Controller Gaming on PC
Controller compatibility in PC games used to be managed only by the individual game developers, meaning a game supported a predetermined set of hardware and players selected from these prescribed input options. In 2015 we began an experiment to find out what happens when the community is less constrained. We shipped tools that allow Steam users to map controls from various devices (e.g. Steam Controller, PlayStation controllers, Xbox controllers) to any combination of inputs that the title understands (e.g. keyboard keys, mouse movement, controller presses). Additionally, we created a system to share and modify these controller configurations so the best input schemes boil up to the top, allowing the cumulative efforts of the community to benefit us all. These two features, remapping and sharing, served as the foundation of what we now call Steam Input.
Three years later, the Steam Input experiment is starting to bear interesting results. By supporting so many controller types we’ve learned about which controllers are being used on the platform and by accommodating customization we’ve learned how players prefer to interact with different genres. Today we’ll share figures on which controllers have been connected to Steam, how controllers are being used, and what happens when a new controller is released on the platform. We’ll also discuss the Steam Controller and how hardware choices set it apart from other controller types.
The first thing that jumps out in the data is that a lot of Steam players have a controller. Since 2015, over 30 million players have registered at least one controller and over 15 million of those players have registered more than one. Between accounts with multiple controllers and controllers that have been registered to multiple accounts, we find that a total of 60 million device-account pairs have been connected to Steam. The charts below provide a breakdown by controller type.
Console controllers make up the bulk of devices, but the remaining 8% are significant, totaling nearly 5 million controllers. This is a group that consists of Steam Controllers, PC gamepads, Nintendo controllers, and fightsticks (and don’t forget the 783 dancepads). This is a large, eclectic set of input devices that, in some cases, take quite a bit of user initiative to even connect to a PC. There is a lot to unpack in these numbers, but by combining this with playtime data we arrive at a few interesting conclusions.
Xbox controllers are essentially the default controller for PC games, and this fact is apparent in the controllers stats. Nearly 40 million Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers have been connected to Steam, representing 64% of all controllers. How, exactly, did they become the default? A decade ago, Microsoft made a concerted effort to drive adoption of XInput, the underlying protocol, and that work resulted in widespread support by game developers. Because built-in support is overwhelmingly XInput support, an Xbox controller is a good bet to seamlessly play many different titles.
PlayStation 4 is an extremely popular console with a great controller. The reason we’re surprised by 12 million is, historically, the PS4 controller has not been treated like a PC gaming controller. Built-in support is uncommon, so players turn to software that translates their PS4 controller input into Xbox controller input. This has a few drawbacks. For example, a game may prompt you to ‘press Y to jump’, when, in reality, you should be pressing the triangle button. These mental translations can be a deal-breaker for certain PS4 controller users, and we see evidence that this is occurring in the monthly playtime data.
Notice that Xbox One engagement is nearly twice that of the PS4. It’s not clear how much of that difference can be explained by the user experience, but it stands to reason that the gap would be smaller if more titles had seamless support. One potential solution is full Steam Input integration on the game side, which includes a feature that enables in-game hints based on controller type. We’ll discuss more of these advanced Steam Input features in a later post, for today we’ll leave it at: there is a large, untapped, community of PS4 controller users on Steam.
The Switch Pro controller arrived in 2017 and players immediately began attaching them to their PCs. At the time, support was mostly limited to basic Steam Input remapping; meaning the UI did not match the physical device and features like motion control and rumble were not available. In May 2018, a Steam update enabled the full feature set of the device, added matching artwork in the UI, and improved the overall experience. The result was an acceleration in Switch Pro controller registrations, noticeable in the graph below, and a rise to the 7th most popular controller type on Steam.
With the Steam Controller we set out to make a device compatible with your whole library, including mouse-driven games. The unique combination of trackpad and gyro inputs make for better precision pointing and aiming controls than a typical thumb stick and help bridge the gap between controller and non-controller titles. To date, we have sold 1.3 million Steam Controllers, but it’s how they’re being used that is most interesting to us. The Steam Controller community plays a more diverse selection of games than other controller types, interacting with nearly twice the total number of titles compared to the next closest device. Additionally, many of these are titles without built-in controller support. We’re happy to see our customers engaging with all kinds of games and will continue to improve the Steam Controller experience for our existing and future users.
Steam has a large and diverse collection of controllers on the platform, a fact that is at odds with the approach of built-in, static controller support. Sure, supporting Xbox controllers will capture 64% of Steam users, but what about the other 22 million devices? What’s more, future controller types may include input modalities that didn’t exist, or weren’t popular, at the time of the game’s release. For example, motion controls are relatively new, but Steam Input has allowed the community to experiment with it in older titles. In several cases they’ve found motion control configurations that they believe are superior to the ones we’ve all been using for years.
By supporting over 200 controller models, full Steam Input integration has the additional benefit of creating a uniform experience across devices. And, because it is a part of Steam, future Steam Client updates will extend support to new controllers without any effort from the developer. In a follow-up post we will discuss these features of Steam Input, and others, to demonstrate how they serve the wide-ranging population of controller users on Steam.