What was the Steam Controller?
This was the best controller ever created, and everybody hated it.
Valve’s Steam Controller from 2015 offered the promise of being able to play your desktop PC games lying down on the couch in your living room. The reception to it, however, was very negative. Days after launch reviews started pouring in criticizing the controller for its unintuitive layout, lack of a right analog stick, small face buttons, and most of all, the ginormous, useless trackpads.
The sad thing is that it totally delivered on all of its promises, but most people didn’t realize it. The story of the Steam Controller is a sad one full of bad marketing, learning curves, and no second chances.
What could it do?
It could do everything!
Well, anything you wanted it to in a video game; you just had to learn how to use it. Those giant, useless trackpads are this controller’s secret sauce. Seriously, they can do anything.
- ✓ Simulate a joystick?
- ✓ Emulate a d-pad?
- ✓ Function as a mouse?
- ✓ Act as a single button?
- ✓ Type on an in-game keyboard?
- ✓ Access a custom in-game menu?
And on and on and on
It’s hard to overstate how paradigm-shifting these simple little trackpads are for playing games; they really are that good. An Example
I’ll attempt to describe a specific use case that validates this controller’s design, but here’s a video by the world’s leading Steam Controller scientist, Rambletan (formally known as the Existential Egg) demonstrating it:
So what you have in a typical first person game is the left joystick for movement and the right joystick for camera controls. On the Steam Controller you’d be tempted to map the right joystick to the right trackpad, but this is terrible. Fortunately these are PC games you’re playing so you map the mouse to the right trackpad instead and use it to emulate a trackball that you can roll back and forth (and with the haptic feedback, it really does feel like one). This is great! In combination with the gyroscope you’ve got near mouse-like precision on a little handheld controller, what more could you want? Well it gets better.
The trackpads also click, so you make a rule that whenever you click the trackpad it turns into a d-pad. And on that d-pad you have all of the face buttons ( A B X Y ) mapped in their obvious places, so clicking on the left side of the trackpad presses the X button and clicking the top presses the Y button and so on.
This is even better! Now you’ve got precise camera controls and all the face buttons mapped to a single trackpad, so your thumb never has to travel more than an inch to do anything you need it to, but it still gets better! Now the four edges of the trackpad have four buttons mapped to them, but the entire inner ring of the trackpad does nothing when you click it; so why don’t we map another button to it? Maybe right-stick click? Whatever you want!
So now you have five buttons and a mouse all on a single trackpad, and the four face buttons are free to be mapped to whatever less-often used buttons you need. Even disregarding the bumpers, dual-stage triggers, back paddles, and gyro-tilt, the trackpads alone rival anything any other controller on the market offers! You’ve just got to learn how to configure it using Valve’s software.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg, it goes much, much deeper.
Seriously, this guy is able to play Star Citizen using just this controller; there’s no PC game you can’t play from the couch using this.
The Desperate State of its Userbase
Unfortunately the controller never caught on with the mainstream; Valve’s marketing didn’t explain how to configure it, news outlets rushed to push their reviews out without taking the time to learn how to use it, and no one even knew about the gyroscope until after the thing had already launched. The default configurations for most games weren’t that good, and sharing configs was kind of a mess.
But we few who recognized the controller for what it was, the greatest gaming innovation in decades, used it happily for years. But in November of 2019, Steam had a sale to get rid of the last of their stock of Controllers and now the lifetime of this controller is being realized. “After this one breaks, will I be able to find a replacement?” “Will I be able to repair it?” “Will I just have to move on and go back to a standard, inferior controller?”
Or worse: a keyboard and mouse‽
These are questions we’ve all had to ask ourselves, and although I’m lucky enough to own a backup controller, I can only wonder … how long will it last? With its poor reception, it seemed unlikely Valve would ever follow it up with a Steam Controller II.
Hope on the Horizon
After months of rumours and speculation, Valve finally announced the Steam Deck!
… a portable … Steam … video game … console?
Okay, so it’s not a new and improved Steam Controller, but there’s reason for hope with this announcement. Jokes aside, it looks like a pretty neat project: a portable PC with a Steam Controller attached, priced at a reasonable $400. It’s not for everyone but it might find its niche.
My interest in it of course lies in its controls, just look at those trackpads! Valve clearly hasn’t given up on the idea of bridging the gap between PC’s and consoles, and they know that the trackpads are what the people need, even if they don’t know it for themselves. If the Steam Deck is successful, I think it’s very likely that Valve will release a standalone “Steam Deck Controller” for multiplayer games, even if they don’t call it the Steam Controller II.