D-manding A D-Pad: Steam Controller Unveiled (Again)

By Adam Smith on March 17th, 2014 at 11:00 am.

The eyes still have it. Or it still has the eyes, at any rate. The latest iteration of Valve’s Steam Controller has wings its way to GDC, so hopefully one of the RPS attendees will be able to lay hands on it over the next few days. In the meantime, I can bring you a picture, released by Valve, that is in no way exclusive to this site and doesn’t even contain hilariously photoshopped owl ears. Instead, it shows a controller that has lost a couple of its odder features as expected, including the fondlescreen and awkwardly positioned buttons. There are now eight buttons, positioned in patterns and placements that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a joypad.

I fiddled with a Steam Controller very briefly at the Paradox Convention earlier this year. The pads (in that iteration) worked well when controlling a cursor in EUIV – something that I reckon might be uncomfortable with sticks. I didn’t try Team Fortress 2, which was also installed on the machine, but most people I spoke to were less convinced by the application of the pads there, even though they reckoned the haptic feedback might simply require an adjustment of expectations.

The current design, in the pic at the top, looks far more like something that I’d actually use but that’s also because it’s far closer in layout to controllers I already own. Lack of sticks aside, it’s a much more traditional design. I worry about the D-Pad too (yes, these are the things I worry about despite the state of the world) but that’s mostly because it doesn’t actually look like a D-Pad. Are diagonal inputs possible on that thing? Is there a connection between the buttons at all, somewhere under the shell? It doesn’t look like it but it’s possible that the image is slightly misleading in that respect. The curve of the surface makes the arrow buttons seem like entirely separate entities from one another though.

This may not be the final design. I expect Valve will take feedback on board, switch things around a little more, and come back with something like this.

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80 Comments »

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  1. jaguar skills says:

    Future changes include the analog sticks getting put on, the colour changed to white and a big green X replacing the Steam logo.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Pretty much.

      It’s good to try crazy-different occasionally, if only to stop getting stuck on the same old local maxima, but now they’ve taken away many of the big leaps of this pad (presumably because they just didn’t work out), their iterative revisions are heading for that same comfortable twin-stick-and-DPAD zone. And at that point you have to stop and honestly ask yourself if it’s worth pouring more R&D effort into re-inventing a product which already exists, and other people have refined the design of and are already established as selling it.

      Or maybe those touchpads will stick and be a nice little evolutionary step for the gamepad. But it’s now a far cry from the robot owl revolution.

      • TechnicalBen says:

        I’m now wondering if the touch screen thing would have been better where the current d-pad and buttons are.
        Actually, why not go the whole hog and make the entire thing a big touchy device? I prefer buttons, but a mix of the two seems even more convoluted. :/

        Kind of on topic too, I think I’ve done my thumb in with the Xbox controller. :( I hope the Steam version is better for RSI… but doubt it.

    • Niko says:

      No need to change the colour.

    • tetracycloide says:

      I really doubt they will add sticks. They’ll save the sticks for the ‘S’ variant six months after release.

  2. Arglebargle says:

    The earlier version looked interesting. This looks …. like it’s the same old thing. Given that I hardly ever play with controllers, I’m probably not the market. Still, if it’s easilly changeable and configurable, it’s probably worth trying out.

    • Caiman says:

      Old version got ridiculed for being different. New version gets ridiculed for being the same. Life goes on.

      • Darth Gangrel says:

        Lol, no matter what you do, someone will ridicule it. That’s an inescapable fact, but what matters is how you deal with that. Will you try to pander to the ones ridiculing you in an effort to stop the ridiculing (which probably will lead to others ridiculing you) or stick with your design? Or change the design, but not because of the ridiculing, which others most likely will claim and ridicule you for?

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      Bradamantium says:

      Well, it just works. Considering we’ve had fundamentally the same controller all the way back to the SNES, add some analog sticks here, a couple more shoulder buttons there, holy shit Microsoft what’s that abomination ah no that’s better, it makes sense to mostly stick with that. The game changer’s not in the button layouts anyhow as much as the replacement of the analog sticks. Everything hinges on the functionality of the controller’s staring eyes much moreso than its choice of face buttons.

    • tetracycloide says:

      Move the buttons?! No longer interested.

      Are you serious?

  3. sleepisthebrotherofdeath says:

    I’ve had an xbox controller for many years, but thinking about it, have never once used the d-pad for anything other than as 4 extra buttons. So to me this design makes complete sense.

    Do games even tend to support the dpad for anything these days?

