right now whether or not it will be right now.
        -You say SteamOS is less feature-rich than the Xbone’s and PS4′s OSs, but it’s a whole bloody linux distro. A full-blown PC operating system. It being based on Debian and related to Ubuntu means its software compatibility is _huge_. Want to run a word processor and plug in a keyboard? No problem. Want to use a digital painting program? There you go. (With the controller being “open” someone might even implement working pressure sensitivity for and make it somewhat viable for drawing (if you’d really feel like it)).
        -Have you tried the controller yourself? How long did it take you to get used to playing games with a 360 (or similar dual-thumbstick) controller?
        -Everything Valve does generates a lot of commotion, both positive and negative. They might have a lot of fans, but there are also a whole lot of people criticising them for everything they do. They were always there and will always be there.

        I think — but I’m absolutely not certain — that Valve _does_ know what it’s doing. Remember how much hate Steam got when it was first introduced? It certainly was a huge risk for Valve at the time and lots of people said they obviously had no idea what they were doing, and were doing everything wrong etc.. Now look how it turned out for them and for PC gaming in general.

        • stupid_mcgee says:

          Something I have been saying since the first XBox is that there will eventually be a point of convergence between PC and console. As console become better machines and have more robust capabilities, their distinction between PCs blurs. Steam OS, IMO, is the first real step in that convergence. Rather than waiting for MS and Sony to loosen up their closed-garden platforms, Valve is hoping to build an open platform that will rival console space. Their market comes not from hardware and licensing fees, like with traditional console models, but in adoption rates. Every single Steam Box is a Steam customer. If this can convert a few people to pick up a mid-spec gaming PC, then all the better for PC gaming overall, and Valve (potentially) has a new revenue stream. And they can do this without all of the headaches and massive financial overhead of traditional console schemes.

      • Nogo says:

        Those are all valid criticisms, but it’s a bit weird that you say there’s value in the core idea, but then declare the thing DOA for not having achieved that yet.

        It’s an interesting corollary to the Sony/MS model where they unveil a big cloth and say “you want this.” Seems valve was paying attention when the community forced an MS rethink of core features, mere months before release.

        “Release a ton and let consumers sort em’ out” seems a bit of a dick move, but I’m not one to argue how other people spend their money.

      • darkChozo says:

        Someone made a Android comparison below, and I think that shows that fragmentation of market branding isn’t exactly a deathblow. There’s value to the Apple approach, but consumers can deal with there being options. It’s mostly that the PC market right now offers an overwhelming amount of options to the point where it’s confusing; if you can trim that down to a Galaxy vs. an HTC One vs. a Droid it helps a lot.

        As for people not seeing a use for this, remember that these boxes aren’t targeting anyone who’s already built their own PC, ie. 80% of people who comment on the sites that are reporting on this, at least in theory. That being said, I do thing that the CES boxes are probably aiming a bit too high price-wise — $1500+ is enthusiast pricing and enthusiasts are probably just gonna build a PC anyway.

        • stupid_mcgee says:

          AFAIK, the CES boxes were mostly meant as stand-alone under-the-TV boxes. There is no streaming right now, so there’s no hard specs for a streaming-only device. Those will wind up being really cheap and probably what a lot of traditional PC players will get (or build themselves).

          The real market for Steam Machines like at CES is going to be mid-spec machines and I doubt that Steam Machines (or whatever) won’t really take off until another year or two after there are some more notable big titles that adopt Linux. However, once game adoption becomes higher, there will be those who will think, “I could spend $500 on a console, or I could buy a Steam Machine.”

          If Valve can convince publishers to release their big console games on PC, more so to release on Linux for Steam OS support, then we’re dissolving the title-exclusivity barrier. If Valve can convince people that having a $500 Steam OS PC can be just as easy to use as an XBox, but afford a lot of extra bells and whistles, then we’re dissolving the “PCs are confusing” barrier. If Valve can make these things happen or at least facilitate them, then it will be a very, very, very big thing for PC games and Valve will reap massive rewards by proxy.

          And that’s the interesting thing in this whole Steam OS bit. Valve is promoting PC gaming in the same way that Google is promoting high-speed internet access. It’s very expensive for Google to become an ISP, but each person that has an awesome connection is more likely to use the internet more, as well as more likely to use Google’s services that make them money via ad revenue. Google knows that when the internet tide rises, it floats all ships, and that includes their massive fleet. Same with Valve. The more they push PC gaming and further its market, the more revenue potential there is. It’s not purely benevolent, but it’s a much more consumer-friendly business model than what many have traditionally used.

