In Search of the Perfect Controller (for PC)

Why does nobody care about the state of affairs for PC gamers hoping to use a controller?

Since involving myself in the PC gaming scene nearly two years ago, I've been on a desperate hunt to find the optimal controller for PC games. As I understand, the space used to be a real mess until Microsoft came into town and cleaned things up. I'm super grateful that the 360 controller has lead to some standardization of controller input in PC games. I'm also grateful that devs are more willing to port their console games to PC because they know people can easily plug in 360 controllers and play their game that was designed around the controller. However, let's be frank: the 360 controller is far from perfect, especially for PC gamers who fawn over mice with 36 million DPI and mechanical, non-ghosting keyboards. We're a finnicky bunch, who generally prefer to have peripherals and components which are a cut above the rest. The Xbox 360 controller was designed for the unwashed masses, lacking the sophisticated elegance the Master PC race requires. Forgive the hyperbole, but what I'm saying is this: Someone needs to make a better controller.

PC gaming is arguably at a high point right now, vastly overpowering any console currently available on the market. With Valve's efforts to push the PC into the living room a la Big Picture and Steambox, I only see PC gaming as becoming more relevant. When next-gen arrives, devs will be developing for x86 on both consoles and PCs for the first time. Hopefully, this means we'll see many more PC ports since the development process should be largely similar between platforms. All this is to say that PC gamers should no longer be considered a niche audience. When you can build a PC for ~$600 that out performs Sony's next console that isn't even out yet, and get almost every game on sale on Steam for <$20, you have the potential for a huge market.

Perhaps then developers should design their games for PC first and consoles second. This will likely never be the case, however. As such, the PC will continue to receive console ports that are horribly optimized for mouse and keyboard (Dark Souls anyone?) and built around the use of a controller. So then, if next-gen should hypothetically usher in a greater abundance of PC ports of console games, we'll have a large audience of gamers requiring a precise instrument with which to play their games (that's not mouse and keyboard). It's high time somebody made a controller specifically for PC gamers, then!

Arguably, Logitech already does this with its F710 wireless controller (pictured below). I don't own this controller yet (it's going to be delivered today), however I can speak with some confidence concerning its flaws, having used earlier models. The F710 gets a lot right - the option to switch between x-input and d-input is really useful. The ability to emulate a 360 controller is genius, as is the co-opting of Microsoft's face button layout - this is something anybody making a PC controller should do, for the sake of standardization. The controller is also wireless, a huge boon to anybody running Steam's Big Picture on a TV that's not immediately next to their PC. Despite its many strengths, however, the F710 is not a particularly well made controller. It tries to be the hybrid of the 360 and PS3 controllers, but misses a lot of what makes each controller good. First, the face buttons are clunky and mushy. Anybody coming from the 360 remote will likely not notice, but compared to the DualShock 3 or Razer's offerings as of late, the buttons feel awful. Second, the d-pad is atrocious. The 360's original d-pad was horrible and arguably its greatest flaw, yet Logitech for some reason decided to copy its competitor's design. This would have been an opportunity for Logitech to really differentiate the F710 from the 360 controller (which dominates PC gaming). Finally, it should have copied another aspect of the 360 remote instead of the d-pad - the triggers. The triggers on the F710 are ripped seemingly straight from the DualShock 2, a design that was left behind in 2006 when Sony introduced the SixAxis. I could continue, but the fact is that the Logitech F710 remains a solid alternative to the 360 controller for PC gaming, and ostensibly the only one if you need a wireless solution.

F710_2_medium

Now we come to Razer's latest offering, the Sabertooth controller. It's a refresh of their innovative Onza controller from last year. While the controller is primarily designed for the Xbox 360, it is as such entirely usable as a PC controller. The Sabertooth probably gets the most right out of all these controllers, but has one fatal flaw: it's wired. I understand this is due to Microsoft's draconian refusal to license alternative wireless controllers for Xbox, but on the other hand there is nothing stopping Razer from bringing to market a variation of this controller just for PC that uses bluetooth or a USB dongle. Razer largely nails down all of my complaints about the F710, namely the d-pad and the mushy buttons. I'm also glad they back tracked on their ridiculous trigger design from the Onza - those things looked sweet but sucked to use. If Razer were to bring a PC-only version of this controller to market, hopefully they include the option to map the "extra" buttons to other actions, rather than just mimicking the functions of buttons already on the controller.

Rzr_sabertooth_01-580-100_medium

Finally, we arrive at the stalwart of PC controllers: the trusty 360 remote. I'm going to give this thing a lot of abuse here, but I want to point out that Microsoft has done wonders for PC gaming by building this controller and supporting it for PC. Ultimately, this controller is the best option right now for PC gamers who want a wireless solution - it doesn't mean we should have to settle for mediocrity, however. Where to begin? Microsoft did the world a favor when they redesigned the d-pad on this controller. By no means is it perfect, and there's still a lot to complain about, but the switching d-pad is astoundingly better than the old mushy disc they passed off as a d-pad. Microsoft really needs to take a page from Razer, however, and copy Sony's segmented d-pad design. Or they can do one better and figure out how to copy Nintnedo's d-pad design, whose patent expired a couple years ago if I'm not mistaken. My other huge complaint about the 360 remote is the buttons. Out of the three controllers I've talked about, the 360 remote has the worst face buttons. They're mushy and inconveniently shaped. Pick up a DualShock 3 or one of Razer's controllers for just a few minutes and then compare them to the 360 remote. Sony's solution is to have flat, low-profile buttons that don't require much effort to push. Razer's is one better, using "hyper response" or some nonsense to give the buttons the same feel as clicking a mouse. The effect is intoxicating. Clicking the face buttons on Razer's controllers is like getting to test drive a Ferarri, where going back to the 360 controller is the same as driving away from the dealership in your Honda Fit. As for the other aspects of Microsoft's controller, Microsoft generally nails it. The triggers and bumpers are among the best, and having the guide button function on PC in Big Picture is really useful. Sometimes I prefer the analog stick layout of the DualShock 3, but that's purely a preference issue. The only other significant criticism I can level at the controller is that the next iteration had best come sold with a lithium ion battery. Having to purchase a battery pack and charger separately was a slap in the face last time around.

Xbox360-wireless-controller-with-transforming-d-pad-1_medium

In conclusion, I'd like to implore peripheral manufacturers to take the PC gamer seriously and design a killer PC controller. It's likely this is what Valve is currently doing, although their recent firings give me pause. Ideally someone should turn to Kickstarter with a plan and design to make something on par with Razer's Sabertooth controller, but wireless. To the community at large: what say you? What would your perfect PC controller look like? What are you using now?

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