    • ChrisGWaine says:

      You probably don’t see that d-pad used for anything else because it’s not good enough to be. But there are some games which want something that gives discrete 8 direction input. The circular pads on the Steam controller seem like they’d at least be better for that than a small analog stick is though.

      • Janichsan says:

        The problem I have with most d-pads is that they very often just aren’t good enough for these game that require precise, digital input in 8 directions. It’s a problem I saw in many gamepads since their inception in the 1980s. There are very few d-pads where I really have the feeling of having good control, one of them an age-old Microsoft Sidewinder. In my opinion, for really precise analog input, nothing beats a decent joystick, like the Competition Pro (which fortunately has an USB version).

        • GameCat says:

          Sony made perfect d-pad in their first DualShock, 20 years ago.

          • DickSocrates says:

            The Dual Shock d-pad isn’t even ‘OK’, never mind ‘perfect’. The missing middle portion means it can’t actually be used like a d-pad is supposed to be used. You aren’t meant to press the tips like they are buttons, but roll the ball of the thumb around. Best ever d-pad was on the original Sega Saturn controller. It was a dish shape with small circles at the cardinal points. The ultimate test of a d-pad is a top level fighting game and the Saturn pad passed with flying colours. Street Fighter II is close to unplayable with a dual shock, unless you have an unusually big fat thumb.

            The Steam controller buttons-are-a-dap-replacement looks several times worse than the Dual Shock, and cannot be used as a substitute for anything other than menu navigation. Which might be OK for some people, but you won’t be playing fighting games with it. And no, buying an arcade stick isn’t the answer either, only people seriously dedicated to fighting games need sticks, a pad is preferable for normal humans to just play and enjoy the games. Valve should just put a proper d-pad there, buttons makes no sense and looks like design over utility.

          • Syra says:

            I’m with you the saturn was the last time I used a Dpad and actually understood why it was there.

          • Marcus says:

            I have never played Sega Saturn, but don’t see how it differs from the Xbox controller’s d-pad. IMO Dual Shock has the best d-pad, but maybe because I use it mostly to play plattform games. The Xbox d-pad is so terrible that it’s useless even to navigate menus.

          • GameCat says:

            No, DualShock’s d-pad is great because you can’t accidentaly press wrong button (for example up-right or down-right while pressing just right), which is a problem in many other d-pads without separated buttons.

          • LionsPhil says:

            You’re all wrong. The best directional pad was on the Mattel Intellivision™ controller, because it could sense sixteen directions, and sixteen is a bigger number than eight.

          • vanturache says:

            Well I can’t even imagine playing something like Tekken on the X-Box D-Pad. Instead, on DualShock it rocks, precisely because of the missing middle bit and linked buttons that share the same pressure plate.

            I really think it all depends on how the game’s control system was imagined by developers. But yeah, despite the Xbox type of controller being more comfortable to hold for long sessions, I’d still opt for the DualShock anytime in terms of D-Pad, since it basically offers the same plate as on Xbox/Saturn etc. with carved out bits that actually enable you to have a more precise input.

            @Mattel IntelliVision dude – True, 16>8, but if you’re in need of precision 16 equals more chances to screw up, so I’d still say it depends on the game.

            At any rate, on the Steam controller, that IntelliVision thing is somewhat handled via the touch controls that replace the sticks.

            As far as this steam controller goes, the faux d-pad buttons have way too much spacing and their individual rounded shape does not help either. In my experience, the best gamepad would be a mix between the Xbox360 and DualShock controllers, much like what the Razer Onza offers.

            http://zapp4.staticworld.net/reviews/graphics/products/uploaded/razer_onza_tournament_edition_gamepad_1121271_g1.jpg

            Even Cyborg V1 from Saitek has something interesting going on:

            http://i00.i.aliimg.com/wsphoto/v0/699089040/Free-Shipping-Mad-Catz-PP33-PS1000-SST-Dual-Analog-Vibration-GamePad-Game-Controller-Joypad-For-PC.jpg

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          Malcolm says:

          The best D-pad wasn’t really a D-pad at all. It was the marvellous clicky stick on the Neo Geo Pocket (Colour). Nothing else has come close IMNSHO.

      • Niko says:

        Dark Souls uses d-pad.

        • m_a_t says:

          If Dark Souls was the standard to how a D-Pad should work, any el cheapo junk would do. A D-Pad should have the pricese responsiveness required to play any 8-bit Mega Man or Castlevania, which no D-Pad offers nowadays. The latest decent D-Pad I own is from the Gamecube controller. As much as I love my X-Box 360 controller, the D-Pad is a clunky piece of crap.

