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Astro Gaming’s Jump From Headphones to a Gamepad

More than a dozen years after launching as a premier video game peripheral company, Astro Gaming is finally getting around to the impetus for its creation: creating a game controller.

The spark that inspired Astro Gaming’s creation was born out of work done by design shop Astro Studios to help to create the iconic look of the Xbox 360.

Following the launch and relative success of the original Xbox, Microsoft approached Astro to help them come up with a design language for both the Xbox 360 and the Xbox 360 controller.

After helping to create the controller, the company spun off Astro Gaming with an eye toward making their own controller.

“When Astro Gaming was first founded we thought we were going to go into the esports gaming community and make a new controller,” Thadeous Cooper, Astro Gaming’s head of community and influencer marketing told Variety. We had just come off designing the Xbox 360 and thought that we really wanted to do our own product. We really wanted to put something out with the Astro brand. And we really thought the controller was the first place to start.”

Astro did a lot of work on the Xbox 360 controller and the company felt that despite the positive feedback the controller received, there was still a lot of room for improvement.

“We felt we could make a lot of iterative changes,” he said. “But when we got into the esports environment, audio was the thing that glaringly obviously needed to be fixed.”

So Astro Gaming put all of its efforts into creating gaming headsets and audio systems so good that in 2008 they became the officially licensed headset for Major League Gaming.

And the company continued to improve on those headsets with a series of new models, but now — following the company’s purchase by Logitech — it thinks it’s time to get back to what drew it into gaming peripherals in the first place.

“We spent the last 12 years tackling gaming audio,” Cooper said. “We’re not done in that space by any means, but we definitely feel like we understand that space well enough that we can start to look at other spaces and say, ‘Can we solve problems there?’ And so we decided we’d come back and go where we thought we were going to start.”

Astro Gaming’s C40 TR game controller is a hefty, meticulously well-designed bit of tech. Balanced to rest evenly in the hands, a pair of shaped buttons rest along the contours of the controller’s underside exactly where a user’s fingers naturally rest.

The team wanted the controller to feel like a tool, not a toy, Cooper said.

“We wanted it to feel like it was something that really worked in your hands,” he said. “The weight of the controller is due to the batteries, the internal components, but also just the build quality of the plastics that we decided to use.”

Astro also did ergonomic studies to determine the best angle for the grip and placement of the buttons. And that extended to the wrapped-design of the underside paddles.

“The reason that the button is actually wrapped on the bottom of the controller like they do is because that is a rocker activated switch,” Cooper said. “So you can actually activate those buttons no matter how you hold it.”

The controller also features carefully trigger stops that are so aggressively tuned that they don’t actually work by default with some games. To get them to work in those cases, users will have to adjust the settings with the included software.

The pads on the tops of the thumbsticks are held in place by sheer force because Astro found that some pro-gamers were so tough on their controllers they were dislodging the magnets used by some gamepads. The controller also comes with four different stick caps.

The front plate of the controller is held in place with four screws which can be removed to access the modules that drive the thumbsticks. Cooper said the controller was designed knowing that often the first thing to go for a pro-player are the sticks. Dead zones or loose tension can kill a controller’s usefulness. So Astro designed them to be easily replaced with new modules that will sell for about $20 a pop. Players can also switch the position of the D-Pad and left thumbstick to make it either asymmetric or parallel.

To create this new controller the team at Astro Gaming sat down with a number of pro players and teams, and streamers to talk to them about what they wanted in a controller.

“We tapped a really large community when going through and creating this controller,” Cooper said. “

“We talked with a bunch of influencers, we talked with a bunch of pro gamers and we tried to look at what is the biggest problem that they had with their current controller,” he said. “One of the biggest problems, especially for esports players is that they were having to buy a new controller every three or four months cause their sticks would get really loose.  Sometimes they have to break it in a little bit, but after a couple of months, they’d get dead zone. They’d get drift and they just wouldn’t have the responsiveness because these are all driven by springs.”

“So we decided to build a modular system that allowed gamers to swap out parts that needed to be replaced instead of having to replace.”

Another interesting design decision is the use of an included proprietary micro USB cable. The cable has a shaped wedge of plastic around the end that plugs into a recessed port in the controller. That was done, Cooper said, to protect the port and plug from wear and potential breakage if a cord gets tangled up. The recessed port design prevents the cord from creating direct tension on the controller’s innards. The controller also supports wireless.

And Astro made sure that the controller would support audio over that connection, something that won’t work with a standard PS4 controller.

“That was really hard for us to come to terms with, the idea of having a wireless controller, but also not having the ability to plug a headset into it and get audio,” Cooper said. “We really felt like that wasn’t to our standards. We also felt like the connection is stability over Bluetooth isn’t what we prefer.”

So Astro decided to include a dedicated USB wireless transmitter and avoid the downsides of Bluetooth altogether. There’s a switch on the back to select wired or wireless, and another for switching between onboard profiles. Finally, the controller has a small button in the middle of its back that can be used for remapping shoulder buttons on the fly.

The controller’s included software doesn’t just allow for more robust remapping, controlling rumble, and tweaking thumbstick and trigger sensitivity, it also includes a full equalizer that allows you to adjust the sound of any plugged-in headsets along with the mic volume.

Post-launch, Astro plans to begin producing a number of add-ons for the controller, including specialized modules.

“You’re going to see a new line out in about a month, and we’re playing around with a whole bunch of ideas,” Cooper said. “We’re looking at all sorts of things like different tensions on the modules.”

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