Next year, we are finally going to be seeing the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Scarlett launch, seven years after the PS4 and Xbox One first hit the market. There has been a lot of discussion on what these new consoles might bring to the table, from Sony and Microsoft, among developers, as well as here on GamingBolt itself.
However, much of the discourse has centered around the hardware capabilities of these machines, or their online and services, or their backward compatibility and ecosystem lock-in with their predecessors. One thing that people have, surprisingly enough, not brought up much with respect to these consoles is the controllers—which are, in fact, the primary (and only) way you interact with the games you play.
On one hand, this represents a certain level and degree of contentment with where controllers currently are. The DualShock 4 and Xbox One controller (as well as the Switch Pro) have all achieved what we might view as the pinnacle of controller design. All three are exceptionally ergonomic, well designed, support multiple forms of input, and allow for complex control schemes. Sure, people have some complaints with each of them—for instance, DualShock 4’s light is annoying, and the battery life is awful; Xbox One controller’s lack of a dedicated Share button is killer; Switch Pro’s D-pad is terrible—but on the whole, what people want are very specific complaints addressed with these controllers, rather than a full-fledged reinvention. No one is looking for an N64 Controller/Wii Remote style radical reimagining of what a game controller is anymore.
Which, combined with how the next generation of consoles seems to be iterative, building on the PS4 and Xbox One, rather than being a clean break from their predecessors, as has been the norm with every console generation in the past so far, seems to suggest that the controllers will similarly be more or less alike to the current ones. The DualShock 5 will probably have better battery (please), and it will support USB-C. The Xbox Scarlett controller presumably gets the Share button it lacks, and now uses an in-built battery. But anything beyond that seems to be a bit off the table. After all—what would it even be?
A look at other controllers gives us some ideas of what other improvements these future controllers could implement. A very obvious addition is paddles—Valve first introduced them with the Steam Controller, and Microsoft included them with the Xbox One Elite Controller (as well as its follow up). The Steam Controller and the Elite Controller both have limited market penetration, but the paddles were received very well, and it is possible (though not necessarily likely) that we see them on the next DualShock and Xbox controllers.
I’m not entirely sure on whether or not that might happen—currently, games don’t need any additional input beyond what present controllers already have, and paddles add fragile parts to controllers that could lead to higher defect rates; they also look goofier and more intimidating to the average person, making it less likely that they would want to pick the controller up to play a game with it. At the very least, I feel like paddles might be offered as an option, whether on a pricier variant of the controller(s), or as something you can snap on if/when needed, but not a permanent part of it otherwise. I just don’t see paddles being a permanent fixture on the only controllers these next generation consoles have, however.
Another obvious fix, this one specific to the Xbox controller, is the inclusion of gyro. Motion controls aren’t the primary form of interacting with games, but they’re still widely used for aiming and move assists, usually implemented as options. The DualShock 4 and Switch controllers all have gyros, but the Xbox One controller does not. It makes sense to a certain degree—the Xbox One controller was designed when the console was going to have the Kinect be an integral part of it, so any motion sensing needs could be implemented using Kinect rather than having to be built into the controller itself. This, of course, is also the reason why there’s no Share button on the controller, because back in the day, Microsoft envisioned us shouting “Xbox, record that” to take photos and videos.
The Kinect ended up not being the future of Xbox, which means the Xbox One is now the only major platform on the market to not support any form of motion input—PS4, Switch, 3DS, phones, tablets, VR, even the PS Vita, all support motion, but the Xbox One does not. Presumably, Microsoft will be throwing in a gyroscope in the Xbox Scarlett controller, because it is an obvious and unobtrusive addition that can be entirely ignored by those who want nothing to do with it.
But those additions feel small. Certainly they don’t seem to be introducing anything anyone might consider a dealbreaker. Then again, however, when was the last time that actually happened? Nintendo’s fiddling with controllers aside, they’ve been pretty static for the last two decades now. When was the last time Microsoft or Sony actually substantially altered their core controller design?
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. The core controller design has remained the same for so long because it works. There’s no reason to upend a table that doesn’t need any upending. And while for a mechanics focussed company like Nintendo, it does make sense to want to experiment with input methods (though even Nintendo seems to have given up, and has settled into the “standard” controller design now), Microsoft and Sony, as well as all the third parties who put games on their system, know the controller design, know what to expect from it, and design their games around expecting that standard of input. Changing that would be disruptive to a whole lot of people, and not just change-averse players who would inevitably cry foul were it to happen.
So, when the PS5 and Xbox Scarlett hit next year, we can expect to see them build up on the PS4 and Xbox One in all sorts of ways—hardware that builds upon current generation hardware, services that build upon current generation services, backward compatibility with current generation games, and yes, controllers that are largely iterative (if that) improvements on the current controllers too. Nothing more is needed. For many, the controller is just a means to an end—said end being the fantastic games these consoles will inevitably be host to—anyway.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.