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TGS: Inside the DualShock 4

Kat Bailey speaks with designer Tetsu Sumii about the creation of PlayStation 4's controller, and how DualShock has evolved.

By Kat Bailey. Published 6 months ago

Despite being fairly coincidental, there are times when it feels as if the groundwork was laid for the PlayStation 4's new controller way back in 2005, when Logitech released its popular wireless controller for the PlayStation 2.

I picked up one of the Logitech controllers after spending time with it at Best Buy, where they were also showing Soul Calibur III. At the time, I was struck by how much more comfortable the controller was than the standard DualShock 2, as well as the superior range of motion offered by the D-pad. Since then, it's remained my primary PS2 controller. I even used to tote it to my friends house for a few rounds of Guilty Gear -- no arcade stick for me.

Yesterday, I (finally) had the opportunity to hold the Dualshock 4 for the first time, and to speak with designer Tetsu Sumii about its creation. Picking it up, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself immediately flashing back to my late, great Logitech controller. The shape, heft, and the way that it felt in my hands wasn't precisely the same, but it was close enough. In Japan, they call that feeling natsukashii -- a feeling of pleasant nostalgia.

Of course, it was also a reminder of how much the humble DualShock has fallen. In fact, part of the reason I purchased that Logitech controller in the first place was that I was looking for something a little more stylish, as well as a little more comfortable.

This angle gives a good look at the new controller's profile, including the improved triggers.

Sumii seems to agree: "Usability was the focus of what we had to improve. We had many usability tasks, and we got a lot of feedback from kids, adults, and others. They played several hours, and they told us how they felt when they were finished. They had a bad feeling in their arm, they said, which was what we tried to solve."

Adjusting the buttons, the shape, and the analog sticks by as little as a millimeter could yield drastic differences, Sumii says. It took a year to tune the design of the DualShock 4 to the point where he was satisfied.

Of course, there were other considerations in designing the DualShock 4 as well. Much as they wanted to improve it, they also wanted to keep the same recognizable shape, lest Sony lose the hard-won brand recognition that can only come with being on the market for some 20 years. Sumii also had to deal with the requirements of the engineers, as well as cost limitations.

"Unfortunately, the cost is limited. And we've added new functionality [like the touchscreen], which raises the cost even higher," he explains. "So that's why, from the cosmetic point of view, it's really tough to make it better looking, finish-wise."

Still, Sumii found ways to upgrade the design from the DualShock 3 -- the controller's last major iteration.

"The previous DualShock 3 was like a lunch box," Sumii says bluntly. "It was a simple structure. The DualShock 4, by comparison, has a kind of hollow in the bottom, which gives it a really strong and solid feeling."

He turns it over and points to the color scheme: "Also, visually, the two different tones helps to give it a kind of special character."

All of these elements combine to make the DualShock 4 both lighter and more comfortable, as well as friendlier. The glowing light at the top, reminiscent of the PlayStation Eye, is aesthetically pleasing, but can also be used to notify players that they should be aware of, say, low ammo. Particularly important is the revisions given the all-important triggers, which Sumii acknowledges had to be improved from the DualShock 3. On the new controller, they are afforded much greater prominence, in addition to being less mushy than before.

In some ways though, the DualShock 4 is still slave to the old design concepts popularized on the PlayStation 1. The lack of offset analog sticks remains somewhat strange, as it gives the D-pad a degree of prominence that it doesn't really deserve in this day and age. Sure, it's great for platformers, but it's not like it's impossible to use the analog stick to play Mega Man. As such, it still doesn't quite match up to the Xbox 360 controller, which arguably remains the gold standard of console controller design, mushy D-pad aside.

Still, it's a big step up for the PlayStation. Whether or not people wanted to admit it, the DualShock could be a bit of a psychological barrier, especially when choosing which console to use for a third-party game (the PS3's somewhat under-developed social features being another element). With its new grip, improved shoulder buttons, and modern amenities like its headphone jack, it's much less of an issue now. And in some cases, it may even be the superior option, especially when playing the kind of retro-focused indie titles that are sure to flood the PS4 in the coming months.

It's one more example of how Sony has used the development of the PS4 to revisit and improve their approach to hardware development. My old Logitech controller will always have a special place in my heart, but with the DualShock 4, I feel much better about the future.

The best community comments so far 10 comments

  • SDC3 6 months ago

    "The lack of offset analog sticks remains somewhat strange, as it gives the D-pad a degree of prominence that it doesn't really deserve"

    My issue with the offset sticks is that while they arguably make the sticks more usable (which is not a major issue in the Dualshock design to begin with) they make the dpad practically unusable. It is a very awkward position to use the dpad effectively.

  • docexe 6 months ago

    Honestly, I have always found certain elements of the Dual Shock troublesome, but that has nothing to do with the placement of the analog sticks. Indeed, I think I prefer the symmetrical placement to the off-set one.

    The D-pad, while better than the truly horrid one of the X360, is still very unwieldy, especially when compared to D-pads from Nintendo. The D-pad from the Dual Shock is fine for action adventure games where you use it to cycle through options, inventory or similar, as well as for some platformers, but try to play a fighting game with it and resist the urge to smash the controller against a wall.

    The sticks also feel very stiff at times compared to controllers from Nintendo and Microsoft (although reading from the comments, apparently that has to do with the dead zone of the analog). The triggers of the Dual Shock 3 are also horrid compared to the triggers of the X360 controller, although ironically, I find the bumpers of the X360 very unwieldy compared to the shoulder buttons of the Dual Shock. The Dual Shock also feels relatively less comfortable to hold (particularly for long periods of time) than the controller of the X360 and even than Nintendo’s many quirky controllers.

    In that sense, the fact that they are making all these revisions for the Dual Shock 4 in order to improve its functionality and ergonomics makes me very glad.

  • curryking3 6 months ago

    Really don't believe Sony should ever change the analog stick placement. The symmetry is what most of their fans like, and the placement of the Dpad and sticks the way they are make the Dualshock the most versatile controller on the market.

    When people say they are surprised that DS4 still has symmetrically placed sticks... all I want to say is.... "It's just you."

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