2 Years Ago, Valve Reinvented Handhelds by Borrowing From a Failed Controller

The Steam Deck’s many input methods are the best part of its design, which almost no other handheld PCs have tried to copy.

Lais Borges/Inverse; Photograph by Ian Carlos Campbell

For all its charms, Valve’s Steam Deck is a goofy piece of work. Maybe it’s how big the handheld is in comparison 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 managed to pack into a thing the size of a small tablet.

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

Needless to say, the handheld gaming renaissance we’re living through now is thanks in part to the Steam Deck. What’s strange about the competitors that have followed in the two years since Valve's handheld started shipping out to customers is how few of them copied the Steam Deck’s control setup. Goofy or not, the Steam Deck’s flexibility is the source of its staying power, and the control setup Valve clearly lifted from its failed Steam Controller is what makes it possible.

A Handheld That Can Play Anything

The Steam Deck made games that used to need 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 out to customers until February 25, 2022. The handheld followed a few years of unsuccessful forays into hardware, including Steam Machines, custom-built gaming PCs designed to run Steam OS; the Steam Controller, the unique controller Valve sold alongside the console-like Steam Machines; and the Steam Link, a plug-and-play box that let you stream games from your PC to whatever screen you connected it to.

In 2021, most new games, seriously or not, were greeted with a comment of “Switch port, when?” even if they could never run on the Switch’s older mobile hardware. The fantasy of the Steam Deck, then, is that everything could actually get ported to a handheld someday.

The fantasy of the Steam Deck, then, is that everything could actually get ported to a handheld someday.

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

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

The Thing That Comes After the Mouse

The Steam Controller was weird, but it was onto something with it’s touchpads.


The Steam Controller was initially announced as a companion to the Steam Machines, an Xbox controller from another planet, with concave haptic touchpads and face buttons arranged around a central touchscreen. Valve would eventually refine the look by the time it was released in 2015, removing the touchscreen, and arranging 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 buttons combined with touch and trackpad-style input was really where the sweet spot was,” the company told Wired in 2013, because it “actually serv[ed] the needs of Steam customers and the Steam catalog.”

With the haptics built into the Steam Controller Valve could simulate the physical sensation of scrolling and clicking on an immovable surface, something Apple would use to great effect a few years later on the 12-inch MacBook, and eventually all of its laptops. Valve paired 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 player’s controller layouts. The Steam Controller was officially discontinued in 2018, but the Steam Deck has greatly benefited from the work Valve did figuring out how to translate mouse and keyboard input onto a controller, and the years of work the community has done creating controller profiles for games. In 2024, there’s a good chance any game you download, if it isn’t already designed around controller support, has a community layout that will make it at least playable.

Other Handhelds

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

Photograph by Raymond Wong

So when devices like the Asus ROG Ally were announced and released not long after the Steam Deck started hanging out 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 right joystick movement into mouse movement, but that doesn’t offer nearly the same kind of finesse that an actual touchpad does. It’s not clear if the MSI Claw even does that.

Lenovo at least 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 like a flight stick for more precise aiming and movements in games that require it. But what’s cool about the Steam Deck’s touchpads is that you don’t need them to be resting on a flat surface to use them.

There will be more handheld PCs without a doubt, 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 run great on a handheld PC and will never be updated. Until handheld makers start addressing all the ways we play games, from standard controller inputs to the mouse and keyboard setups of old, the Steam Deck will stay on top for years to come.

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