I mentioned in a teaser post yesterday that I’d jumped on the bandwagon and pre-ordered the two new Steam-to-couch products that were offered for a limited pre-release sale months ago. They were delivered to my house yesterday, and I had a couple free hours to unbox, install, and play some games on them.
Aside from the forty-five minute struggle encountered trying to rewire my entertainment system to find yet another spare power outlet (not Steam’s fault) AND a free HDMI socket, the only issue I had setting up the little sandwich-sized Steam Link box was that in disconnecting all my cables and power outlets, I’d managed to reset my external internet connection… which you need to activate and sync with the machine. Also, I got my exercise, running up and down stairs a dozen times to type something on one machine and then reset something on the Link box. In general though, it was largely plug and play.
One thing I didn’t figure out for about an hour was that I needed to re-size my screen. The resolutions were good and the streaming was coming through fairly crisp, but the default Link settings needed to be down-scaled by 16% so that I could see the entire streaming signal on my HDTV. And the fit-to-screen config is on the device config screen on boot, NOT in the stream config in Steam (subtle and makes sense now, but difficult to find)…
I’m not going to go into details about my machine specs or network setup. Just know that I have a desktop machine that was pretty much top of the line… or it was, five years ago when I bought it. It’s held up to years of gaming and video work, but it’s nowhere near top of class for 2015. It’s basically a low-to-mid range desktop computer that I use for a gaming machine these days. My network is solid, too. We’ve been streaming media across a hardline (with three intermediary routers/switches in the middle… yeah, overly complex I know) from a dedicated media server in the basement for years, and I’d tried Steam streaming to my laptop across the hard line and the wireless too, working out kinks and optimizing for that over the years. In other words, network performance as I was trialing my new toy was never an issue… though I was jacked into an Ethernet for the duration and have yet to try wireless.
About ten minutes after setting them up, both the Link and the Controller downloaded and installed firmware updates… I’m not sure what it changed, but tweaks and fixes to new products are always welcome. I did need a micro-USB connection directly to my PC in the basement for the Controller, but that wasn’t unexpected. And darned if we don’t have a million cables around the house anyhow.
The Controller is not as solid-feeling as I would have expected. I’m used to holding a PS3 DualShock3, so this Steam one feels a little more fragile… and it takes a pair of double-A cells for juice, so after years of rechargeable controllers in my house I guess I’m back to stocking batteries. I’ll cope, but perhaps I’ll invest in a pair of NiMH rechargeable cells for the longer term.
I had previously mentioned that I jumped on this Steam Link bandwagon because over the eight years I’ve been on Steam, across loads of seasonal sales, humble bundles and Super Awesome Gaming peer-pressure buys, my Steam library is up in the range of 150 games. For the price of a Controller and a cheaper than I could have bought a long-enough cable, I’ve brought that into my living room and onto my bigger TV. I’ll still play from my PC for many things, but I’m nearly forty and I do like a comfy couch to sit on while I play sometimes.
So, I jumped in and loaded up some games.
Our Super Awesome Gaming staple has long been Left 4 Dead 2, so that was my first pick… and also my introduction to my complex future finding a workable controller scheme.
See, the blessing and the curse of the Steam Controller is the fully map-able controller scheme. I counted, and there are something in the neighborhood of fifteen to twenty interface buttons, depending on how you categorize and count things… and even the fact that I can’t give you a firm number after playing around on it for three hours should be a clue to its complexity. When you start a game (and any time during the game) you can reach into the controller scheme (which is fairly easy to find and use) and change it based on suggestions from Steam or (and this is the interesting part) schemes submitted by the community. The goal is to map commands that you’re used to on a keyboard and mouse (a’la the PC gaming experience) into a controller with a ton of keys, triggers, buttons, knobs, and pads.
I picked one that looked promising, and started the game. My plan was to load into a single player campaign and test out my modest L4D2 skills in a solo round. Three minutes later I was unintentionally playing a network play “Realism Death Match” with some kids speaking a language I didn’t understand. I guess I should blame myself for not paying closer attention to the key mappings, but I had assumed it would make sense intuitively. Instead, I managed to click the wrong buttons, start the wrong campaign, and could not for the life of me figure out how to back out again.
And thus began the rest of my evening: spending a lot of time trying to find reliable and useful key mapping for a short list of the games I had installed. Some were great, and I played a solid hour of Evoland with almost no issue. Others fell flat, and I dug myself into such a deep hole of controller confusion that I literally unplugged the Link, reset Steam on the PC, and started fresh. My conclusion from this was telling my wife (as she confusedly watched me tinker) that this was essentially the Linux of gaming systems — highly configurable and powerful, but not for the feint of heart or anyone who wants an experience without a lot of tweaking and tinkering to make it work.
In the end, I think I’ll like it. I need to figure out how to tune down the haptic feedback and adjust the trackpad sensitivity to suit my tastes, but I’m sure its possible if not particularly easy to figure out. And like every other gaming system I have, I won’t regularly be jumping between a dozen different games over the span of one evening: likely, I’ll find one to play for a few weeks, learn the scheme, make it work, and have fun until I get bored and move on. I jumped on this bandwagon with a good understanding that it’s a beta product… new and bound to have a few bugs to work out… I’m not sure that I’m happy it shows it so much, though. Either way, I’ll be keeping it and trying make it work for my gaming style… and going out to buy some extra batteries soon, too.