PlayStation 5's controller 'innovations' won't mean much without developer support

Commentary: Sony's tried to add new features to its controllers, but many end up ignored.

Oscar Gonzalez Former staff reporter
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2 min read

The next PlayStation controller could be innovative, or more of the same. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Among the biggest surprises of  Sony's announcement of the PlayStation 5 on Tuesday were details of the console's controller. The company teased new features that could potentially change how we game on the PS5. Or they could end up being little-used gimmicks. (Here's everything we know about the PS5 so far.)

The PS5 controller boasts haptic feedback instead of a "rumble" vibration, adaptive triggers, a better speaker, longer battery life and a USB-C port. The first two -- haptic feedback and adaptive triggers -- are touted as "key innovations." Haptic feedback will provide a more refined vibration to the controller, to let players feel, for instance, the hit of a tackle in Madden. The triggers will give a sensation of pulling an arrow back on a bow. 

But before you get too excited, it's worth noting that these bells and whistles don't mean much unless game developers take advantage of the features over the long term. Sony's track record is mixed. Previous PlayStation controllers had different features designed to give players a more rewarding experience, but after a time they were ignored by developers or used for basic functions. 

For example, the PS3 Sixaxis controller released before the DualShock 3 had motion sensors intended to create a more engaging experience. In practice, games that made use of the motion controls were more of a chore. It didn't take long for developers to simply ignore the motion control options altogether. 

The PS4 DualShock 4 controller's big innovation was its clickable touchpad. Sony hoped developers would use the pad to give players another way to engage with games. Players could draw symbols with their finger for use in a game or input directions with a fingertip. Instead, most developers today use the touchpad as the Select button, since DualShock 4 has revamped the traditional Start and Select buttons and made them Share and Options. 

Even if the controller's new features are forgotten by developers years after launch, it's still good to see Sony trying different things with its input devices. In the past, the PlayStation maker has been known as a bit of a copycat with its gamepads. The analog sticks on the PlayStation controller were considered ripoffs of the N64 analog controls. The DualShock 3 motion sensor was looked at as a hastily added feature to compete with the Wii. And while the DualShock 4 touchpad is unique, it could be seen as inspired by the Wii U gamepad with its large touchscreen. 

Not that the Wii U had any of its rivals sweating. 

We'll have to wait and see how the first batch of games will make use of the controller when the PS5 launches in 2020. Given Sony's clout, the company will likely push for the incorporation of these new features. A Sony spokeswoman wasn't immediately available to offer more information. 

The key is whether developers continue to support the features over the long term. Otherwise, they'll be forgotten like the rest of Sony's other "innovations."