The iconic DualShock controller is rooted at the heart of PlayStation’s creation from over 25 years ago. But when Sony decided to completely reboot its form, its design and add innovative technology, there was surprise and even disgust. This is a look at the origin story of the original PlayStation controller through to the DualSense, the shocked reaction, and ultimately the reviews that celebrated it for providing the biggest next-generation leap from any new console that year.
The story of the PlayStation 5’s controller began in the early nineties, when Sony decided to enter the video game business its first controller prototypes followed the flat gamepad design that was standard in the 16-bit consoles like the Sega Megadrive and Super Nintendo.
It then experimented with extending each side into protruding handles that would rest in the palm of the hand for a better grip and better comfort and so the PlayStation controller was born. It was a next-generation controller and the grips signalled a shift from the 16-bit era that had gone before. Where these were passive, the original PlayStation controller had grips that symbolised active control and a move to a more deliberate, more mature era. It was iterated upon with analogue sticks. Had rumble added, was made thicker, and became The DualShock Analog Controller. And the DualShock 2 was released with PS2.
At the unveiling of the PS3 at E3 in 2005, an unusual controller that because of its shape was nicknamed the boomerang. It was unfavourably compared to Microsoft PC sidewinders controllers. Its striking departure from the DualShock design was a hint of problems behind the scenes. Sony was involved in a legal dispute with Immersion, the company behind the force feedback technology in the DualShock so it needed to release a controller without rumble. It rejected the boomerang prototype and instead released PS3 with a new controller called the SixAxis that featured motion sensing. It retained the DualShock extended handles design but perhaps to accommodate the new technology it got thicker. Ultimately Sony resolved the legal dispute with immersion it added rumble into the SixAxis and called it the DualSense 3. It was now heavier and even long-time PlayStation fans commented that it could be uncomfortable to hold.
It was on this backdrop, in this generation, that its rival Microsoft was receiving near universal praise that its Xbox 360 controller, it had an offset stick placement and was designed to be ergonomic and was regarded as one of the most comfortable controllers ever. Sony knew it had to improve its controller experience.
Prior to the launch of the PS4 former PlayStation CEO Andrew House instructed an engineering and design team into making the controller more comfortable. They put a lot of research into multiple prototypes that iterated on the core DualShock design in different ways. It added a touchpad for extra input and a light bar for tracking with the then, unannounced PSVR. Additionally, House and PS4 system architect Mark Cerny and PlayStation envisioned the player at the core of the console experience as a creator and realised the importance so added a Share button. But it wasn’t just an extra button on a controller, it was a tightly integrated system that added one touch streaming baked in to the PS4 experience. Ultimately the new controller, a much refined version of the DualShock, became the DualShock 4. And when released with the PS4 the reaction to it was that it was a massive improvement over the DS3, because it was significantly more comfortable. The Share button democratised game streaming to every gamer, and helped lead to the explosion in game streaming with Twitch and YouTube.
The Xbox One had a rocky start in public consciousness following the original plan for always-on DRM, when Phil Spencer took over as head of Xbox he did make some improvements to the business and overtime was slowly perceived as better. Spencer couldn’t say Xbox had the most powerful console, the launch PS4 was more powerful than the launch Xbox One. He couldn’t say Xbox One had the best exclusives, as this was when PlayStation studios were really hitting their stride and Microsoft’s under investment in first party failed to deliver any big hitters. But Spencer saw that the Xbox One controller, itself an iteration of the Xbox 360 controller, was a strength so he doubled down on it. He was behind Xbox’s push of the messaging that the Xbox One controller wasn’t simply a good or a great controller, but that it was the BEST controller and it was a point of view that many hardcore in the video game media shared as definitive.
The DualShock 4 was a big success and has gone on to become the bestselling controller in history. When Jim Ryan took over as CEO he wanted to improve the DualShock 4. He wanted to achieve two objectives; the first was to make it more comfortable to hold, the second was to include new features.
In 2020 as the start of the build up to the next generation began out of nowhere Sony shadow dropped the reveal of its new controller – it was going to be called the DualSense. This wasn’t a DualShock 5 that just iterated on the DS4. This was born from several concepts and hundreds of mockups over many years. It was designed to offer next-generation functionality to immerse the player in the game world via touch by using haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. Additionally a microphone would be added to complement the speaker system increasing immersion through audio.
Jim Ryan PlayStation CEO said “DualSense marks a radical departure from our previous controller offerings and captures just how strongly we feel about making a generational leap with PS5. The new controller, along with the many innovative features in PS5, will be transformative for games – continuing our mission at PlayStation to push the boundaries of play, now and in the future.”
The DualSense was a shock because it had a substantial redesign, the biggest redesign in PlayStation’s 25-year history. It had larger curved grips and a two-tone white and black decal that underlined Sony breaking with tradition to move into the next generation. Everything about it screamed new. And of course the internet exploded with reactions. Some loved it as it was portentous of change. Some hated it. Techradar said “Wow, that PS5 controller is ugly isn’t it?” But some reporters were excited about the new technology and what it could mean. The Next Web called it ‘a stunning controller’. VentureBeat wrote about ‘Why the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller is special’ And Digital Trends said it was ‘a return to Sony’s Legacy of Innovation.’
When the media received review units of the PS5 many praised the DualSense. Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier said ‘The PS5 controller is wild, I’ve been playing Astro’s Playroom (the game that comes with the system) and the combo of rumble/haptic feedback/adaptive triggers feels more “next gen” than any graphical improvements we’ve seen yet.’ Australian YouTuber Skill UP said ‘Let me put it this way: there are two next-gen consoles releasing next month, but only one next gen controller. The DualSense is that good’ and Polygon called it ‘a literal game changer.’
Now an increasing amount of developers rave about what it can do for their games, and most new-generation games list the haptic and trigger benefits that are exclusive for for PS5 owners, and that’s something that other platforms simply doesn’t have.
Even Phil Spencer went on to praise it and hint that he wants to adopt the technology in future Xbox controllers, he said: “I applaud what they did with the controller, not actually for–well, I shouldn’t say not for the specifics of the controller, but more than just the specifics of the controller,” he said. “I think for all of us in the industry, we should learn from each other and the innovation that we all push on.”
The DualSense. A brand new controller from Sony literally went back to the drawing board to create. It was mocked for being too different. It was ridiculed for having a ‘funny’ colour scheme because it didn’t fit with hack writers expectations. Senior writers turned their noses up at it for having so called gimmicky hardware. But when it came to the final product that experts and public alike got to use… it turns out to be brilliant and comfortable to hold, with haptics and triggers that make play experience more immersive and make it a genuine game-changer, that’s its rival now wants to imitate. PlayStation’s belief in innovation was vindicated.