The Xbox controller has become the gold standard for PC gaming. It works out of the box better than just about any controller on the market, and if you plan on gaming with a controller, you should get one.
Sure, mouse and keyboard are still king, but PCs are all about choice and flexibility. Controllers are the best option for many types of games, including platformers, racing games, and fighting games.
Xbox Ports and Games for Windows
Many PC games are ported from the Xbox. These games generally come with built-in support for the same controller they use on the Xbox. Plug in a controller and you’ll usually see the on-screen button prompts change from mouse and keyboard to Xbox controller buttons. Some of the worst ports to PC don’t even include on-screen prompts for keyboard and mouse controllers–they show you Xbox controller buttons on screen whether or not you plug in an Xbox controller. Mouse and keyboard users are left struggling to figure out the appropriate buttons on their own.
This controller support was also advanced through Microsoft’s Games for Windows certification program, which required native support for Xbox 360 controllers. This allowed people with Xbox 360 consoles to plug their controllers straight into their computer’s USB ports and use them without any configuration.
Today, the Xbox 360 (and the very similar Xbox One) controller has become such a standardized controller that even indie games developed for PC are often designed with it in mind. They weren’t designed for Xbox and aren’t worried about passing Games for Windows certification–they’re just supporting the best, most common PC controller.
They’re are also great for playing classic console games in emulators on your PC. Hook up two or more and you can play old multiplayer console games. It should be plug-and-play for PC games, but you’ll have to do a bit more work when configuring emulators to work with an Xbox controller.
XInput and DirectInput
Xbox Controllers are different from other controllers because they use the XInput API to send input data to games. This is different from the older DirectInput API that other controllers used. XInput is easier for developers to use (according to Microsoft) and offers support for analog triggers and controller vibration.
Games are built with XInput support and the Xbox 360 or One controller in mind. Some games may not even include DirectInput support at all, so they may not work with other controllers. If they do support DirectInput, you’ll have to configure the controls on your own, while the default controls will be designed by the developer with Xbox controllers in mind. You can use a tool like x360ce to emulate XInput, translating DirectInput controller calls to XInput, but this will require configuration and may not work perfectly.
Get Any Wired Xbox 360 or One Controller
When picking up an Xbox controller for your PC, you’ll probably want to buy a wired Xbox 360 controller. Sure, everyone loves wireless input devices, but the wireless Xbox 360 controller is inconvenient. The wireless controller doesn’t use standard Bluetooth; it requires you connect an Xbox 360 Wireless Gaming Receiver for Windows to your PC’s USB port. So you’re paying extra to deal with batteries and possible wireless reception issues. You’ll also still be using a USB port and dealing with a large wired dongle anyway–you might as well just get the cheaper wired Xbox 360 controller unless you really want that additional distance. Either way, the drivers should be built into Windows, so you won’t need to do anything to get up and running.
Update: It took awhile, but Microsoft finally released Xbox One controller drivers for Windows, so an Xbox One controller–wired or wireless–should work just as well as an Xbox 360 one. The drivers are included in Windows 10, and you can download them from Microsoft if you’re using Windows 7, 8, or 8.1.
While shopping for controllers, you’ll see two different types of wired controllers: An “Xbox 360 Wired Controller” and an “Xbox 360 Controller for Windows.” Don’t be fooled: these are exactly the same product, and the difference is only marketing. The controllers marketed “for Windows” have a higher recommended retail price, but Microsoft has confirmed they’re the same product. Don’t pay extra for an identical controller with “for Windows” on the box. Windows includes Xbox 360 controller drivers that will work out of the box.
In the future, Valve’s Steam controller may have a chance at becoming the next PC gaming controller to have. For now, the Xbox controller is the clear winner.
Image Credit: Scott Akerman on Flickr.