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        I think everyone raises good points either way here. The one thing I do strongly agree with though is that so far they have screwed up on the aesthetics of it. Steambox should have had a defined look to it, at least a colour scheme, ideally a shape too.
        All of these prototype Steam machines we have seen are different colours, shapes and sizes, this will hurt the brand. You see a Playstation and you instantly know its a Playstation, same deal with XBox. Some of these Steamboxes could just be a satellite/cable box, a blu-ray player, anything. It will hurt the marketing if these devices aren’t recognisable as all being essentially the same thing.
        Basically at the moment they have just made a big hoo-haa about a bunch of unrelated HTPC’s that come bundled with their software and controller.

    • Chubzdoomer says:

      I couldn’t possibly agree more, and I think this new controller has “bomb” written all over it. It’s like an uncomfortable middle ground between an Xbox/Playstation controller and mouse/keyboard. It appears to be slightly better than controllers for some functions, but worse for others. And it still doesn’t touch mouse/keyboard for obvious reasons.

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      Yeah after watching this video it seems the controller is actually not much better than a standard PS/Xbox pad for a shooter, he’s aiming all over the place.

      Another thing is, a lot of PC gamers own a pad for certain types of games, sports games, fighting games, racing games etc. All of the demos of this new controller I’ve seen, not one of them mentions a single thing about how well it replaces a current pad with one of the more currently controller friendly genres.

      The lack of a decent cluster of buttons certainly indicate this thing will be shit for fighting games, guess what, I want a pad I can play fighting games with, not just FPS and strategy games, yet all the demonstrations seem to have been carefully hand picked to show how this thing can actually work instead of a mouse/keyboard, nothing about how well it actually works as a controller.
      If its not improving on my current pad for racing, fighting, some 3rd person stuff etc then I don’t want one, I would rarely use it as I’m still going for mouse/keyboard 90% of the time when playing games, that isn’t going to change.

  8. WrenBoy says:

    Either Nathans thumbs or my own are weird.

  9. DizzyCriminal says:

    The things about the Steam Box is that it is a practise of solutionism. It is trying to be both a console and a PC while being neither and at the same time adopting the inherit problems of both. It’s still going to have the compatibility issues and faffing about involved with PC gaming, while not even having the standardised hardware platform that consoles benefit from. Steam OS will be more unstable than Windows as a gaming platform for a while.

    If Valve initially partnered with an individual company to provide a standardised Steam Box, then went from there once the problems were ironed out I would have more faith. At this point they’re just offering what amounts to a Linux distro, a controller and a sticker for the front of your ‘not-a-pc’.

    Not that I’m down on the idea, I want it to do well. I just think the way its being handled is… poor.

    • XhomeB says:

      I agree, what this thing should have provided is some kind of standardisation and console-like convenience in the PC space. Instead, Valve have merely created a new HTPC brand with the Steam logo slapped on the case, with a myriad of hardware configurations bound to confuse the hell out of people (why do people choose consoles? They know what they’re getting. The moment they see a SteamBox and its countless variants, they’ll turn 180 degrees and walk away – and pick up a PS4 or Xbone on their way out. PC gamers will do the same thing, only they’ll build a PC themselves or have one built for them instead – and they’ll stick to Windows, because that’s where their games are).

    • Gpig says:

      I think if they initially announced that they were releasing standards for hardware, UI, and code people would say they were overreaching and reject the idea. Releasing it as open as possible is a good way to get everyone on board. As things fail they can fix them by imposing standards. Having seen the problems caused by undirected openness, people would accept the new guidelines.
      I think that the PC could benefit from some standards and Valve is probably the best company to do it. Just because Microsoft has repeatedly failed at it doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. This is all assuming that SteamOS will have enough problems to warrant this kind of fix. I don’t consider the PC to be very fiddly right now. I don’t have to look to install updates, and the minute or two I have to wait while it installs directX the first time I play isn’t bad. It’s much less than the time it takes for the mandatory install disk for Ghosts on the 360 followed by patches. Right now whichever you use more, the PC or consoles, is less fiddly simply because you are current with updates while the other will seem rather annoying.

      As for the controller, I hope it works out. I like playing PC games on my TV due to the sound system, but I haven’t been able to use a keyboard and mouse ever since I switched chairs and it became too awkward.

      • DizzyCriminal says:

        The way I see it, Steam OS is to PC’s what Android is to phones. Android released on the G1, the Google endorsed phone and demonstrated what it was all about, from there other manufactures had their own take. Without rambling, the scattergun approach to hardware, and what I can only see as distance Valve is applying to the hardware aspect isn’t going to inspire confidence in consumers, retailers, manufacturers or developers in the same way Google did with Android. It’s not the same, but its a similar model and I think a valid analogy.

