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Watch Us Critique Valve's Steam Controller

Not Exactly A Hoot

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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.

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Nathan Grayson

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