The unfortunate death of the Steam Controller

Key Takeaways

  • The Steam Controller went through numerous revisions and design changes before its final release, showcasing Valve’s commitment to perfecting its functionality.
  • Despite its innovative features, the Steam Controller struggled to gain popularity due to its inconvenient control schemes and clunky ergonomics, leading to its ultimate failure in the market.
  • Valve’s exploration of other avenues, such as VR headsets and the Steam Deck, have resulted in successful devices that incorporate some of the lessons learned from the Steam Controller’s shortcomings.

If you’re shopping for new controllers for your gaming PC, there are plenty of options to choose from. Besides the top-tier gamepads from Sony, Microsoft, and others, there are a wide variety of third-party controllers, driving wheels, and flight sticks that you can use for better immersion.

Sadly, there’s a particular PC controller that won’t ever see the light of day again. This article will recount the unfortunate tale of the Steam controller, a gizmo that, despite being a fantastic concept, ended up as a colossal failure.

The Steam Controller went through numerous revisions

Valve scrapped many designs before the final release

An older version of the Steam Controller placed atop a Steam Machine made by Gigabyte

If you’re a fan of competitive first-person shooters that require high precision, chances are you play almost exclusively with a keyboard and a mouse. The same goes for lovers of strategy games and other genres that aren’t meant for gamepads. Valve intended to create a controller that could combine the accuracy of keyboard and mouse controls with the convenience of controllers.

Valve’s first-ever controller was supposed to feature a touchscreen to mimic the functionality of a mouse. Soon, budget constraints led to Valve ditching the touchscreen interface, and the developers began experimenting with giant trackballs instead.

At GDC 2014, Valve showcased the “Chell Prototype,” and began shipping this early version of the Steam Controller to 300 testers. From square buttons to dual trackpads, the early prototype was quite different from the initial version. However, this redesign, too, was scrapped, and the final product wasn’t released until the end of 2015.

The Steam Controller adopted an Xbox-style layout

And packed a ton of features under the hood

A render of the Steam Controller

On November 10, 2015, Valve debuted the Steam Controller alongside the Steam Machines, which were small-sized gaming systems that suffered a similar fate as the Steam Controller itself (but that’s a story for another time). This $50 controller packed a gyroscope sensor, and Valve intended players to use it in tandem with the right touchpad for precise aiming.

Speaking of which, the commercial model was armed with two clickable touchpads, with the one on the left replacing the conventional D-pad. Besides featuring the Xbox-style face buttons, it also came with two bumpers at the back, which could be easily mapped using Steam’s Big Picture mode.

Valve also released tons of updates to Steam to make its flagship gamepad even more versatile. What made the Steam Controller stand out from its competitors was its ability to seamlessly switch between multiple configurations. This removed the limitation on the in-game actions you could perform with the small number of buttons on a gamepad.

As if that’s not enough, a later update allowed you to map different actions when pressing, holding, and double-tapping the left and right triggers. The sky was the limit when it came to customizing the Steam Controller. Sadly, its progressive features led to its downfall.

The Steam Controller was too ambitious for its own good

Its revolutionary ideas only increased the inconvenience for gamers

A Steam Controller placed on a wooden surface

While you could modify a host of settings on the Steam Controller, there wasn’t a global, one-size-fits-all control scheme developed for it. The default input mappings were rather lacking, and you had to set custom sensitivity values for the touchpads on pretty much every game.

To make full use of the gamepad, you’d either need to spend a long time modifying every toggle and setting or go the trial-and-error route with community-created controller profiles. Either way, you had to learn new mappings for practically every game, assuming you were able to find a controller profile worth using.


How to use your Steam Deck as a PC controller

The Steam Deck is also a great controller, and you can even set it up as a controller for your PC. Here’s how.

Meanwhile, your average gamer, who picks up a controller to avoid the inconvenience of tinkering with a keyboard and a mouse, soon realized the gamepad was quite cumbersome for daily use. The Steam Controller was also clunky, and its ergonomics wasn’t worth writing home about. On the other hand, the DualShock 4 and Xbox One controllers provided much better build and design quality while sticking to the tried-and-tested formula we’d seen for ages.

Valve’s innovative controller struggled to maintain popularity

Before the last remaining stocks were sold off for $5

steam controller

Shortly after its release, the Steam Controller faced a lot of mockery for feeling like an unfinished product. Valve tried to remedy this situation by releasing many helpful updates, but the damage was already done. The general gaming crowd had moved on to the next big thing. Even users who lined up to purchase the device on day one got tired of its gimmicky nature in a few weeks.

By the time the Nintendo Switch came out in 2017, Valve’s gamepad had faded into obscurity, with the company instead doubling down on the VR industry. All that remained was a small community of enthusiasts who kept posting controller profiles for newer games. Valve drove the final nail in its coffin in November 2019, when it discontinued the Steam Controller. To add insult to injury, Valve cleared out its remaining stock by selling each gamepad at $5!

The Steam Controller gave way to some great devices

Following the massive failure of the Steam Controller, Valve began exploring other avenues. Its Index lineup of VR headsets was largely successful, with some of their controllers taking cues from the touchpads used in Valve’s OG gamepad. By the time the Steam Deck was released in 2022, Valve had perfected gaming handheld’s built-in controller.

Had Valve played its cards right, the Steam Controller could have gained a lot more traction. Creating separate controller profiles for popular games was the easiest fix that could have made the gamepad more accessible. Although a successor to the Steam Controller is rumored to be in the works, we haven’t received anything conclusive from Valve yet. For now, the Steam Controller lives on in our hearts (and in third-party retailers, where it’s sold at exorbitant prices).


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