The creator of Astro's Playroom discusses how Sony introduced innovation into the new DualSense controller.
The first time I picked up the PlayStation 5 DualSense controller, I thought: it's like a little living thing in my hands. I was playing Astro's Playroom, a free PS5 game designed to highlight the new controller's features. But, I also wondered: How many other PS5 games are going to take advantage of its wild, subtle features?
Gaming hardware that reaches out and surprises is pretty rare. Usually, it's Nintendo's domain: the detaching, docking, transforming Switch, or the Wii's free-wheeling controllers. The Oculus Quest and PlayStation VR are pretty astonishing. Add to that list the PlayStation 5's magical new version of its controller, now called DualSense instead of the older DualShock designation.
The PlayStation 5 is a graphically overloaded console with lots of potential, but its standout feature is clearly the upgraded DualSense. Launching Astro's Playroom, the game preinstalled on the PS5, you get a showcase of what it can do. Its triggers stop and start to make it seem like you're gripping ledges or pulling back bowstrings. Walking across ice, the controller tinkles and taps just perfectly to make it seem like I can feel the crunchy surface. The DualSense's vibrational haptics really do create moments where I can almost touch the game.
The PlayStation 5 should get its own updated VR headset in the next couple of years. But in the meantime, the DualSense offers a little promise of what Sony's immersive gaming steps could head to next.
But how many games will showcase these new features and will developers take the time? New interfaces are risky. Sometimes, as was the case with the Nintendo Wii, Wii U and even the Joy-Cons on the Switch, it's not easy to get other games to come aboard.
"Following discussions with game developers, we realized that 'sense of touch' within gameplay hasn't been a focal point for many games in the PS4 generation," says Takeshi Igarashi, VP of the Peripheral Design Department at Sony Japan, over email.
Sony has leaned on its own creative team to showcase the possibilities. Japan Studios' Team Asobi has made games showcasing the PlayStation 4's camera and PlayStation VR headset, and Astro's Playroom does the same for the PS5. It's as much a tutorial for new owners as it is an inspirational attempt to spark what other game developers could do next.
"A lot of games usually come from a narrative or a desire to tell a particular story. And in our case, the story is all about the mechanical device and its possibilities," Nicolas Doucet, Creative Director at Sony's Japan Studio, says about Team Asobi and how it made Astro's Playroom.
Team Asobi was sent its first DualSense prototypes back around early 2018, says Doucet, when the group was still busy making the PlayStation VR game Astro Bot Rescue Mission (which is one of my favorite PSVR games of all time). A dedicated DualSense team split off and started brainstorming clever things the controller could do.
"We had 80 of these individual demos -- we didn't use everything. An individual tech demo could be archery, or it could be walking in the snow, or something like that," says Doucet. "And then we would decide, in this world, we're going to have these six or seven demos and we kind of stitched them together in a way that was as natural as possible. The idea is to kind of hide that to the user and just make them go on this magical journey instead."
Japan Studio's work helped evolve the controller, too. "For the adaptive triggers, we applied existing mechanism design technology and went through multiple concepts and mockups to create something that worked with the DualSense controller, while making sure we didn't sacrifice comfort and ergonomics," Sony's Igarashi says. "We played demos that were provided by the Astro's Playroom team in Japan Studio and we bounced ideas off each other to come up with a variety of different vibration patterns."
I'm used to wearing VR headsets, but the PS5's first accessories are immersive without anything to wear. Team Asobi's previous PlayStation games were mostly VR-focused, but the goals with the controller's haptics are similarly immersive. "You know, we've been playing games for so many, many, years and it's sometimes difficult to get surprised again, right?" Doucet says of the challenge. But he saw a lot of potential in the adaptive triggers and haptics right away. "There could be lots of features that sound cool on paper, but you can never quite get them to deliver anything. But these ones were really, really quick to deliver."
The team started with trigger-focused shooting gallery demos that used the haptics and combined sounds with haptics in Astro's Playroom to create realistic-feeling effects like hitting ice or metal.
"It's kind of a trinity between what you feel, what you hear, from the controller especially and what you see on the screen. And your brain is really fooled into believing these. And the way you weight all these three elements is very important," says Doucet.
The effects are also directional and spatial. "In the sandstorm, you have the noise, but you also hear both the wind and the noise from the controller, you hear a kind of crackling sound as if the grains of sand were hitting inside," Doucet says. "And then, of course, on screen, you also see the sandstorm coming at you. And what's interesting is because we have two haptic motors in the controller, when the wind hits you in the game, it hits you from the front. And both of them produce haptic feedback on the same level. However, if you move the camera sideways and the wind comes from the side, then we balanced that where it comes from one side and travels to the other. So there's a real time kind of element, according to the game camera, according to your position in a game."
Doucet sees possibilities for more game-centric ways of using that, to detect ghosts in a game, for instance. "It's always important that these things are not just gimmicks or one-shot things, but can be built upon," he says.
I was particularly surprised by how the PS5's triggers can stop midway, vibrating with feedback but also seemingly transforming based on what you're contacting. The closest thing the PS5 does to simulating touch happens when rock climbing in Astro's Playroom, where the triggers give feedback and even lock in to create the feel of a ledge.
Some of Doucet's early experiments with the adaptive triggers showcased surprising levels of realism. "We had a demo we didn't put in the game, but it was a hand. You could kind of open and close it," Doucet says. The hand would be able to grab different objects and crush things like glass balls. You could also pick up a fish.
"You could close your hand and the fish would be moving along with the trigger. So it would be flipping and the trigger would be flapping too. And you could hear it coming from the controller." Doucet says it was particularly surprising: "Seeing something moving inside your hand, fighting back because it's moving, because it's alive, it's a very, very different kind of feeling. We didn't put it in just because we didn't have a good place to do it."
The way the triggers give feedback, tightening up and adjusting, suggests ways games could use the tech for training, or as a guide. Doucet sees possibilities in "precision playing," but for Astro's Playroom the goal was to be simpler, more child-friendly. Deeper use of the triggers only comes in one area, where the crumbling blocks require some finesse to reach an optional goal. It's a start toward exploring other ideas.
While Astro's Playroom is clearly made to entertain PS5 owners, Doucet's team has used its experiments to showcase ideas for developers, too, as part of their role exploring how to make the most of Sony's new hardware.
"We started going out to third-party publishers, developers who also work on PlayStation or plan to make PlayStation games, which is why [we made] some of the choices we made about the tech demos," says Doucet. "We had one where you could bounce a ball and the ball could be a basketball, football, volleyball, ping pong ball. And they were all different expressions by the way they were bouncing back and the way the trigger would behave. And we did that because, we thought, well, we're not making a sports game. But you know, there are people where the ball physics and ball behavior is quintessential to the experience. So let's have this kind of demo and see how far we can push out and that goes up to them. And they can sort of get inspired."
There aren't that many PlayStation 5 games that make the most of the DualSense feedback and triggers at the moment: Sony's Spider-Man: Miles Morales uses the subtle haptics a lot as a type of Spidey-sense, but not necessarily to transform gameplay. But those moments could come. It might take developers like Team Asobi to show the way, especially when a possible PSVR 2 arrives.