How Not To Innovate: PlayStation 5’s DualSense

A picture of the DualSense controller superimposed onto pictures of Astro’s Playroom (left) and Spider-Man: Miles Morales (right).

When Sony introduced DualSense, the new controller for PlayStation 5, they said the following:

We had a great opportunity with PS5 to innovate…We also incorporated adaptive triggers into the L2 and R2 buttons of DualSense so you can truly feel the tension of your actions, like when drawing a bow to shoot an arrow.

This is Sony’s latest attempt to innovate with their controller. With DualSense, games can control the amount of pressure it takes to push down the L2 and R2 buttons. That’s a huge deal. Previously, controller innovations have dealt with either new inputs (thumbsticks, motion controls, touch bar) or new outputs (haptics, PS4 light bar). Adaptive triggers are an entirely new category of upgrade, as the software can produce an output to control input.

Typically, any controller innovation walks a fine line between practicality and gimmick. In the case of thumbsticks or haptics, they both did wonders for immersion, and as such, became standard in modern games. However, with motion controls, while they have been integrated into most controllers, they are rarely used, and when they are, it is usually to the detriment of the experience. We are still waiting to see what will happen as the PlayStation 5 develops, but based on the idea alone, it looks like adaptive triggers are here to stay. Being able to feel dynamic pressure, along with an analog trigger’s expressiveness, should offer a strictly better experience. However, I think the way Sony has handled the launch of the PlayStation 5 undervalues and under-represents this achievement by refusing to show its full potential.

To criticize the present, we need to contrast it with the past. When Nintendo needed a way to control a character in a 3D space for the Nintendo 64, they introduced the thumbstick alongside it. To prove the thumbstick was the future of gaming, Nintendo needed a demonstration of the technology, a ‘tech demo’ if you will. So, alongside the Nintendo 64, we got Super Mario 64, the first 3D game to use the thumbstick. Mario 64 emphasized movement with the stick, incorporating moves that required you to snap, spin, or hold the stick in a direction. The game was a breakthrough hit. It was able to simultaneously show off many new pieces of Nintendo’s 3D game design while also being the perfect showcase for the thumb stick’s capabilities, allowing the player to use it in various ways.

The Wii is another perfect example of a display of innovation. When Nintendo introduced motion controls, they did so alongside Wii Sports, a mini-game collection where the player used the Wiimote to emulate five popular sports. It was designed to show off everything the new motion controls could do, and did so with such elegance that it is still played today, 15 years later.

When Sony introduced adaptive triggers, their tech demo game was Astro’s Playroom: another 3D platformer designed to show off the features of the DualSense. The five features it emphasizes are haptics, the touchpad, motion controls, the microphone, and of course, adaptive triggers. At the start of the game, a vibration demo pairs a visual of your controller filling up with cubes with the sensation of vibration rolling up the DualSense. The haptics are pleasant, but they aren’t new. The switch has had the same haptics since it launched in 2017, and it has nearly 70% of the install base of the PS4, meaning many of the people upgrading will not see this as an incredible new feature. Still, the game shows off the vibration well. Tactile objects are spread throughout the game’s various environments, and the player can feel sand, wind, and raindrops (my personal favorite) during the experience.

The touchpad is demonstrated during two “ball” sections, where the player controls a monkey-ball-like game with the touchpad. Again, the touchpad isn’t new, as it was on the PS4, and touchscreens are everywhere, but it’s still enjoyable. Luckily, these ball sections are few and are limited to just one of the game’s four levels.

Four screenshots of Astro’s Playroom. Top-left: a demonstration of the DualSense’s vibration capabilities. Top-right: a section where the player controls a monkey. Bottom-left: a demonstration of the DualSense’s adaptive triggers. Bottom-right: a section where the player controls a spring.

Motion controls are demonstrated in a section where the player can control a monkey swinging on a bar. The player is asked to turn the controller up and down to move the monkey around the bar. Motion control isn’t new at all, so it’s hard to be interested. Still, violently swinging my controller around is pretty fun.

Finally, the game lets you move a few platforms with the new microphone. That’s about the extent of its demonstration. The mic is designed for voice chat, so I’m okay with its slender appearance here.

Then there’s the item that should be the star of the show: adaptive triggers! It’s finally time to see what they can do. In the demo at the start of the game I talked about earlier, they have a section where you can push the triggers down, and it feels like you’re pressing down a button with a bit of give. You push it down a little with no resistance, and then there is much resistance, then there is a slight resistance as you keep going down. It is as if you were pushing down the crank to a claw machine. Given that, before I booted up the game, there was no resistance when pushing down the trigger, this was pretty exciting — it felt like something was mechanically different with my DualSense. I couldn’t wait to see what else they had in store for me.

Well, what else did they have? First, there’s a section where you control a spring, and it feels like you’re pushing down a spring. It’s hard to push down, all the way down. This wasn’t very exciting from a demonstration standpoint, and it wasn’t stimulating from a gameplay standpoint either. To move, you push down and let go of the spring and tilt your controller in the direction you want to go. To move forward quickly, you have to hold the trigger down for a second or two before letting go, which gets tedious when you have to do it more than twice. Second, when controlling the monkey, grappling onto wires feels like pulling down a hand crank, the same sensation I felt when I turned on the game. Third, there’s actually a bow and arrow! It feels exactly the spring, but that is how a bow and arrow feels, so I give them points for that.

That’s it.

There are two ways the game shows off the potential of the future of gaming: hand crank and hard to push down. The game has you do a few other activities, but they all feel like one of those two. The final boss doesn’t even have any adaptive trigger action, which feels like a missed opportunity. It isn’t a good demo.

But that’s fine! So the tech demo doesn’t show off the tech well. Astro’s Playroom is a decent platformer. I will never, ever play it again, and it has some terrible time trials (time trials don’t work if there’s no way to go fast), but it’s well polished and somewhat fun. And, apart from the adaptive triggers, it shows of the haptics excellently. Obviously, I assumed, Sony is focusing on the real place to test future gaming technology: the launch title game.

The Wii’s big launch title was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It set a new gold standard across the industry and earned itself a 95 on Metacritic. The motion controls are used to swing link’s sword and to aim his bow. These new sword controls allowed for interesting new challenges and combat mechanics. While we don’t use motion to swing swords anymore, gyroscope-based aiming is used all over the place today, and it’s a textbook case of a new gaming innovation going to good use.

A screenshot of Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Morales is swinging through the city.

The PlayStation 5 launched with Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which seems perfect for the adaptive triggers. The first game’s biggest strength was the swinging, which utilized the analog triggers and the haptics of the PS4 to make the player feel like Spider-Man. The PS5 has better haptics and better triggers. The new Spider-Man game should make full use of these to create an even more immersive, even better swinging experience.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales does not put the new triggers or the new haptics to good use. Now, the bottom 20% of the trigger offers more resistance, and if you keep your finger around that spot, the trigger will shoot up a little when you launch out of a web. It isn’t like the trigger offers more resistance as you move down the swing or if it changes based on how you swing. It’s almost the same experience. Swinging in Spider-Man: Miles Morales for the first time was one of the most disappointing experiences I’ve had with a video game in recent memory. The game is still fun, of course, it just isn’t better.

And that’s the problem. Astro’s Playroom and Spider-Man: Miles Morales are good video games, but they don’t make enough use of the controllers’ new features to be better. Each time they showed me something new, I was excited to see how games could use this new controller, only to realize that the thing they had shown me was the extent of what they had done.

boy meets game

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