PS5’s DualSense controller is changing how games are made in one surprising way

Now that the launch day smoke has cleared, it’s clear that PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller is the most exciting part of this new generation of consoles. Sony’s latest gamepad features haptic feedback and adaptive triggers that go well beyond an average rumble. The DualSense doesn’t just alter how we play games — it’s changing how they’re actually made.

Playing is believing when it comes to the DualSense, and no game showcases that better than Astro’s Playroom, a free PlayStation 5 pack-in game designed around the controller. Throughout the charming platformer, the haptic feedback simulates footsteps, raindrops, and more with almost eerie precision. Everything physically feels exactly like I expected it to, leaving me to wonder how the developers were able to pull off such pinpoint precision.

Digital Trends spoke to Nicolas Doucet, Studio Director and Creative Director at Sony’s Worldwide Studios Japan Studio, about what went into designing a game with the DualSense’s unique features in mind. It turns out that the controller flipped the game’s development process in a particularly surprising way.

“Typically, the audio designers would come later in the process and would work once there are some visuals on the screen,” Doucet says. “But for the handling of the haptics, which is based on waveforms, we have to get audio designers in. Today, all audio designers are included much, much earlier in the process of the core gameplay.”

A big change

That major change to the development process is due to how important sound becomes when designing for the DualSense. According to Doucet, the controller’s pinpoint haptics are the result of sound waveform data, which is translated to vibration. That’s very different from how rumble has been handled historically.

“In classic game controllers, you have motors that spin. And as they spin, they need time to start and stop spinning. So what you get is an increase, and a buzz, and then it comes down,” Doucet explains. “With waveforms, you’re able to have really pinpoint spikes. That’s the part that gameplay programmers will open their eyes to.”

Those “spikes” explain why haptic sensations in Astro’s Playroom feel especially sharp. When raindrops hit Astro’s umbrella, players can feel each individual drop plopping around the controller rather than a steady rattle that washes over their hands. It’s easy to visualize how that works when thinking of what an individual raindrop looks like in soundwave form. It’s a quick blip with no real buildup or decay time.

Even beyond the physical feedback, sound design plays an instrumental role in achieving Astro’s tricks. The team uses the DualSense’s speaker to further amplify the game’s feedback. The sound that players hear while playing isn’t the exact same waveform used for the haptic vibration, as the use of sound from the controller itself is part of what makes the sensations feel so oddly specific.

“The reason it feels good isn’t just the haptic feedback — it’s a combination of what you see, what you hear, and what you feel,” Doucet says. “This is why we make quite a big use of the controller’s speaker, because having the sound and what you feel coming from the same location adds something to the experience.”

Doucet admits that Astro’s Playroom was in a unique position as it was specifically designed for the DualSense. That allowed the team to make decisions, like what weather or surfaces to include in the game, based on what felt best for haptics. Games that weren’t created as a tech-first experience don’t have that same advantage, which has resulted in some mixed implementation among the PlayStation 5’s early games. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War makes the most of the DualSense’s adaptive triggers to give each gun a different feeling based on how it fires, while Assassin’s Creed Valhalla doesn’t appear to use feedback at all.

Sony

Tricky proposition

Console-specific features are always a tricky prospect for third-party developers who produce games for multiple platforms. Is Ubisoft going to shuffle its development process for an Assassin’s Creed game to optimize for one console’s controller? It’s unlikely, though that doesn’t mean developers won’t utilize the DualSense at all. Studios can still turn plenty of ideas into tactile experiences without changing when audio design comes into the process. Doucet sees shooters and racing games as especially natural fits for retrofitting the DualSense technology, as both genres contain distinct sounds and surfaces that easily map to haptics.

But there’s no doubt that a big part of Astro’s successful implementation of the DualSense boils down to how the process shifted around it. Haptic feedback wasn’t added after the fact to enhance preexisting gameplay. Design decisions and the actual way the game was made were shaped by a drive to get the most out of the controller. Structure is more set in stone for a game like Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which uses the DualSense sparingly by comparison. It wouldn’t necessarily make sense to have Miles run around on a beach just for the love of the tech.

The DualSense is in its infancy and developers will have plenty of time to naturally adopt it into their design process. Astro’s Playroom might be the most fully realized vision of its power players will see for a while, but Doucet believes it’s just a matter of time as studios learn to adjust. Taking the initial plunge is the most important step.

“The first time, it’s a little bit of a black box. Having gone through the project now, I’m much more relaxed. It’s a process the team got used to, and it’s not going to be a massive headache for the future.”

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