Sony's PlayStation 5 might be playing it too safe

The console maker has released new details of its next-gen machine.

playstation sony logo

The PlayStation 5 is official, but new details suggest Sony may be playing it safe with its next video game console.

The console, as described in a Wired article Tuesday, will make a number of key changes from its PlayStation 4 predecessor when it launches in the 2020 holidays. The spinning hard disk drive is gone, replaced with a solid-state drive that promises faster load times. Games will use 100GB optical discs, while the PS5’s drive will double as a 4K Blu-ray player. The hardware will support ray-tracing, an emerging graphics rendering technique that could offer better images than ever before.

But one area where it seems Sony will make more limited changes is in the controller. A prototype model was described by writer Peter Rubin as “an unlabeled matte-black doohickey that looks an awful lot like the PS4’s DualShock 4.”

This is despite the fact that hardware like the Nintendo Wii, Switch, and even PlayStation VR have demonstrated new modes of interaction, making gameplay more immersive, more accessible…more fun. What if there was a way to actually wield the standard controller as a sword, instead of asking players to memorize button combinations and learn fiddly thumb maneuvers? Anyone that’s watched a non-gamer struggle to move their character will know that current controllers are a big barrier to opening up video games as a medium.

The PS4 controller: easy to use?
The PS4 controller: easy to use?

For the next generation of hardware, it seems Sony will stick with a very similar design to the controller that debuted with the original PlayStation back in 1994. Sony added dual analog sticks and rumble in 1997, motion controls and wireless in 2006, and a touchpad and speakers in 2013. But the basic shape and button layout has remained surprisingly resilient over the years. There’s a directional pad, four action buttons, four shoulder buttons on top, and central buttons to interrupt the game.

Those basics look set to stay with the next controller, almost certainly expected to be called “DualShock 5” even though Sony has not confirmed the name. That suggests Sony could miss the opportunity to offer something more immersive, to make something that could make playing video games more enticing to a broader spectrum of people.

A PS4 controller.
A PS4 controller.

PlayStation 5: what the controller will offer

The controller will feature a selection of changes. There’s an all-new haptics system, which uses voice-coil actuators in both controller grips. This makes the player feel like their character is walking on ice, or their car is driving on dirt versus track, effects that sound similar to the HD rumble found in the Nintendo Switch. There’s also new adaptive triggers, which alter the triggers’ resistance levels to simulate, say, pulling the string of a bow back.

Sony has also made a number of quality-of-life changes. It now charges with USB-C, ditching the non-reversible micro-USB connector. It has a bigger battery, but Sony claims it will still come in lighter than the current Xbox controller. The speaker, which debuted with the PlayStation 4, is also better than ever.

There’s also hints that there’s more to come. The reporter noted a mysterious hole, which would fit with recent reports around Sony’s patent for a voice-activated A.I. assistant. This could bear similarities to Google’s upcoming Stadia controller. However, Sony refused to confirm or deny that the controller offers a microphone.

PlayStation 5: a missed opportunity?

But while it sounds like a great way to improve your Fortnite game or jump into a possible sequel to Horizon: Zero Dawn, the familiar-looking controller suggests Sony could miss a chance to transform how people play games.

It’s perhaps hard to remember, but non-gamers find controllers pretty difficult to use. The thumbsticks require fine motor skills that take some time to develop. Using the right stick to control a camera requires an understanding of 3D space. Trying to use both sticks to simultaneously move a character and control the camera is a recipe for frustration with players unfamiliar with video games.

This is one of the many lessons YouTuber “Razbuten” learned when last month he asked his non-gamer wife to play a series of video games:

While Sony looks set to maintain the same general interaction method for its games system, others are experimenting. Nintendo successfully drew in millions of non-gamers with the Wii in 2006, which used a single-handed motion controller so players could intuitively swing a gold club, wield a sword, or even fire a gun.

(101/365) :: Whee!
The Wii in action.

It’s a recipe for success that it repeated with the Switch in 2017. The controller uses a similar layout to a PS4 controller, but split across two remotes to enable motion-based modes of interaction.

Nintendo Switch
Nintendo Switch.

Nintendo went even further with the Labo add-on, which uses cardboard to create fun new modes of interaction:

Nintendo Labo Fishing Rod.
Nintendo Labo Fishing Rod.

Another mode of interaction is to ditch the controller entirely. Microsoft experimented with the Kinect 3D camera, where players would move their body to interact with the world.

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The Microsoft Kinect camera.

To its credit, Sony has used both of these ideas with the PlayStation 4. Its virtual reality system uses a dual-lens camera, paired with a headset and two sticks to interact with a virtual world.

Visitor trying out the PlayStation VR set - Gamescom 2017, Cologne
Interacting with the PlayStation VR.

But PlayStation VR is an optional extra, and even the motion-based Move controllers aren’t required to control every game. Because the Move controllers also lack a means to control non-Move games, a dual ecosystem emerges where users have to keep two different sets of controller around to interact with different games.

The headset is also set to work with the PS5. Although unconfirmed, Sony might maintain its Move controls as an optional add-on, particularly for use with the VR headset.

That would make using the Move controllers as a primary input less lucrative for developers. They can’t guarantee their target audience will buy or own the add-on, meaning most games will likely stick to the same control inputs as yesteryear. After all, if your audience is more likely to own one controller over another, could you risk limiting your game’s reach?

Sony has an opportunity to make a more intuitive control system, perhaps one similar to the PlayStation VR, front and center of its next console. But while the PlayStation 5 boasts flashier graphics and fast load times, it seems on the controller side the company is planning to play it safe. Here’s hoping that changes ahead of the launch.