Valve’s Controller Has Been Tested. Here Are Some Impressions

Valve’s Controller Has Been Tested. Here Are Some Impressions

Game creators who have tried Valve’s unusual new game controller tell Kotaku that the device holds a lot of promise. But make no mistake, they also say it feels pretty different from what we’re used to.

“We’ve been at Valve this week and only used it briefly, however, you immediately notice its increased responsiveness.,” Sega’s VP of PC digital distribution in the US and Europe John Clark told me in an email late Friday.

Clark is just one of a group of game creators from studios big and small who went to the house of Half-Life, DOTA 2 and Steam and tried the third piece in Valve’s three-part announcement of SteamOS, Steam Machine and Steam Controller. All three components will combine to present Valve’s push into living room gaming where they and the library of PC-based Steam games will presumably bump into the likes of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.

The controller is key, of course. And while Valve says it is hackable, it will likely be defined by certain core features that set it apart from both mouse-and-keyboard and traditional controllers like that of the Xbox 360. It eschews twin control sticks for circular trackpads that are equipped to deliver some haptic (force) feedback. It moves the traditional AXBY face buttons to the center of the controller, all four surrounding a small touchscreen. Beta controllers, including the one pictured at the top of this post in a photo supplied by Clark, don’t include the touch screen and have temporary face buttons in the screen’s place.

Clark and his colleague, Jurgen Post, COO and president of Sega Europe had recently visited Valve to try the controller and stuck around for a couple of days with teams of Sega developers from real-time-strategy studios Relic (Company of Heroes) and Creative Assembly (Total War).

Here’s Post testing out the controller:

Indie developer Ichiro Lambe of Dejobaan Games also tried the controller and gamely tried to explain to me (and you) what the device’s trackpads feel like.

“It’s tough to grok the touch feedback until you try it out,” he said in an e-mail. “You pick it up, and, for the first few minutes, you’re mostly just moving your thumbs over the trackpads and marveling at what you’re feeling.”

Lambe had played a first-person shooter with Valve’s new device. It seems that the haptic feedback of the trackpads made a big impression. The idea of that feedback is that it’s supposed to create the feeling that the trackpad has edges on it, perhaps the outlines of buttons, if that’s how it is programmed for a specific game. Those trackpads are sensitive to movement and pressure.

“This sounds weird, but it’s almost like rolling two weighted trackballs that are too large to actually fit into the controller,” Lambe said as he tried to explain what it’s like to have one’s thumbs on those two trackpads. “For camera controls, slide one thumb to the right, and you’ll feel this ticking, like you’re turning a physical control. Flick your thumb quickly, and this imaginary physical thing reacts like something with weight to it — the ‘trackball’ continues to roll for a bit, eventually coming to a rest. And since it’s all controlled through the software, the same trackpad then becomes more like a mouse or a laptop trackpad when you’re navigating through menus. Dynamic!”

I received similar positive impressions of the controller’s haptic feedback from Klei‘s Jamie Cheng who had not gone hands-on with the controller but whose colleague had. “He told us that the controller haptic feedback was uncanny,” Cheng said, “and that using the trackpad really did feel like pressing buttons.”

I had asked Lambe how the Steam controller felt compared to traditional game controllers. He replied: “It’s familiar enough to be accessible (I believe they tried less conventional designs before they went with a form factor similar to existing gamepads), but much more precise for (say) anything WASD+mouselook.”

Valve’s Steam controller, Lambe added, “makes FPS gaming more comfortable in a gamepad form factor, and translates other genres (anything where you’d need precise mouse control for gameplay or user interface) to the living room.”

If Lambe was a good tester for first-person games, Team Meat‘s Tommy Refenes was an ideal candidate for seeing how responsive the Valve controller was to classic 2D action games. Refenes tried his and Edmund McMillen’s own Super Meat Boy along with Mossmouth’s Spelunky with the new controller. Refenes blogged about his experiences, summarizing them thusly: “TL;DR; Great Start, needs some improvements, but I could play any game I wanted with it just fine.” He had said as much to me over e-mail: “I went into it as ‘I’m going to play this like an Xbox and see how it does.’ In that way it did pretty well.”

Refenes’ whole post about trying the new gamepad is a must-read. It doesn’t just describe the feel of the controller but conveys the vibe at Valve regarding the controller. The company’s engineers seem prepared to make changes on the fly — fitting as the controller’s entering into a beta. Regarding how the games he played controlled, Refenes writes:

I was able to play Meat Boy the way Meat Boy can be played on an advanced level (and I’m rusty at it). The right circle button was the jump button and we had both Triggers mapped to the Run button just like a regular Xbox 360 controller. We also had the Run button mapped to the back trigger buttons I mentioned before that can be pressed with your fingers on the back of the pad. This worked great but did lead to a bit of hand cramping. I think this is due more to the way you use the run button in Meat Boy and not the design of the controller or the buttons.


