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To build a PS5 controller for anyone, Sony had to reinvent the wheel

A PlayStation Access controller sits on a table.
Digital Trends

When Sony took the stage at CES 2023, PlayStation fans didn’t know what to expect. The company had a history of using the tech expo to showcase new gaming hardware, like the PlayStation VR2, but its plans for the show aren’t ones that tend to leak beforehand. Left in the dark, eager PlayStation fans tuned in to the CES live broadcast to see what the future of PlayStation might hold.

But nobody expected a UFO to touch down on stage.

Rather than rolling a new console, Sony used its platform to put a spotlight on accessibility with an unusual controller. It showed off a round disc covered in panels that almost made it look like a white steel drum. It was dubbed Project Leonardo at the time, and it would give players with specific needs a new and highly customizable tool that could make playing on PS5 more possible. The project would officially launch a year later as the PlayStation Access Controller, allowing more players than ever to enjoy games like God of War Ragnarok and Marvel’s Spider-Man 2.

That was no easy task. The road to the Access Controller’s launch in December 2023 was filled with research and iteration as Sony worked to solve a difficult challenge: How do you create a device that suits several different accessibility needs at once? That would require throwing the idea of traditional controller design out the window and truly thinking about how to reshape the future.

No one-size-fits-all solution

PlayStation’s commitment to accessibility goes back a long time, but it hit a key moment in 2016. That’s when the publisher released Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End complete with a revolutionary suite of accessibility options. According to a tweet from developer Naughty Dog in 2021 celebrating the game’s fifth anniversary, those options had been used by 9.5 million players at the time. That stat makes it clear there was a hunger for accessible games on PlayStation — and Sony’s own market research agreed. In September 2018, Sony would set out to design a controller that could benefit players with a broad range of disabilities.

Actually pulling that off would be a challenge. The needs of players with disabilities can vary wildly, making the idea of a one-device solution next to impossible. For John Zarganis, director of product operations at Sony Interactive Entertainment, the first step was figuring out some core roadblocks that a piece of assistive tech could help remove.

An Access Controller sits on a table with a PS5 DualSense.
Digital Trends

“We understood that the range of accessibility needs is broad and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution,” Zarganis tells Digital Trends in an email interview. “Our approach focused on identifying common challenges people with many types of disabilities face when using a traditional controller. We identified three common challenges that we wanted to address: 1) Physically holding the controller; 2) Accurately interacting with the buttons that are traditionally small and closely clustered; and 3) Effectively engaging with the thumb sticks and/or the front shoulder buttons.”

With those issues in mind, the team set out to create a controller with an alternative form factor that could solve those pain points. The final result would need to be customizable and work in a variety of orientations, letting users tailor it to their specific needs. There was just one question: What would a controller like that even look like? There were plenty of examples of accessibility tools out there, like Xbox’s Adaptive Controller, but PlayStation knew that it needed to innovate to make it right.

“We challenged our engineering and design teams to produce a variety of alternative form factor designs to address those three common challenges,” Zarganis says. “Four different concepts surfaced from these efforts: A large scale tabletop controller; a lap board or keyboard style layout, and two different split controller design concepts. The round, split controller design quickly emerged as a common theme and became our preferred solution to provide the most flexibility for users.”

Access Controller - Design Story | PS5

And so, the Access Controller’s UFO-like shape was born. The final design is a round pad surrounded by white panels that double as large buttons. That setup is fully customizable, as players can remap what each panel does when pressed and even place swappable button labels on them. Even the panels themselves can be swapped out with different sizes and shapes. A round, black joystick juts out from one side, which can also be customized with stick caps. Users can even plug two Access Controllers into one another, or any PS5 DualSense model, to further customize their experience.

It may not look like any controller you’ve seen before, but that’s the point. When a standard gamepad becomes a barrier for entry, the wheel begs for reinvention.

Collaboration is key

Getting the right design was only one piece of the equation. True accessibility requires a deep attention to detail that goes far beyond the surface. It’s not just enough to add a few options into a game’s settings menu, for instance. That needs to be paired with accessible game design too. The Access Controller team would find that it would need some broader collaboration to make sure its controller wasn’t just a good idea in theory, but something that could actually function alongside PlayStation’s games.

“Our PlayStation Studios partners were immensely helpful in shaping the design of the Access controller,” Zarganis says. “It was a great opportunity to create a controller that would complement the great work and accessibility features the studios were already incorporating into their games. We worked with an array of game studios, including Santa Monica Studio, Insomniac Games, Naughty Dog, Bend Studio, Media Molecule, and Guerrilla. All the teams provided very useful feedback in terms of features they wanted to see included.”

PlayStation Access controller button labels sit on a paper.
Digital Trends

Collaboration like this was key to making sure the project reached its full potential. But the most crucial part of the project would be working closely with experts in the accessibility space to tweak the controller. PlayStation would link up with organizations like AbleGamers and SpecialEffect, who would provide valuable insight into the needs of players with disabilities and share the kind of custom setups players use.

“They consistently helped us focus our efforts away from trying to solve for specific conditions, and more toward trying to solve for specific impediments that might prevent users from effectively interacting with the standard controller,” Zarganis says.

That philosophy would help PlayStation fill some holes in its design. While the team wanted to create a controller that was customizable enough for many players to use, the reality is that some users would still need to modify it with their own external options. Zarganis says that dynamic was the most challenging part of finalizing the controller.

“Expert guidance encouraged us to recognize that the Access controller was going to be part of a larger ecosystem of accessibility solutions,” Zarganis stresses. “Our controller should be designed for as much compatibility as possible with solutions such as wheelchair mounts, third-party switches and joysticks to take advantage of the familiar solutions that may already be in a user’s home environment. It was a tough balance in that we wanted to make the Access controller compatible with these solutions, but also easy to set up, configure and start playing right away. Our expert consultants’ guidance helped us converge on what we feel is an easy to configure, compatible controller that allows the user to quickly derive their own solution to play their best.”

“Accessibility is an ongoing mission…”

Feedback like this would only improve the Access Controller. Notably, it would lead to features like its 3.5mm expansion ports, which would allow users to hook the Access Controller up to external devices as needed. Up to four additional devices can be plugged into a single Access Controller, and that number doubles if using a two-controller setup. That layer of flexibility is what makes the controller such an important step forward for adaptive gaming tech.

There’s a sense that PlayStation is still just getting started, too. Zarganis affirms that the company is committed to accessibility and making sure its games can be enjoyed by as many players as possible going forward. The Access Controller feels like a fundamental first step, just as Uncharted 4 was when it came to in-game options. PlayStation hasn’t let up from there on the software side, so perhaps the Access Controller is only the beginning on the hardware side.

“We believe passionately in breaking down as many barriers to play as possible for our gaming community,” Zarganis says. “Accessibility is an ongoing mission that’s important to all of us and the gaming industry as a whole.”

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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