Sony’s gamble with experimental controller features has arguably led to some feature bloat.
Sixaxis motion control arrived on the PlayStation 3 to mixed reception. Unlike the future touchpad on the DualShock 4, few–if any– games left a positive impression or became a standard replacement for something as simple as a Start/Select replacement. Lair’s motion controls drove people nuts and while Killzone 2’s motion control aiming of the sniper rifle was interesting, it never appeared in the series again.
While Sixaxis didn’t make much of a splash or become a central feature of the console, Sony kept it for the DualShock 4. While some modern games have used it sparingly, it’s also found a functional use for the PlayStation 4 system itself. Moving the controller will keep it from powering off and you can even use it to type with a motion-sensitive cursor…though I can’t imagine who actually enters text this way.
So too has the touchpad on the DualShock 4 struggled to cement itself as anything more than a slightly more dynamic version of the Start/Select buttons which appeared on previous controllers.
It’s the same story as Sixaxis in some ways: Some games have made limited use of it for features that mostly could be substituted some other way–after all, it hasn’t made a difference at all on third-party titles which are also playable on an Xbox with a controller that doesn’t have any sort of touch or gesture support. Unlike Sixaxis, however, it hasn’t proven to be too much of an unwanted, shovelware-prone feature.
Killzone Shadowfall and Days Gone perhaps show the touchpad at its most practical; the former uses it as, essentially, an extra directional pad allowing for four different functions of the player’s “Owl” drone to be used, while the latter uses directional swipes as menu shortcuts, allowing the player to quickly get to the game’s map, skill menu, quest tracker, and inventory. This can be done during gameplay: Swipe right and you’re immediately in the map; swipe down and you can immediately manage your skills.
Since Sony will be supporting a limited, though apparently committed, form of backwards compatibility on the PlayStation 5, like Sixaxis before it, the touchpad will appear yet again on the new console’s DualSense controller. This is likely done, at a minimum, to support these first-party titles from the PS4 without some kind of software update for each game; and, in the case of something like Killzone Shadowfall or even inFamous Second Son, it would be very difficult to replace certain touchpad commands with a more conventional controller design that ejects touch support.
This frames the touchpad as a sort of “baggage” the PS5 must continue to carry as it moves into the future, likely featuring games that don’t plan on using something that takes up a pretty substantial amount of real estate on the controller in any meaningful way–or, at least, certainly not in the way it was perhaps designed for.
It would be unfortunate for this feature to continue on in the same shape–especially if it continues in arbitrary-yet-difficult-to-replace features in first-party games; if Sony commits to backwards compatibility beyond the PS5, future controllers may be obligated to keep this feature. PS6 (assuming that will be an eventuality) and beyond may end up keeping this touchpad for no other reason than to support legacy software–and with the outrageous popularity and success of the PS4, it’s a legacy we’ll be considering for some time.
Perhaps the best implementation of the touchpad, however, is what happens when it’s plugged into a PC and used through Steam (or a utility such as DS4Windows).
For the uninitiated, the DualShock 4’s touchpad can be used to control a variety of functions on PC, from a mouse scroll wheel, to a mouse pointer or cursor itself. This allows the player to assign weapon, skill, spell, or item switching functions with just a swipe; on can even navigate keyboard-and-mouse-only menus by using even just half of the touchpad like a conventional laptop trackpad. You can, actually, even use it for aiming, though this is a somewhat awkward experience.
Though the Steam Controller failed to gain mass acceptance, it’s ability to quickly provide functionality similar to a mouse (and even a keyboard) made it, in some ways, the perfect PC controller for moments where you had to navigate a menu never designed for a controller, or wanted a more hybrid mouse/keyboard/controller experience. The DualShock 4’s touchpad, surprisingly, achieves a good portion of what the Steam Controller arguably tried, and failed, to offer PC gamers.
I think this is something Sony and PS5 developers should consider when it comes to using the DualSense’s touchpad. With the Xbox Elite controller and Sony’s Back Button Attachment, it’s clear that controller customization in terms of input is something of interest; what better opportunity to make the most out of the DualSense’s touchpad?
This would open up a world of possibilities on the controller; imagine using one side of the touchpad to scroll through weapons in a shooter as you would on a mouse wheel on PC. This would free up at least one button for something else, allowing game design to move beyond the standard four face and directional buttons we’ve been accustomed to for at least two or three decades. Even just allowing the player to customize specific commands for certain swipes and gestures could be a drastic change in how the touchpad currently gets used.
The touchpad presents a good opportunity to allow for subtle yet interesting ways to change how we interface with a game. It would be a boring shame for this feature to be tacked on to the DualSense and future Sony controllers for the sake of supporting limited legacy features, or as an over-designed Start/Stop button. Given that the PS5 has already entered production, though, odds are that the touchpad’s fate has probably been decided upon already.