Spelunky requires Whip, Jump, Bomb, and Rope buttons. We configured the controller to play like an Xbox controller. So the left circle pad was once again used for the directional buttons, and the right circle pad was used as A, B, X, Y buttons in the orientation that you find on an Xbox Controller….I played through Spelunky and the controller worked great. As I was playing I was describing to the engineers the twitch movements that go into Spelunky… The Steam controller handled this just fine.

Refenes said he found himself yearning for a little more physical feedback from the trackpads and discussed an idea with Valve’s engineers involving adding physical nubs to the pads “that would be noticeable enough where your thumbs would find them, but not so abrasive that the circle pads couldn’t comfortably used in mouse / trackpad mode came.” He seemed to think that the idea, already considered by Valve, might be tested with newer iterations of the controller.

Refenes said he still prefers the Xbox 360 controller for now, somewhat due to familiarity, but said he could be happy gaming just on the Steam controller. He won’t be the only person, though, who will consider the controller in comparison to the traditional twinstick 360 or even PS3 gamepad. Dejobaan’s Lambe expressed some warmth for the familiar as well.”There’s something satisfying about moving a physical stick or depressing a button with some resistance and throw,” he said. “The immediate feedback that an analogue stick gives you when you reach the extreme of a direction is useful. But how much of that is just a matter of what we’re used to?”

A Valve rep indicated to me that other developers have also tried the controller, including indie PC strategy game publisher Paradox Interactive and Hitman studio IO Interactive. The diversity of developers indicates that Valve expects its unusual new controller to be versatile. Consider, after all, that the Sega guys who checked out the controller specialize in mouse-and-keyboard strategy games.

“We’d really like to see how the developers experiment with PC RTS titles [with the new controller] and will value their feedback throughout the beta,” Sega’s Post told me over e-mail. “Games such as Company of Heroes 2 and Rome II are core for Sega and of course, you would define them as mouse & keyboard games. I’m personally intrigued to see how these games could work with the controller.”

Valve’s hardware beta for its controller and its Steam Machine gaming devices will begin soon, with an expected release to consumers next year. The controller will raise plenty more questions in the months to come. As it is used and as it evolves, we’ll bring you answers.


  • I’m highly skeptical of this thing, but nonetheless I’m excited to try it and see if they can actually innovate in a meaningful way.

  • Refenes not hating it means a lot. Console FPS and RTS games just make sense, but platforming felt like it could be a real potential disaster. If it can handle SMB then I’m 90% of the way convinced..

    • SMB doesn’t need camera controls. The way they remapped buttons to the right trackpad forgoes any camera control.
      Specifically talking about 3D platformers here though, and action games.

      • Action games you’ve still got the triggers and bumpers for but platformers could tricky. There are still buttons in the trackpad according to the layouts already published, even if you use it for the camera (don’t know how. Witchcraft?) and with the rear buttons, even though it sounds like they’re meant to be tapped rather than held, it could be enough.

  • Still not feeling button placement. Looks like it’ll require thumb off move controls and I am so not down for that.

    • The inner buttons are designed to be used for less common functions – jumping to menus and whatnot. There are six controls on the back – shoulders, triggers and a pair where your middle finger will rest and the track pads can be pressed to form 2 more buttons.

      • I think they threw a lot of people by labeling the inner buttons A, B, X, Y, since those letters aren’t usually associated with non-gameplay actions, like menu and comms.

        • non-gameplay? Those buttons are normally reload, melee, switch weapons and jump, they are most certainly essential gameplay actions.

          • I think you mis-understood my post, cos that’s exactly my point.

            People think of those actions when they see A, B, X, Y, and so presume that those buttons on the Steam controller are meant to be used for the same actions.

            But look at the bindings for Portal 2. These buttons are used for Partner View, talking, gesture and comms menu. Non-gameplay actions.

            My point is buttons A, B, X, Y on the Steam controller don’t have to be used for the same thing as A, B, X, Y on an xbox controller, just because they have the same letter on them.

          • You only mentioned 1 Valve game that doesn’t happen to use those bindings. What about the literal 100’s of other games that people already own. That my point that you misunderstood. Even the latest Diablo3 would be annoying on this controller.

          • So plug a different controller in for that game? You’re forgetting this is still a PC, it’s completely open, and the Steam controller is an option, not a necessity.

          • He gave you an example and expected you to draw correlation from there.
            Given that none of us can cover every possibility with game configurations, best thing is for us to wait and see.
            If it sucks, or you care much for it, you still have the option to use your old Xbox controller – you’re in a win situation, no matter what.

          • You’re missing the point of innovation. It isn’t very innovative if you still need the old devices that came before it. It isn’t innovative if it can’t do more. For arguments sake, it’s a nice controller and I’m sure it will function well. Though it isn’t innovative in any foreseeable way. Chalk it up to Valve for announcing a product and not showing how said product is any better than any other product. I’m simply looking at it critically.

      • Also, the track pads can be split into 8 radial areas which can be mapped to different key combinations..

