Good vibes: The secrets behind the PS5 controller
"Astros Playroom," which comes free with the PlayStation 5, is a showcase for the PlayStation brand and the new consoles features - particularly the new DualSense controller. Since the games release, its inventive use of the controllers vibrations and feedback has become a running joke among some third-party developers as the impossible standard to reach.
The PlayStation 5 controller is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the new Sony console generation. Unlike its predecessor from eight years ago, the new DualSense controller emits specific vibrations tailored to different situations, upping the immersion level. As a character trudges through different video game terrain, moving from sand to grass, the sounds and vibrations evolve accordingly, mimicking stepping off a beach. It behaves similarly for virtual abilities, like shooting an arrow or firing a bullet. In those instances, the controller's triggers can increase in tension, similar to drawing back a bow string, or produce recoil as if from a gunshot.
Toshimasa Aoki, a director on the PS5 product team, spoke to The Washington Post about the technology that went into making the new controller feel different in players' hands. For starters, the team realized the new controller needed to be more immersive than the 2013 model.
"We started back in 2016, that was when the PS4 Pro and the PSVR were launching, so we were starting to plan what is the next thing we can do with the controller," Aoki said. "Our goal was to create a next level of immersion, similar to how visuals and audio go up to the next level."
The team decided to focus its efforts on haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, or in other words, the vibrations players feel coming out of the controllers, and the left and right triggers for shooting in-game guns and bows, using telekinetic powers and more. The very first test was to show a demo to developers of a virtual ball rolling in a box on a screen display. It showed how the ball's texture could change from wood to plastic or metal, and that texture change could be reproduced in tactile fashion through vibrations. Tokyo-based developer Asobi, the studio behind "Astro's Playroom," was involved from this step onward, as the studio was conveniently located near the PS5 product team.
"We were able to hand them the prototypes early on and ask them to create a gameplay demo based on that," Aoki said. "And early ones were the basic Astro bot walking on grass, walking on mud. And we were like, 'Wow, it works.'"
From there, the team sent the gameplay demo to other studios, such as Naughty Dog, the makers of "The Last of Us," and Santa Monica Studio, which made "God of War," asking them what kinds of inputs and outputs they wanted the controller to have. After receiving their feedback, Sony continued iterating on the controller over several years.
When lead character Jin Sakai leaps and lands on his feet in the game "Ghost of Tsushima," for instance, the PlayStation 4 controller lets out a generic rumble. The PlayStation 5 controller, by contrast, produces specific "pitter patter" vibrations.
"Just from a technology perspective, it was a big mass just rotating. So that's why you couldn't really direct where you feel it," Aoki said of the PS4 controller tech. "But this time [with the PS5 controller], we have one each of voice coil actuators, which is like a small speaker. So it's like an audio waveform, an analog waveform that independently vibrates on the left and right."
The coils can move from side to side, and in specific directions, to make the action feel more real in games like "Astro's Playroom" or Housemarque's "Returnal."
The L2 and R2 triggers are two of the most used buttons on the PlayStation 4 controller, so the team specifically wanted to innovate on them with adaptive triggers, Aoki said. To start, his team created a demonstration of the tech in virtual reality.
The new PlayStation 5 controller contains internal motors that push back against the triggers, creating a sense of resistance. Developers can choose to turn up that resistance by varying degrees, to differentiate the feeling of shooting a bow versus shooting a gun, for example.
To make the controller feel like players are truly drawing back a bow and arrow, Ember Lab chief operating officer Josh Grier said his studio added a "creaky nature" and a more gradual buildup to the adaptive triggers for the upcoming action-adventure game "Kena: Bridge of Spirits."
"The tools are really fun to work with because you can just sit down and twist some knobs on the sound design side, and you can instantly feel the feedback on the controller," Grier said.
Grier said his studio was given about a year to incorporate the PS5′s new controller features into the game. Some of the game's later content, such as when Kena is wrapped up by some trees, as shown in a preview trailer, won't have special haptics built in. The game is set to release August 24.
"We had already built the game, and we didn't really have a lot of opportunities to do a lot of environmental stuff," Grier said. "Most of our work with the haptics has been around [Kena's] abilities. We'll definitely look at, even thinking about game two, we've developed so many of these awesome tools and learned the ropes, taking that knowledge base into whatever we do next is going to be really valuable."