My time with the Steam Controller

When I started Super Meat Boy, I knew that proper controls would be the make or break for the game. I’m very picky about controls in games, to the point if the game doesn’t control well, I don’t care who makes it or what it is, I will stop playing it. I often get asked which formulas I used for movement, friction, air physics, etc. in Super Meat Boy. Truth is, there are no formulas…it’s just a big huge hack. I spent two months on the controls for SMB to get them perfect. Everything from the weird “friction” that happens when you change directions in the air to the 200MS delay that happens when you’re on a wall and pull away is based on how it feels to me when I play it. None of these formulas are based on physics concepts, they are 100% based on feel.

When it comes to hardware I’m, again, very picky. We have a Razer controller that Shannon bought a while back that has strange buttons that click weird. I refuse to play with it. I hated playing the PS3 when it first came out because the SixAxis had no DualShock in them and were too light. I didn’t fully play any PS3 games until I bought a DualShock3 SixAxis controller. I didn’t even bother with the Ouya controller because if other people are reporting latency problems, I know for a fact I will experience them.

I need to press a button, feel good pressing it, and have it react accordingly on the screen. So, ladies and gentlemen… if I say I’m sensitive to controllers you will agree.

The Steam Controller (or whatever it’s officially called) is strange. Where your thumbs normally rest when holding a controller, there are just the two little circular track pads just like what you see in the pictures. In the center you have your A,B,X,Y buttons surrounding what I was told would be a touch screen display at some point. The touchpad / screen in the center of the controller wasn’t enabled so I can’t really speak on that. The A,B,X,Y buttons surrounding the touch screen seemed to be used more for your standard “Back” button configuration. Think of them not as A,B,X,Y but additional buttons that can perform some functionality. You obviously wouldn’t play a game with those buttons being your primary action buttons. You use the left and right circle pads as your primary inputs.

On top of the controller you have your standard Left/Right Bumpers and Left/Right Triggers, they work and feel as you would expect. On the back of the controller are two additional triggers that you can hit with your fingers naturally by just squeezing your hand but aren’t so sensitive that the act of holding the controller depresses the buttons.

The controller I held was a 3D printed functional prototype. It is thicker than an Xbox 360 controller at the base where the sides of the controller rest in your palms. The weight is about the same. I didn’t feel as if the controller was too heavy or too light. I did notice the bulk of the controller, but only as a differentiation from the PS3 controller I’ve been playing with recently (GTA5) and the 360 controller I use for PC gaming. The bulk didn’t bother me.

After becoming familiar with the controller I started to play Meat Boy. I played from muscle memory so the more advanced tactics were being used (wall slide, jump height curving, etc). At first I noticed significant lag, and thought to myself “Oh shit, I’m going to have to tell them that their controller is laggy and bad”. They told me the latency was very low so I figured it had to be the TV because without a low latency “Game Mode” most reflex driven games are totally unplayable. Sure enough, I got into the settings of the TV, turned on Game Mode, and the real play session began.

The configuration they had set up was simple enough. The left circle pad acted as the directional buttons, the right acted as a big giant jump button. The big problem with touch pads/ touch screens is you never know when you are actually over a button or pressing it. Valve has tried to rectify this by having some adjustable haptic feedback fire when you press one of the circle pads. Throughout my play session the haptic feedback helped with the problem, but wasn’t enough to solve it.

The circle pads were configured so that they could be touched to register input. Having input register without a firm, familiar press feels weird and the reason being is that it was set to both touch AND press. You could make Meat Boy move right by pressing on the pad, but he would also move when my thumb rested on the pad. This naturally didn’t happen often, but did happen enough to be noticeable. Once I pointed this out one of the engineers (I’m sorry for not remembering your name, I’m horrible with names…true story I constantly called my ex-girlfriend Jessica instead of Lindsay. Jessica is her sisters name. It was for no other reason than I’m terrible with remembering and saying names…I could describe your face and what you were wearing to a sketch artist and the cops would pick you up in like 2 minutes…that’s where my memory is allocated…) he went back to his desk and updated the firmware to only react on press. Once this happened the controller felt like a controller. Pressing directional buttons made sense and I felt a greater sense of control.

One drawback to undefined physical buttons is that your thumbs need tactile contact in order to accurately know what button you are pressing. As the engineers and I were talking about this, the idea of little nubs being on the controller 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 about. They had been thought of prior to my being there, but weren’t on the controller I was using. I expressed that they needed to be put in. They might show up in some form after my feedback…so…you’re welcome Valve / Valve customers.

The button configuration worked fine for SMB, I was able to get to the Salt factory no problem. I was able to sequence break C.H.A.D. by getting the keys before he could do his attacks. I was even able to do the bandaid the super fast way in the second level of the hospital shown here (though I didn’t wait on the platform above the bandaid, I always fall straight through): http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=JHJsnXRb_Es#t=1392

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.

But that’s Meat Boy, I wanted to see how it would do with a game where multiple inputs were required. Naturally, I requested Spelunky. 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. Anyone that’s played it knows what I’m talking about, but to explain further there are often times in Spelunky where you will find yourself in a situation where you will panic and need to compensate. For example, lets say you are jumping on a platform, below it are spikes, above you is a bat. If the bat hits you, you’ll die because you’ll fall into the spikes. If you try to jump on the bat, chances are you’ll hit the bat and fall and possibly die. So in situations like this you find yourself tap jumping with air compensation to whip a bat while still staying on this one tile platform. The Steam controller handled this just fine. The nubs I mentioned above would have solidified the platforming experience better, but again, those might get thrown in as they approach final hardware. I got to the Ice Caves and then a stupid Skeleton knocked me off a platform to my death…then I attempted a daily run and died immediately…pretty much the standard Spelunky play through.

If you were to ask me if I would play games with the Steam Controller…I would say yes. If you were to ask me to choose between Steam Controller and a 360 controller, I would choose 360. Don’t take that as slight to the controller though because it’s more about the comfort of familiarity over functionality. I would choose a 360 controller because I have several thousand hours experience using it, however if tomorrow all game controllers were wiped off the earth and the only option was the Steam Controller, I don’t think this would be a bad thing. In fact, I don’t think gaming would miss a beat. I’m excited to see what final hardware feels like because I think with the upcoming iterations of the controller we’ll see something that is different, but still feels good.

TL;DR; Great Start, needs some improvements, but I could play any game I wanted with it just fine.

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