  • I read “haptic feedback” on the announcement article, but was exhausted and so what it meant didn’t really register. After a coffee or two this morning, and THIS article, I’m pretty much sold. The core concept is appealing to me. This controller – if it works – can be pretty much anything. A Gamecube configuration would be a download away. Swap games, and it’s something completely different, tailored to that game’s gameplay. It’s down to whether the haptic feedback works as advertised.
    The analogy used by Lambe – “This sounds weird, but it’s almost like rolling two weighted trackballs that are too large to actually fit into the controller” – really changed my perception of what the trackpads would feel like to use, and the “clicking” he describes when moving a camera sounds pretty nifty. Being a prototype, we can only expect this feature to improve.
    It’s something wierd, and different, and seemingly illogical, but so was the DS.

    • I’m in the same boat. I’ve never appreciated haptic feedback for anything. Even on mobile, the soft vibration when you tap virtual keys is a poor substitute for physical actuation. When I first read the story, I couldn’t believe that these weird pads could top actual analogue sticks. I’m still not convinced they’ll work for RTS or MOBA type gaming but if this thing delivers, ho damn.

  • I do need a controller for my PC at some point, so I’ll probs pick one up over a 360 controller. Valve wouldn’t just stick something out there if they didn’t think it doesn’t work properly. The hard part will be getting people to try it out

  • i am keen to try this controller… i hate the ps3/xbox controllers, have been a keyboard/mouse warrior since day one, maybe this will win me over

  • I might be skeptical because the concept of haptic feedback supplanting physical resistance of analogue sticks is almost bizarre, but if it delivers on the promises, I can’t wait to try it out.

  • After an initial reaction of hating it, after some thought and reading the details I am cautiously optimistic.

      • Well, we’re seeing a lot of folks saying, “Good review. Cautiously optimistic after reading it!” so it’s clearly having an influence, and it’s worth having a commenter provide a wary counter-point by raising doubts about the source.

        Skepticism: It’s healthy when not carried to extremes.

  • What I find really interesting is people saying it lacks buttons and that the track pads are inferior to the analog sticks. To which I say, there are 13 physical buttons excluding the screen and the pads. There are only 11 on the xbox 360 and ps3 gamepads IIRC. And then there’s the touch screen, giving for all intents and purposes, infinite buttons. Granted, using anything more than 6 buttons on that screen would be tiresome, but still.

    And as for those pads, IF the haptic feedback is as good as these devs claim and the API is open enough, there is no reason why a dev couldn’t configure the pad to ignore your touch input, but activate a different action based on where your finger is when you push the pad in.

    I can easily see how this pad could rival the mouse and keyboard. As far as I’m concerned the xbox and ps gamepads have already lost, every time I’ve used one I’ve always been frustrated with the absolute lack of precision. If these pads on the Valve controller are as accurate as my 5 year old laptop then it is a must have in my eyes.

    Of course it could very easily just be hype and rubbish, but I’m certainly looking forward to giving it a go.

    • Aren’t XBOX and PS3 pads 16 buttons? LB, RB, LT, RT, LS, RS, Back, Start, D-Pad (four), X, Y, A, B? Plus the unusable Guide/Home button. Not that it’s really important, fifty buttons in awkward positions are worse than two well placed buttons.

      The problem I’m seeing is that they’re trying to negate one of their biggest strengths (the same can be said for most of what they’re doing). For decades PC gaming has stood by the mouse and keyboard being a superior setup to any gamepad. PC gamers have really hammered home that you just can’t do PC controls on a console setup. We’ve all been trained to say ‘well, it’s 1% less effective vs a keyboard and mouse so it’s obviously it’s total rubbish’.
      The keyboard and mouse are so tightly linked to justifying owning a PC over a console that putting a controller on this thing runs the risk of alienating the people who would actually be open to the idea of a Steam console.

      I think if Sony or Microsoft were pushing this controller we’d be hearing less careful optimism and more ‘lol, they think they can make a mouse into a gamepad, idiots’ and ‘I’ll stick with my four hundred dollar gaming mouse thank you’.

      I’m looking forward to getting my hands on this stuff but I can’t help but wonder how it’s going to play out.

  • I am a long term, massive fan of Steam, and I have to say that I’ll probably be waiting to purchase a Steam Machine instead of a next-gen console. The thought of being able to have my Steam Library on both my gaming PC, and then be able to go to the lounge room and relax, and play another game from my library…it sounds like absolute gaming heaven.

    Now can the conspiracies start: MAYBE HALF-LIFE 3 WILL BE RELEASED WITH STEAMOS. \(^_^)/

  • Keen to try this out. I’ve seen this idea floating around for a while, I’m surprised that none of the current console makers didn’t try to jump on it with the next gen.

    • Mm, it’d be far too along the lines of putting all of their eggs in one basket. If it doesn’t work, it’d sink a console.

      Valve has the benefit of this being along the lines of a side project, albeit a prominent one. If gamers really don’t like it – they can ignore it and use their preferred controller with a Steambox. If it takes off, then who knows what MSony will do…

  • I don’t think the lack of sticks is the issue, I actually the button placement will hurt this controller far more when it comes ot most genres out there.

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!