          • weary ghoul says:

            Nintendo still makes good D-pads IMO. The DS, the Wii Remote and especially the Wii Classic Controller ones feel solid from my experience. The 3DS one is the same construction as the others but the placement makes it feel unergonomic on my 3DS XL. I don’t have a Wii U yet but I bet those are good too!

        • mashkeyboardgetusername says:

          Given how many times I’ve accidentally put my shield away while trying to to cycle through my items in combat I’d actually prefer seperate buttons rather than the D-pad for Dark Souls.

          • m_a_t says:

            Yes, or changed my active spell while toggling between shield and catalyst. Hmmmnnnn..! DaS is definitely a case for separate buttons! But yeah, I mean: what’s so hard about implementing a solid, cross-shaped D-Pad like the ones from the GB, DS or NES? Is this some kind of super high technology? Or is it just too simple?

          • Pich says:

            i think Nintendo has a copyright on that particular cross-shape of d-pad

    • belgand says:

      I use them any time I need to navigate something in two dimensions. In other words menus, inventories, the OS, conversations, etc.. The analog sticks require too much travel and are imprecise for these sorts of things while I can quickly tap the d-pad to get around easily.

  4. Eukatheude says:

    I want it to have an underside Z button, N64 style, so badly.

  5. Spacewalk says:

    I wouldn’t say that I’m worried about the d-pad but separated directions absolutely have to go because diagonal inputs look to be a hassle on this controller. I foresee many a thumb slipping off one of the buttons during a motion and totally fucking up games that require diagonal inputs.

    • GameCat says:

      I can’t see any comfortable way to press the up-right and down-left directions, lol. With other two directions you can at least use your whole thumb.

      They should made d-pad like in PlayStation gamepads or at least like in Nintendo Dual Screen.

      • iainl says:

        Pushing up-right or down-left is no different than trying to perform EX moves in SFIV over a pad. Which is to say not ideal, but perfectly doable.

        • GameCat says:

          I’m not saying that’s impossible to press these directions, but I’m almost sure that it will be annoying as hell.
          These buttons seems to be placed too far from each other, but it’s hard to judge from single screenshot.
          I can imagine that people with smaller fingers (like kids) can have problems with this d-pad.

  6. AshRolls says:

    This design looks a lot more promising. Considering the Oculus is best used with a gamepad I have high hopes that this controller will be my main input method.

  7. w0bbl3r says:

    Valve have lost it. Not content with all the money they are already making, they have to destroy PC gaming to try and make more, not giving a toss about the gaming community at all anymore.
    Gabe Newell has turned into a big fat ogre

    • Distec says:

      So what triggered this babbling, exactly.

    • onyhow says:

      Hyperbole much? And the fact that you list no supporting evidence whatsoever makes you look like a fool.

    • toxic avenger says:

      Who knew something so innocuous could destroy an entire industry!? or Who knew that the PC gaming industry was so flimsy as to fold with the slightest blow!?

      • weary ghoul says:

        Fool, did you not hear the man? This new controller is the END OF TIMES! PC gaming is no more!

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    Amatyr says:

    While I want a Steambox I am incredibly sceptical of this pad being any use to me. I suspect I’ll just use an xbox controller with it.

    • P.Funk says:

      The promise is that haptic feedback can allow you to finally play an RTS on a console without wanting to feed a baby into a blender in protest.

  9. GameQB11 says:

    Only thing left to do now is switch the placement of the right track pad with the ABXY buttons.

    I wanted something revolutionary, but the x360 controller is REALLY well designed. All they are doing is basically replacing the analogue sticks.

    Hopefully they can add some buttons to the back, or an extra trackpad. Maybe the 2nd generation of this controller will be more innovative, but for now we are getting the tried and true.

    • Uboa Noticed You says:

      It still has the back paddles and I’d say the trackpads are a step up from the analogue sticks. They allow for analogue movement while being more precise. The only thing I’m worried about is the tactile feedback. Plus they’re programmable.
      I’m glad they changed the position of the face buttons, but I miss the touchscreen personally.

  10. PopeRatzo says:

    I’d like to see it’s size relative to a hand. The photo makes it look a little too big for me. Like it would be quite a stretch for the thumbs to reach those mashable buttons.

  11. PopeRatzo says:

    I’d like to see it’s size relative to a hand. The photo makes it look a little too big for me. Like it would be quite a stretch for the thumbs to reach those mashable buttons.

