May 23, 2022

Pairing the New Xbox Controller to PC: My Journey

In an indefensible miss from Microsoft, Windows 10 does not recognise the new Xbox Series X/S controllers wirelessly

xbox controller

Let’s start today with a little brainteaser. Thinking caps at the ready. What do Xbox and Windows have in common? Well, judging by my recent experience with the shiny new next-gen controller, roughly the square root of fuck all. Trying to make the two play nicely is, as I found out in exhausted frustration, an exercise in futility. Windows 10 simply refuses to recognise its newest baby brother wirelessly, point blank.

Lets begin at the beginning

Avid followers of Any Button Gaming will know that to fend off lockdown lethargy I recently made the leap to the PC master race. Channelling Henry Cavill as my inner spirit animal, I even filmed my experience. Quite frankly, I haven’t looked back. Since my first successful boot I’ve battled though radiation soaked tunnels in Metro: Exodus, speared lung-fish in Subnautica, experienced that ending in Inside, and recently leaped like a Valkyrie head first into the excellent Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. In a few short months I’ve played more games than the last few years combined, my backlog looking its healthiest in recent memory.

But throughout my reinvigorated gaming wanderlust I have had one, small gripe. As a proud owner of the PS4, I assumed I could use my trusty Dualshock to shepherd my adventure though my new found medium. Well, the good people at Microsoft don’t make it easy. Sony’s familiar controller does not work natively with Windows, and if you want to use it wirelessly you’ll need to utilise third party software. After a bit of browsing I landed on “DS4Windows”, a free application that tricks your rig into thinking your Dualshock is an Xbox 360 controller, which coming from the same company as the OS works natively in Windows 10.

DS4Windows: Not for the faint hearted

Overall it’s an okay experience. Most of the time the connection works as expected. But not all of the time. Occasional connection drop off is an annoyance, and although rare predictably come at the most inopportune times. Think right in the middle of a Dark Souls boss fight, or worse, in multiplayer. This hangs over you like Damocles sword, every present in the back most section of your mind generating a mild yet prolonged anxiety as you wait in anticipation for the next interruption. As a devout worshiper of total immersion, it’s a frustrating distraction.

Less frustrating but equally annoying is that all PC games are setup to follow Window’s example, with button layouts and in game prompts channelling their inner Xbox. Not the worst thing in the world, but with muscle memory firmly instilling in the correct location of the X button, it’s a gripe that builds gradually, but steadily. Something, it seems had to be done.

Solution: Buy an Xbox controller

Finally, following a particular aggrieving interruption mid clinch-match in Rocket League, enough was enough. The scales of want tipped irrevocably away from financial sensibilities and the choice was made. It was time to buy a controller with Windows native support. As chance would have it (or misfortune, as it turned out) the decision came just days before the launch of the next-gen launch, and so it seemed sensible to purchases one of the latest Xbox controllers to compliment the new rig. This was my first mistake.

The controller itself is a thing of beauty (except for shipping with two triple A batteries instead of a recharge pack…but lets not get into that). It’s beautifully designed and, unlike the Duelshock seems to have been built with adult hands in mind. The only trouble is, Windows doesn’t have a single clue what to do with it.

Above: A number of useless buttons unrecognised by Windows 10

I toiled for sometime unguided, trying desperately to get the damn thing to connect. The controller has Bluetooth capability as standard and should connect seamlessly via Windows connection centre. Eventually I did manage to establish a connection of sorts, the Microsoft OS registering an arbitrary “gaming input device”. Unfortunately, that’s as far as it goes. Not a single game recognised the assigned connection in game, which is rather the point. Knuckles whitening, I headed online.

Why make driver when bad app do trick?

It didn’t take long to realise I was not alone in my struggle with my newly purchased Xbox controller. Forums gapped with incredulous purchasers in disbelief that this was not a straightforward operation. Sifting though limitless pages of complaints I finally stumbled on the “solution”. In order to get the new tech to play with Windows, you need to download and install the “Xbox Accessories” app for Windows 10. The original function of this program was to support the previously released Xbox Elite controller. But my luck was in, it would enable in game use and wireless support for the new kid, too.

A screenshot from the Xbox Accessories App, maybe

It does nothing of the sort. Or maybe it does. I wouldn’t know, as after another fruitless hour of toil I couldn’t get the damn thing to download and install. Another trip back to the message boards revealed this too, was not an individual experience. Suggested fixes from Window’s HQ included phrases such as “boot in safe mode” and “debug” which at this point in my journey just didn’t seem worth the hassle. Fortunate, perhaps, as those unlucky few who successfully managed the install likened the app’s functionality to smearing tepid faeces directly on your motherboard. 1 star reviews all round. 

Office politics

Here’s what I think happened. In modern consumer culture there is a phrase that surmises where Microsoft went wrong. It goes “the right hand is not talking to the left hand”. As synonymous with popular office rhetoric as “kind regards” and “I’m sorry I can’t help you further” (roughly translating as “fuck off” and “not my problem, bucko”) this implies a communication breakdown. Somewhere, out there at Microsoft HQ there is a team that works on Xbox, and there is another team that manages Windows and compatible devices, including the Xbox controller. And never the two shall meet, so it seems.

Aside from this being at best an indefensible miss from the tech giant, it is above all other things a surprise. Microsoft has bet the bank on inter-connectivity between the next gen consoles and their PC counterparts. Xbox games pass works flawlessly on both platforms, and their commitment to establish an ecosystem is at the very front line of the upcoming console war. It is this steadfast dedication to intra-operability that put Microsoft ahead, according to many observers watching from the by-lines. That hardware support has not seen the same love is perplexing.

So for now it’s back to wired connection and two triple A batteries powering my progress in Valhalla, my reluctant tribute to 00’s gaming. I would expect a fix to be released on due course, but with the Xbox Series X/S launch years in the making, it is an inexcusable oversight from Microsoft on what is otherwise looking like the launch of a generation.

Source: One painful Saturday afternoon

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