In the current generation, Microsoft and Nintendo both have a leg up over Sony when it comes to controller rumble feedback.
The Xbox One controller has “Impulse Triggers,” which are high end haptic motors inside each trigger that allow for cool localized feedback effects. You can feel the rumble from the shot of a gun or the acceleration of a car, in games that support them.
Nintendo took things even further, replacing the long-standard dual rumble motor setup with “HD Rumble.” Both the Joy Cons and the Pro Controller contain two programmable haptic feedback zones, allowing game developers to choose the intensity, type, and location of specific rumble effects. Rumble can be precisely located throughout the controller, and mimic a large variety of different sensations. Nintendo famously used it early on in 1–2–Switch to make it feel like there were marbles rolling around inside your controller, and it has been used sense to emulate climbing a mountain hand-over-hand, feeling a ball hit the sides of a pinball table, and also for a whole host of advanced versions of more “traditional” rumble feedback effects.
The big issue holding back both of these technologies has been lacking third party support. The PS4 is the best-selling console by leaps and bounds, with tens of millions of additional units out in the market compared to the other machines, and its DualShock 4 controller contains two bog-standard rumble motors. They’re not dramatically different from the motors contained inside the original DualShock, released way back in 1997.
So, when third party developers decide to include rumble effects in their games, it makes more business sense to support these basic motors, emulate some version of that on Nintendo’s HD system, and leave the impulse triggers out entirely on the Xbox. Only a handful of third party games fully support either Nintendo or Microsoft’s rumble tech.
With the PS5’s upcoming DualSense controller, that problem is about to go away. Sony has “borrowed” liberally from their competitors, adding in both programmable haptic feedback for the main vibration and new resistance-adjustable triggers. In addition to supporting basic feedback effects like the Xbox’s Impulse Triggers, Sony’s new triggers allow for individual tension adjustment. So, firing a bow will be physically different-feeling than firing a gun or accelerating a car, because the actual mechanical motion of the trigger can get lighter or stiffer.
Microsoft’s new Xbox controller has the same feedback effects as the current Xbox One model, so hopefully the Impulse triggers will get some additional knock-on support from games that use the adaptive triggers on the DualSense. And the base haptic effects should be a perfect fit for the Switch’s HD rumble…though that’s maybe more applicable to indie game development since the power gulf between PS5 and Switch means straight ports are unlikely.
I’m excited that Sony has stolen/improved the rumble features that they were missing from competing systems, but I still have some concerns about the design of their new controller. They’re claiming it will have better battery life, but I worry about how they’ll achieve that with all the new rumble tech inside. Also, triggers are some of the most oft-used buttons on a controller, and the new adaptive system will require some kind of mechanical or electro-magnetic piece inside physically pushing against your fingers. Hopefully, that mechanism will hold up to the thousands of hours of abuse that the average trigger goes through.
The included headphone jack could also be a big drain on the battery. Using headphones with Microsoft’s Elite Series 2 controller halves the battery life, and the current DualShock 4 also struggles to provide a lot of power with the headset plugged in. On the plus side, the native 3D audio support inside the PS5 will be a great competitor for Windows Sonic, and means that Sony’s finally bringing an end to their current “Surround Sound Tax.”
Overall, I think the DualSense looks like a smartly-designed controller, and it’ll also be the most fresh and innovative design on the market this Christmas since Microsoft isn’t rocking the boat in the name of broad compatibility. Sony is giving haptic and trigger feedback one final big push, and their adoption rate on PS5 will either mean that they become a permanent part of the gaming landscape, or fall away as failed gimmicks.
If the latter happens, at least these features got one last big moment in the spotlight.