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Hands-on: Valve's Steam Controller tries to replace your mouse and keyboard

San Francisco—It's been a solid decade since we've made any significant advances in gamepad design. The last major innovation was Sony's DualShock for PlayStation, released in 1997, which had all the pieces we now consider standard: two clickable analog sticks, rumble feedback, four triggers, four face buttons, D-pad, Start, Select.

There have been refinements. We've renamed some of the buttons. But nobody has fundamentally reimagined the controller and had it stick. Nintendo's Wii and Wii U tried, but neither of those has found success outside of their original platform.

Enter Valve's interesting Steam Controller, which is an integral part of Valve's ploy to push PC gaming into the living room via console-like Steam Machines.

valve steam machine colbehr

Valve's Steam Controller is integral to the Steam Machine initiative. (Pictured: A Valve Steam Machine prototype next to a prototype first-gen Steam controller.)

Unlike the Wii and Wii U, the Steam Controller is meant to replace the "hardcore" controllers—the Xbox 360/One and the PlayStation's DualShock. This is aimed squarely at a core games market, emulating the feel of the now-traditional gamepad while improving on a few less-than-optimal aspects and simultaneously wooing diehard PC gamers sworn to a keyboard and mouse.

I spent some time with the original Steam Controller prototype recently and then got my hands on the second version of the Steam Controller at GDC last week. Here are my thoughts so far on Valve's (still evolving) design.

Total control

Version two of the Steam Controller turns an incredibly radical design into something a bit more familiar (and perhaps a bit more palatable), though it still revolves around the two circular, haptic-enabled trackpads that are Valve's replacement for analog sticks.

Those trackpads are the key difference between a dual-analog stick system and the Steam Controller. Valve wants to win over mouse-and-keyboard diehards with something a bit more precise than an analog stick. The pads act like a cross between a laptop trackpad and a graphics tablet. You aren't really swiping your fingers across the surface, as you would on a laptop, but the controls don't really map 1-to-1 on the screen as they would a graphics tablet.

steam controller Hayden Dingman

Prototype second-gen Steam Controller gamepads were on hand and playable at GDC 2014 last week.

Basically, the farther you move away from the central circle on each pad, the faster your character/the camera/your cursor moves in that direction.

The main issue with this control scheme—and one I don't know how Valve will solve—is that only the central circle is a dead zone. The rest of the pad is active. You have to keep your thumb rigidly within that circle or else risk stray movements. I played Left 4 Dead 2 on the controller earlier this month and kept unintentionally walking off ledges. I'd lift my thumbs for a second and then put them back down in the active zones by accident. It's also hard to change directions quickly, as it requires you to move your thumb all the way across a fairly large area with a high degree of precision.

It's not a friendly interface if you're trying to keep your eyes on the display. Instead, it's a bit like trying to type out a message on a smartphone screen without actually looking.

That being said, the pads are better for slower-paced games. Directing a cursor around the screen for a point-and-click adventure like Broken Age is easier on the Steam Controller than on an analog stick, though it's still not as intuitive or precise as a mouse.

The built-in haptic feedback is also a pleasant evolution of rumble feedback. Each pad can be keyed to vibrate in different ways. Alas, every game I've played with the Steam Controller so far just vibrated in the same way regardless of where I put my thumb, but I'm sure there are great applications for the tech.

An abundance of buttons

Steam Controller

The original, now defunct Steam Controller prototype was dominated by a large touchscreen that has been scrapped in the most recent iteration. 

The Steam Controller was originally slated to have a touchscreen in the center, with four buttons arranged around the outside. The touchscreen was Valve's solution to the gamepad's primary problem when compared to a keyboard: its lack of buttons. Supposedly the touchscreen would hook into the game UI, allowing you to use a game's more obscure keyboard shortcuts even if they weren't mapped to the Steam Controller's hardware buttons.

That's gone. I don't know whether it was due to cost, hardware limitations, problems with the UI, or ambivalence from developers and Steam Machine beta testers. Whatever the case, the Steam Controller will no longer have that central touchscreen.

All that extra room is now repurposed for a more traditional button scheme: two central, diamond-shaped sets of four buttons each, one of which features arrows similar to a D-pad (though without a D-pad's "plus-sign" shape) and one of which is labeled with ABXY. The Start, Select, and Guide buttons, meanwhile, have moved into the space originally designed for the touchscreen.

The controller suffers a bit from gigantism. Even in my fairly large hands—I actually like using a phone with a 5.5-inch screen—it's a bit awkward to reach the farthest buttons (the right arrow and X).

A paucity of PC gaming potential?

Unfortunately, the loss of the touchscreen removes one of the most compelling features from the design. I'm now less sure whether the Steam Controller will be a comfortable experience for keyboard-heavy PC games like Civilization V or Paradox's grand strategy titles.

It's hard to know, considering Valve hasn't publicly displayed any of those games running on the new Steam Controller.

steam controller rear view

The rear of the Steam Controller includes both traditional shoulder "trigger" buttons as well as innovative rear buttons, as this Valve diagram shows. Unfortunately, no publicly-demoed games have taken advantage of those rear buttons.

I messed around a bit with Europa Universalis IV at a Paradox event, but it was on the original touchscreen-enabled Steam Controller, and I didn't dig into the control scheme enough to know how you'd make up for the loss of keys. Other games I've demoed were either built for a controller in the first place (Left 4 Dead 2) or didn't even max out the keys Valve's provided (Broken Age primarily used the right touchpad and the right trigger, and that's it). As a result, the Steam Controller's potentially incredible features—specifically, the buttons on the underside of the controller that turn what's normally wasted space into something functional—are underutilized in these demos.

It's the big unknown: How will the Steam Controller function once it's being used for a wide swath of games? Will it be convincing enough to coax PC gamers into grasping gamepads?

I don't know yet, and the gamepad's certainly still a work in iterative progress. My excitement for the Steam Controller has certainly cooled since its reveal last year, however. So far, it's neither as precise as a mouse nor as easy as an Xbox 360 controller, a proverbial jack-of-all trades.

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