  12. derbefrier says:

    Better but I can’t decide if I should give a hoot. Sorry owl just see myself out now.

  13. voorsk says:

    I hope the pads work better than the dual touchpads that the Xperia Play had – they were chuffing awful to use!

  14. cunningmunki says:

    I just don’t understand the fuss about the d-pad, I can’t remember the last time I ever played a game that required me to use a diagonal direction on the d-pad, if ever. The d-pad is four-buttons, this has four buttons. In terms of backward-compatibility, which was the whole point of the redesign, this works just fine.

    It’s a shame they lost the touch-screen, but understandable from a cost point of view. Hopefully, one day they’ll re-instate it on a more expensive version, once this version of the controller becomes popular.

    • uh20 says:

      it is also not too hard to imagine that valve went way over their heads to get the software and kit working for the touchscreen as well as overhauling big picture mode to accommodate the touchscreen menu, it’s silly to say that considering they are a software company, but they still have nowhere near the number of employees nintendo or microsoft use for r&d.

      the price can definitely be lowered though, the original steam controller could have sold for 40-50 europas but now the price *should* drop to 3/4 of that.

  15. Volcanu says:

    I realise I’m about to make this all about me, but what I was really hoping for was something that made playing ‘drag and click’ type games viable on a couch. So basically RTS, old skool interface RPGs like the Infinity Engine games, Grand strategy and Civ types and so forth.

    The more it tries to be all things to all games, the more I find myself thinking I may as well stick with a 360 controller or not bother playing on the couch at all.

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    LogicalDash says:

    The new buttons are entirely additive. The old model Steam controller is still there, only now there are buttons in the middle. We haven’t lost anything.

    • toxic avenger says:

      Didn’t there used to be back sensors? and space for a touch screen interface?

  17. DuncUK says:

    Looking at this design, I still find myself wondering whether 2 trackpads are really necessary. I completely understand that one is needed to replace mouse action (and could probably rival it in the hands of an expert), but the left touchpad seems like a poor replacement for WASD. Would an analogue stick not be better than, if not even superior to WASD? The tactile feedback of a (low profile?) sprung thumbstick with the inherent analogue directionality seems to me to offer the best of both worlds.

    I realise that this controller is not aimed primarily at FPS, but how many other genres would be benefit from two touchpads?

    • soldant says:

      None – one of the trackpads seems to function effectively as… well, a straight-up trackpad, which is worse than a mouse and worse than a thumbstick when it comes to FPS games. Which is why I don’t really see why this thing is so revolutionary or why it’s going to make things better. If you really want a wireless trackpad to play RTS games from your couch, that technology already exists.

      The other trackpad will probably have to act as a kind of thumbstick (analogue sticks offer much more control over movement than the binary WASD keys, so yeah I’d say they’re superior for movement)… and to do that, you need that haptic feedback, which is inherent in a thumbstick because you know where you’re pushing it.

      Honestly the more I think about it, it seems like an over-engineered device that sounds cool but doesn’t really seem to have a purpose.

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        FriendlyFire says:

        I believe one of the modes was to have both touchpads control the mouse, with different movement scaling. This way you’d use one of the pads for fast movement and the other for precise controls, which would let you move the pointer across the screen rapidly while still giving you precision on small UI buttons.

        I’m going to wager that if it works at all, it’ll need a fair bit of practice, but the idea is neat.

        • gwathdring says:

          It is! It’s a very elegant solution. I’d love to try it.

    • Ocki says:

      Yeah, I was thinking the same. WASD is terrible compared to an analog stick. I’m really hoping, that you can configure the left trackpad to behave and perhaps feel like a thumbstick.
      I could also imagine, that they’ll replace the d-pad/buttons on the left side with a stick in an other iteration.

    • PoLLeNSKi says:

      I thought the point was that instead of the perpetual swiping required to play on a trackpad (where it emulates a mouse type control), you just plonked your thumb on the relevant part of the pad and it reacts like a thumbstick being held in that direction…then again, maybe that’s how people use trackpads nowadays as well, I haven’t used one for gaming in a good 10 years or so.

  18. Moraven says:

    There are 3 main designs for the stick locations.

    Wii U – top sticks
    Dualshock – bottom sticks
    Xbox – top left, bottom right

    Seems to go the way of the Wii U.

    I understand the d-pad arrows like that, since most games use them more for 4 more buttons to be pressed while not moving (item and/or ability selection). Of course having the d-pad option is ideal so you can at least use it when you want. I wonder how many do tho?

