With all the excitement and discussion around the Steam OS and Steam Controller, there continues to be a debate about what the Steam controller should or shouldn't be. So we gave it a hands on test drive to show you both how it looks and how it works with a few games on the Steam OS library. While the most recent update of the steam controller has brought back the d-pad and the standard A,B,X,Y action buttons, there are still players out there who argue that public opinions are only hindering the advancement of the controllers that Valve is trying to bring to market. Although we agree to a certain extent that rumor based comments about something you haven't used yet could certainly affect the public perception too early in development, we had the opportunity to try it for ourselves and we'd have to agree that there are still many issues that leave us wondering if it will still be a viable form of control. Even while keeping in mind that it is a early stage beta product, we can certainly see ourselves opting back towards the classic style of controller such as the recently publicized Amazon version of the Steam controller which includes dual Analog sticks with classic button positions if we want to not only start off running on the Steam OS but actually have a competitive advantage early on.
We got our hands on an official Steam controller and of the 13 Steam Machines shown at CES (though due to NDA we can yet reveal who it is) and we took it for a test drive to show you how it works and what we think. We tested two games, Surgeon Simulator 2013 and Fez to give you and idea of how the controller worked with the games in terms of controls, maneuverability and interaction. As you will see, we ran into a number of difficulties such as improper button mappings, over sensitivity, and just general difficulty navigation the game and menus. Although we can certainly remap the buttons before we play, the issue is that we, like most consumers, will expect the Steam OS to simply work right out of the box without the need to remap keys, especially if it's a game where we don't necessarily know what the action are yet in the first place. This is the clear advantage that consoles currently have over the Steam Machine however, hopefully by the time this launches, they will have resolved many of these issues.
Our first experience was interesting and had a number of challenges. First was with the Steam OS, specifically how the controller responded to navigating the OS. The light touch of the haptic feed back pads made it difficult to navigate since it was so overly sensitive, we often found ourselves skipping past what we were trying to select. At times it was easy to unintentionally click on an option.
Another issue was the onscreen keyboard which has a completely unique interface that somewhat resembles a flower. Although it is visually intuitive, the need to use both fingers to type could prove difficult for some, however we found it became really easy to use after some time. Certainly this is one of the things that we think has changed what we are used to and well worth the effort to adapt since on screen typing could become much easier and more fluid once we've gotten used to the controller.
Testing out Fez and Surgeon Simulator
As we mentioned before, we ran into a number of issue with the Steam Controller in terms of out of the box compatibility with certain games due to the button mapping. While the games might indicate that the "X" button needs to be pressed to perform an action, the actual "X" button the Steam controller might not be mapped properly by default. Often, there is no consistent omni "start" button and it changed from game to game. In Surgeon Simulator, it was pretty much unplayable by default since we could not hold an object and move our hands at the same time.
After investigating the button mapping, we found that the haptic feedback pads were oddly assigned to the mouse scroll wheels rather than mouse directional tracking. This could be easily remedied by remapping buttons but we assume that most consumers will expect these kinds of things to be resolved before they play. Consumers will expect that console feel where when they buy a game, it should be ready to go and properly mapped without the need to fiddle around with the settings. This also includes things such as screen resolution and game pop up menus for graphic settings which are generally nonexistent in consoles and could be very confusing for consumers expecting that console experience.
Another issue we had was the combination of direction buttons with the haptic feedback. It seems brilliant to combine the buttons which in a sense was like killing two birds with one stone, but in our experience it turned out like they were getting in the way of each other rather than complimenting each other. it became easy to unintentionally click when trying to use the haptic feature. Another thing is that the haptic feedback is not what most people would expect and actually is rather difficult to describe. As you glide your fingers around the rings, you can feel a clicking motion and we are unsure exactly what it is. It sort of feels like something under the touch pads are actually tracking magnetically the position of your thumb, tracking along with with it's movement. It's certainly strange and you'll just have to use it to understand.