On November 27, 2019, the Steam Controller — a customizable gaming controller produced by Valve Corporation — was officially discontinued. This marked the end of a relatively short run for a device that was once hailed as the future of PC gaming. The question then is: Why did Valve decide to stop production of the Steam Controller?
The Birth of the Steam Controller
First announced at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in 2015, the Steam Controller was unveiled as part of Valve’s ambitious plan to expand its PC gaming dominance into the living room. The controller, paired with the launch of the Steam Machine (a series of gaming computers running Valve’s SteamOS), represented a significant push towards achieving this vision.
The Steam Controller boasted a plethora of innovative features. It was fully customizable, allowed for game-specific configurations, and featured dual trackpads, which promised precision controls similar to a mouse and keyboard setup.
Despite the initial hype and anticipation, reception to the Steam Controller was mixed. Critics praised its potential and customization options but noted a steep learning curve. The haptic feedback enabled trackpads, while innovative, were not as intuitive or comfortable for all users, particularly for those accustomed to traditional thumbsticks.
Furthermore, many users found the controller’s build quality to be subpar, citing the cheap feeling of the plastic and buttons. These factors combined made it a niche product with a steep learning curve that didn’t resonate with the broader gaming audience.
The Fall of the Steam Controller
There were other external factors as well that played a role in the discontinuation of the Steam Controller.
The Steam Machines project, which the Steam Controller was intrinsically tied to, also did not meet Valve’s expectations. Steam Machines struggled to gain market share against the already established consoles like PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The underperformance of the Steam Machines directly impacted the Steam Controller’s potential user base.
Simultaneously, the market saw the introduction of several high-quality controllers like the Xbox Elite Controller and Sony’s DualShock 4, which could also be used on a PC. These controllers were not only high in build quality but were also directly compatible with most games without the need for complicated setups or configurations.
The Impact of Legal Troubles
One aspect that cannot be overlooked when discussing the Steam Controller’s discontinuation is its legal troubles. In a patent battle that pitted Valve against SCUF and Corsair, the former initially lost, resulting in a significant payout of $4 million. This court case revolved around SCUF’s patent over the placement of rear buttons on the back of a controller, a feature that the Steam Controller also incorporated.
Despite Valve winning the appeal eventually, the initial loss likely had significant financial implications, which could have factored into the decision to discontinue the controller. Moreover, the legal battle might have also created uncertainties around the future of the product, potentially discouraging consumers and affecting sales.
The Decision to Discontinue
Faced with low sales, lukewarm reception, and intense competition, Valve decided to discontinue the Steam Controller in 2019. The remaining units were sold off during the 2019 Autumn Sale at significantly reduced prices.
However, despite its discontinuation, the Steam Controller has left a lasting impact. Its high customizability and unique take on the trackpad control have influenced other peripheral designs and set a precedent for what is possible in controller innovation.
Steam Controller 2 is a big possibility
In a recent dialogue with The Verge from December 2022, Lawrence Yang and Pierre-Loup Griffais, the designers behind Valve’s Steam Deck, opened up about the future trajectory of Valve’s hardware development. An intriguing revelation was made concerning the possibility of a successor to the discontinued Steam Controller.
Responding to this proposition, Yang expressed a positive sentiment from the Valve team towards revisiting the controller concept. He confirmed, “Yeah, we want to make it happen,” leaving the door ajar for a potential second iteration of the Steam Controller. However, Yang made it clear that the timeline and specifics are still undetermined, stating that the realization of this ambition is largely a matter of ‘how and when.’
Alternatives for Steam Controller
When it comes to alternatives to the Steam Controller, there are two distinct options that stand out due to their unique features and user experience, namely, the 8Bitdo Pro 2 and the Sony DualSense controller. But there’s no controller that imitates the touchpad that was very unique for original Steam Controller.
The 8Bitdo Pro 2 has emerged as a strong contender in the world of gaming controllers. This versatile device provides a similar feature set to the Steam Controller, with back paddles and a robust gyro function for motion controls, while also boasting a well-designed D-pad. Another advantage is the 8Bitdo Pro 2’s ability to operate in different modes, such as ‘Switch mode,’ ‘Direct input mode,’ and ‘X-input mode,’ which enhances its compatibility across various platforms. The controller also uses Bluetooth for connectivity, which some users have reported to be superior to that of the official Nintendo Switch Pro controller. Moreover, it is equipped with a rechargeable battery, which can be easily removed and replaced with a spare battery pack or AA batteries, providing flexibility and ensuring uninterrupted gaming sessions.
On the other hand, Sony’s DualSense controller, renowned for its immersive haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, is another excellent alternative. One of its standout features is its trackpad, which mirrors the functionality of the touchpads found on the Steam Controller. This allows for a wider range of input possibilities and can enhance navigation and gameplay in certain titles. Although primarily designed for the PlayStation 5, the DualSense can also be used with PC games, making it a viable option for those looking for a Steam Controller replacement. It should be noted, however, that not all PC games may fully support all of the DualSense’s unique features.