    • iniudan says:

      Would say lot of people who play platformer and about everyone, who play a fighting game, that require to double tap a direction, without a proper arcade stick.

    • GameCat says:

      And people playing various emulators and older games that doesn’t have analogue stick support.

  19. fish99 says:

    That d-pad looks useless for diagonals.

    • gwathdring says:

      I don’t think it’s meant to replace a d-pad. That’s what the customizeable track-pads are for.

  20. HilariousCow says:

    I had some thoughts myself about the original, and certainly, there were some interesting and not-quite-there-yet decisions on the out of the box defaults. The left pad was mapped to cursor keys, but it wasn’t possible to press diagonals! And there’s no “haptic anticipation” of moving between the areas which denote the direction, so it’s kind of a go-to example of how not to cross continuous/analogue inputs with discrete outcomes.

    Having a physical dpad (or approximation via jewel array) just gets rid of this problem nice and easily.

    More here: http://ludopathic.co.uk/2014/01/31/valve-controller-prototype-revision-1-early-thoughts/

  21. Chorltonwheelie says:

    I’ll give you my mouse when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
    D-pads, honestly?

  22. DanMan says:

    Please remove the glossy stuff Valve. All it does is turn ugly in a matter of seconds from sweaty fingers. I’d like to have an all-rubber surface. Thank you.

    An yes, the D-pad can barely be called that. But it’s probably to keep the pad ambidextrous.

    • MkMax says:

      the rubber surface does feel good to the touch but tends to rot with smog, exposure to sunlight and finger abrasion turning tacky and falling out leaving a different color behind and feeling horrible to the touch, i had a two mouses like that, they barely last a year

      i agree with you about the glossy surface getting instantly coated with finger grease tho, its already annoying enough in monitors that you rarely touch

      • DanMan says:

        Can’t say I have that problem with the rubber coated peripherals I own. They either stay pretty clean anyway, or are easy to clean with a little water and maybe some soap. The benefit being, that they stay clean much longer than the glossy stuff.

  23. The Random One says:

    At least it doesn’t look sinister any more. In fact, it even looks kinda happy.

  24. trjp says:

    I was massively skeptical that they were going to produce something practical and original – let alone something which could ‘replace mouse and keyboard’ – and with every iteration of it they make something “more like a joypad” – wtg there…

    That DPad is laughable – whoever put that in there has never played a game which needed any degree of quick movement/double-tapping etc.

    I’m also hard-pressed to see what 2 touchpads have over 2 joysticks – you’re sacrificing feedback (spring-loading on the sticks) for what? Portability??

    As someone who’s spent too-much-time trying to get touchscreens working as decent input methods – I really don’t have much time for that method of input when it comes to conventional (up/down/left/right/fire) gaming at all and I cannot work-out why they’re wasting effort on those ‘owl eyes’.

    Even if they are onto something tho – they’re caught in the classic catch-22 of “if a peripherial isn’t boxed with it – people won’t buy enough of it to make it worth bothering’.

    I suspect they just making this so they’re not beholden to Logitech (their joypad of choice just so they don’t have to show an MS product) in the same way they’re faffing around with Linux (their OS of choice just so they don’t have to show an MS product)

    Ironic that 2 MS products are the superior choice for actually playing games tho isn’t it?

    • gwathdring says:

      This is getting triesome. The track-pads are intensely customizeable. If you need a d-pad instead of a trackpad/joystick, you set the trackpad to act as a d-pad. Does that present some problems compared to a traditional button d-pad? Yes–criticize that all you like. Have I personally ever found a traditional button d-pad I liked? No, so I guess I’d be willing to give this a shot. Are the four directional arrow buttons likely intended to act as a full-fledged d-pad when the controller has two highly customizable trackpads that in past tech demos *have been set to act as eight-way d-pads*? No. No, they are not likely to be intended for that. Stop it.

      Be as skeptical as you like. Skepticism is healthy. But please try to pay attention first.

      • Reapy says:

        I still think an analog stick on the left and the touch pad on the right is going to be the way to go. Typically the right is for camera movement, I can see that extended to mouse movement as well.

        For a civ game, the the 4 buttons on the left would be like having 4 mouse buttons, in addtion to having the stick act as a radial menu. For FPS games just go standard halo set up, this is the tried and true console FPS set up, no need to rock the boat, with the touch pad you would hopefully have the precision non vector based aiming method we love on the desktop.