        Valve need to set a benchmark, otherwise its all going to get very messy very quickly. I want this to do well, because its a fascinating direction for gaming and the PC space, and if anyone can do it it’s Valve. So maybe I’m completely wrong and being too sceptical.

  10. uh20 says:

    the thing to save the controller needs to be mega-extensive configuration, im talking detectors for when a menu appears, automatic mouse movements to mimic scrolling such a menu, gesture detections like no other, etc.

  11. Zhiroc says:

    I’m by no means an expert gamer. I have both a PC and a PS3 I use for gaming. From my perspective, there is something “better” about not using a K&M when I play on the console, which is that I do indeed find it matches with “couch play” rather than sitting at a desk, or even having a keyboard across the lap.

    However, that said, I’m not sure I would proclaim a controller-like device “the answer”. Sure it’s what people are used to, but I think it would be good to explore different solutions, and the one I’ve come to like for “almost-couch” play (using a laptop on a lap-board on a couch!) is a combination of devices. For the left hand, a gameboard, like Logitech’s G13 (what I use, but it would be better to be wireless), and for the right, maybe a mouse (what I currently use), but maybe instead a wireless trackball (maybe a trackpad, but I’m thinking not), but with the “extra buttons” of a gaming mouse. Alternatively, for some games, the right device could be a full fledged joystick (with all the extra buttons). When on the couch, these sit at my side (or on an armrest–which I have no problem with), and I find this very comfortable.

    The key, i think, is that the G13 has a thumbstick (full-analog, though it can, and usually is, configured as WASD) that can act like the left stick of a controller, which IS a good way to move–much better, in general, than using WASD IMHO. But it also offers easy access to a lot of keys (the G13 has, IIRC, 24 though I would say that it’s only easy to hit 15-20 of these in the heat of battle. For the right-side device, I’m not sure you can beat the precision of a non-trackpad pointing device, be it mouse or trackball–but still, some games would just demand a full joystick. I’ve found, when trying a couple times to play a really old sim, that the little sticks of a controller just do not offer the precision you want when flying/driving. They are way too sensitive to small movements over their “full-size” ancestors.

  12. Jabberslops says:

    This “Owl” looks cumbersome to control most games with and from what I’ve seen of people playing Civ 5, it’s less than ideal. I bought a Dell Venue 8 pro Windows 8 Tablet back in November and have been playing Civ 5 on it. I find the touch screen control to be pretty good compared to a mouse save for a few minor annoyances with moving units around and scrolling in menus (Win8 DX11 Touch enabled crashes so I use DX9 with no crashes). It seems like a far better way to play an RTS or other Strategy games instead of a controller. Though the one advantage the controller has over a touch screen is when you are playing on a TV, you would be looking down at the touch screen constantly and so in that situation I would rather just use a wireless mouse and keyboard.

  13. Lemming says:

    Probably should say prototype Steam controller in the article heading, just saying. This one doesn’t even have the touchscreen yet.

  14. sharkh20 says:

    Harry, you’re alive! And you’re a horrible shot.

  15. Pliqu3011 says:

    Don’t forget how long it took to get used to a regular controller or WASD + mouse.
    Just watch someone new to games try the latter for the first time, and I bet they won’t think of it as very intuitive either. Back when Nintendo put a little joystick on the N64 people thought it was weird too, and look where we are today.
    When I try any FPS with a controller I fail horribly, but that’s because I’m not used to it, not because the design has fundamental problems.

    I’m not completely sold on the Steam Controller concept myself, but I don’t think anyone can really judge this thing without having used it for a few weeks or even months.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      I used to reach for the N64 controller’s stick with my left thumb while my hand was in the D-pad position. It took me years of looking at my friends’ ways of grabbing the controller (and mind you, we all did so slightly differently) to understand what the hell the central grab-point was for. The Z button? I reached for it with my right middle finger! I don’t know how I didn’t get arthritis or something like that, haha. I was, however, unmatched in Goldeneye; for some reason I always had better aim than my friends, and in retrospective it might have had something to do with the weird way in which I grabbed the controller.

  16. Radiant says:

    Watching a game reviewer play games is like seeing someone you take girlfriend advice from punch a woman in the face.

  17. Radiant says:

    Why don’t they have the ‘pads’ under the controller?
    My thumbs are second only to my big toe as the least dexterous bit of me.
    Yet my fingers are literally the willy of my hands.

    • darkChozo says:

      Thumbs have much better range of motion — compare how much you can move your thumb from side to side compared to any of your other fingers. Doesn’t matter much if you’re using your whole hand to move your fingers like if you’re using a mouse or keyboard or touchpad or whatever, matters a whole lot more when your hand is busy holding a controller.

      Also a finger-controlled analog stickpadthing would probably have to be on the back of the controller. It’d be weird.

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>