April 24, 2024

Two years ago, Valve reinvented handhelds by borrowing from a broken controller

For all its charms, Valve’s Steam Deck is a wacky piece of work. Maybe it’s how big the handheld is compared to something like the Nintendo Switch, or how its unique software situation has turned millions of people into secret Linux users, but for me it’s just how much ‘controller’ Valve has managed to pack into it. the size of a small tablet.

The Steam Deck is littered with control options, from the touchscreen to the precariously placed face buttons, joysticks and control pad, to the multiple back buttons and the dual haptic touchpads. There’s a lot going on on this one device, and I think part of it reflects Valve’s utilitarian approach to pretty much everything. “If it works, why fix it?” is a philosophy that seems to inform a lot about the way Steam and the Steam Deck work, but it’s not necessarily a condemnation. The Steam Deck is the success that it has been because its design allows it to do a little bit of everything, and Valve aggressively updated every corner of SteamOS until it worked as well as it should when it first launched.

Needless to say, the portable gaming renaissance we’re experiencing is partly thanks to the Steam Deck. What’s strange about the competitors it’s tracked in the two years since Valve’s handheld shipped to customers is how few of them have copied the Steam Deck’s control settings. Goofy or not, the Steam Deck’s flexibility is the source of its staying power, and the control setup that Valve has clearly lifted from the broken Steam Controller makes this possible.

A handheld that can play anything

The Steam Deck made games that used to require you to be chained to a desk or couch suddenly portable.

Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Valve announced the Steam Deck in 2021, but didn’t start shipping it to customers until February 25, 2022. The handheld followed a few years of failed forays into hardware, including Steam Machines, custom gaming PCs designed to run Steam OS. ; the Steam Controller, Valve’s unique controller sold alongside the console-like Steam Machines; and the Steam Link, a plug-and-play box that lets you stream games from your PC to whatever screen you’ve connected it to.

In 2021, most new games, serious or not, were greeted with the “Switch port, when?” even if they could never run on the Switch’s older mobile hardware. So the imagination of the Steam Deck is everything could be will ever actually be ported to a handheld.

So the imagination of the Steam Deck is everything could be will ever actually be ported to a handheld.

And while the Steam Deck didn’t realize that dream, the hardware did bring us a lot closer. It launched with a custom AMD APU, AMD RDNA 2 GPU, and 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM, putting it well within the range of the average gaming laptop. The Proton compatibility layer that Valve introduced meant that some Windows games worked without any form of optimization or porting to Linux-based Steam OS. And it didn’t take much work from the developers to get even more games running and looking good on the Steam Deck’s 7-inch (1,280 x 800) LCD screen.

Compatibility was rough when the handheld launched, and the Steam Deck software was the definition of work in progress, but something that was consistently true throughout and was in fact key to the original pitch was the way the multitude of control options from the Steam Deck could be used. make any game playable, even if it is designed for mouse and keyboard. The haptic touchpads easily replaced the mouse, and with the right community layout, or custom customizations, you can fill in the rest of the Deck’s other buttons. Those are two concepts that got their start on the Steam Controller.

The thing that comes after the mouse

The Steam Controller was weird, but it had something on it with its touchpads.


The Steam Controller was initially announced to complement the Steam Machines, an Xbox controller from another planet, featuring concave haptic touchpads and face buttons surrounding a central touchscreen. Valve would eventually refine the look by the time it was released in 2015, removing the touchscreen and placing the buttons in the cross-shaped pattern used by all other consoles, but the core idea of ​​a device that could act as a mouse and gamepad stuck around. “The physicality of the buttons combined with touch and trackpad-style input was really where the sweet spot was,” the company shared Wired in 2013, because it “actually serves[ed] the needs of Steam customers and the Steam catalog.”

The haptics built into the Steam Controller allowed Valve to simulate the physical feeling of scrolling and clicking on an unmoving surface, something Apple would use to great effect a few years later on the 12-inch MacBook and eventually all of its laptops. Valve combined that with software that made it easy to reconfigure what each of the buttons on the Steam Controller did, and an easy way to share and use other players’ controller layouts. The Steam Controller was officially discontinued in 2018, but the Steam Deck has benefited greatly from the work Valve did in figuring out how to translate mouse and keyboard input to a controller, as well as the years of work the community has done to create controller profiles for to make games. In 2024, there’s a good chance that every game you download, if it’s not already designed around controller support, will have a community format that at least makes it playable.

Other handhelds

The Legion Go’s detachable controllers aren’t universally useful, but at least they try to do something different.

Photo by Raymond Wong

So when devices like the Asus ROG Ally were announced and released not long after the Steam Deck started hanging in Steam’s top sales charts, it was surprising that it did little to address the numerous Windows games that work best with a mouse . Asus lets you convert the movements of the right joystick into mouse movements, but that does not offer nearly the same finesse as a real touchpad. It’s not clear if the MSI Claw even does that.

At least Lenovo tried to do something different with the detachable controllers on the Legion Go. You can hold a controller in each hand, Switch-style, or mount one and use it as a flight stick for more precise aiming and movement in games that require it. But the nice thing about the Steam Deck’s touchpads is that you don’t have to rest them on a flat surface to use them.

There will undoubtedly be more handheld PCs, maybe even one from Xbox. But there are also too many games that don’t make sense with a controller, and too many older games that should work fine on a portable PC and will never be updated. Until portable device makers start addressing all the ways we play games, from standard controller input to the old mouse and keyboard configurations, the Steam Deck will remain on top for years to come.

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