PC or console? Mouse and keyboard, or controller? It’s a debate that’s raged for nearly as long as video games themselves. So in 2013, Valve — creator of games like Half-Life and Portal, and the founder of Steam, the beating heart of PC gaming — attempted to fuse the two camps together.
The Steam Controller was originally introduced as part of Valve’s Steam Machine push. The initiative attempted to convince partners to build gaming PCs that would sit in a living room like an Xbox or a PlayStation, but run the massive library of PC games already available on Steam. Plenty of PC owners have hooked up their computer to their television, but the Steam Machine project had bigger ambitions to turn living room PC gaming into a platform.
The problem was, most PC games don’t work well with a traditional gamepad. Valve needed something that could bridge those two worlds, and it came up with the Steam Controller and its curious, unique trackpads.
In many ways, the Steam Controller was the most controller ever made, creating a customizable skeleton key that could handle any control scheme or remapping you could throw at it, be it a mainstream game built for a traditional controller or a PC game that predated the advent of a mouse. It had buttons galore, a thumbstick, and even a gyroscope for aiming.
But the star of the show — and the most controversial aspect of the controller — was those dual trackpads, designed to both emulate a traditional mouse, a thumbstick, a trackball, a directional pad, or even other buttons. Instead of a regular thumbstick, which only allows for so much fine control, the trackpads worked similar to the one on your laptop, offering pinpoint accuracy for moving and aiming.
The haptic feedback was and still is incredible: using tiny solenoid actuators, the trackpads could pulse and click to re-create the physical sensations of a traditional control scheme; you really felt like you were moving something when you scrolled your thumbs around the cup-shaped pads. It sounds similar to a laptop trackpad, but it worked closest to a trackball, designed to let you fling a cursor around your TV at the same speed you could with a regular mouse.
A fantastic tech demo with a steep learning curve
The trackpads are a fantastic tech demo, but they had a significant learning curve. In some ways, they were the perfect compromise between a mouse and a controller, offering the flexibility of a mouse while still allowing players to replicate a more traditional dual-stick setup. In other ways, they satisfied fans of neither camp, without the ease of use of a thumbstick (Valve was forced to add a separate one midway through the design process) or the whole-arm accuracy and comfort of a mouse. It left the Steam Controller stuck awkwardly in the middle. And divorced from the Steam Machine’s living room context, the Steam Controller didn’t offer many reasons for desk-bound gamers who already had a mouse and keyboard and a traditional controller to go out and try something new.
The Steam Controller ran into other issues, too. Valve’s Steam Machine initiative fizzled out fast, leaving the controller without a flagship product to rally around. Games were slow to get official support — if they got it at all — leaving players at the mercy of remapping controls to work with the device. And the Steam Controller’s jack-of-all-trades approach could cause issues with games that already had separate mouse and controller settings.
Unfortunately, the Steam Controller was just a bit too ahead of its time. Valve failed to ship it alongside the first Steam Machines, making it late to the market for its main purpose. The company tried to recenter the device as a part of its Steam Link initiative in 2015 for streaming games to your living room, but missed the resurgence of cloud gaming by a few short years. And despite fans rallying around the controller, it was discontinued at the end of 2019 in a $5 fire sale — an ignominious end for the ambitious device.
While the Steam Controller may be dead, its legacy lives on with the Steam Deck. With its new gaming handheld, Valve is still trying to bridge the gap between its PC game launcher and more traditional gamepad controls.
In some ways, Valve has learned to be more conservative: the Steam Deck has the traditional twin thumbstick setup that’s been common to most controllers since the original PlayStation debuted the idea. But it also features a next-generation version of the Steam Controller’s trackpads, which build on the work that both the company and fans have done over the years. Diehard fans have filled in the missing controller support publishers didn’t have (complete with macros and minute tweaks), and those profiles are ready on day one for a huge chunk of the Steam library. The portable form factor — where a mouse and keyboard would be truly impossible to use — help justify the touchpads in a way that the original Steam Controller didn’t.
The Steam Controller didn’t end up as the ultimate bridge between PC and console gaming. But it may have helped lay the foundation for the Steam Deck to succeed where Valve had previously failed.