Indie dev shares thoughts on Steam Controller after getting hands-on

Dan Tabár , the game designer behind Cortex Command , got his hands on a prototype of the recently announced Steam Controller and says he has "no qualms" with the ergonomic feel of the controller and is "surprised how well it worked." He told us he's excited to see how the device will affect the feasibility of PC gaming in the living room.

Tabár tested the controller during a visit to Valve in September and had a chance to play some Borderlands with the new hardware, which he described as fresh off of an in-house 3D printer.

"What I like about controller specifically, is how surprisingly usable and good the touchpads felt almost immediately," Tabár said. "It certainly is not the laptop touchpad experience frankensteined onto a gamepad. The new paddles on the back are a stroke of genius that makes me smack my forehead...and in general I just dig that Valve is clearly taking a fresh approach and leaving nothing because of some kind of sacred legacy expectations of what makes a good game input device."

The controller's touchpads will use a tactile-feedback technology in order to replace the thumbsticks that are mounted on the front of most traditional gamepads. At least in shooters like Borderlands, this is one area, according to Tabár, where the controller is still a work-in-progress.

"They do have some work to do on the haptic feedback for these kinds of games, because my impression was that it was rumbling and making klicky sensations constantly, not really giving me much useful tactile feedback," Tabár said. "I see that as a polish/tweaking issue more than a dealbreaker though, and [definitely] something that will be fundamentally less of an issue with games that are built with the controller in mind."

While he caveats that he only got to use the prototype in an FPS game, Tabár did wonder how people would adapt the controller to other genres, especially real-time strategy games.

"I do worry about people trying to use this with fast-paced RTS games and hope to stay competitive, or arcade fighting games, as another example," he said. "Some game genres just lend themselves to specialized hardware like arcade sticks, auto racing wheels, flight joysticks, et cetera. However, as a universal controller, this seems to be a very flexible compromise."

And as one of the three cornerstones of developer Valve's plan to take PC gamers away from the traditional, desk-based, mouse and keyboard setups that most of us know, a feasible controller has got to be central to making couch-based PC gaming a reality. But it's always tough to predict how new input devices will actually function without getting your hands on them.

Tabár says he's "confident" the graphical editor for his upcoming Planetoid Pioneers project could be operated using the Steam Controller, even though the interface was designed for a mouse cursor. What's clear from his experience is that many of the real advantages of such a radically new device won't appear until we see games that are designed—from the very beginning—to work seamlessly with the new apparatus.