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Why Sony wins the button wars with the PS5 DualSense controller

sony ps5 manette dualsense
© Sony

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Sony has won the button war, and I'll defend this 'unpopular opinion' to the hilt. But before I get carried away and forget to mention it, Sony unveiled the first official images of its new generation of controllers, the DualSense, on April 7. A little rounder than the current DualShock 4, it is also wider and benefits from a new button and new features.

We're still not at the level of the famous boomerang controller (a lost concept of the Dualshock 3), but Sony tried to evolve its design for once, despite failing to show the actual Playstation 5. The brand has obviously been trolled by a few Xboxists seeing similarities with the Xbox One controller.

But there is one tradition that the Japanese firm has not deviated from that makes me very happy: symmetrical joysticks. And that made the geekosphere gossip, according to the more than four million likes that the official DualSense photo collected on Instagram (compared to one million for the Xbox Series X).

No matter what the near majority of the press and the tech and gaming community say, the asymmetrical placement of sticks on a controller is for me an unspeakable heresy. Let's come down to earth for a moment. This subtlety is a false debate fuelled by the endless and redundant warfare of the consoles. But it's important to me as a gamer and pro-Playstation one (not for fanaticism but simply for the Sony titles).

That's why I'm asking you to put aside your common sense and above all your composure to dive with me in this sulfurous mood, written with the most sincere bad faith: the Sony controller remains the best on the market.

Sony makes the best controllers

The Xbox One controller and its asymmetrical analog sticks is adulated by almost all the trade press. Many gamers also prefer this type of button placement. A very paradoxical observation when we see the sales of Xbox One compared to the PS4 but let's move on.

All this doesn't stop Sony from boasting the best controllers on the market. In 2013, when the PS4 was launched, Mark Cerny, then head of console development for Sony, told IGN that the Dualshock 4 was the best possible controller for playing FPS on a console according to leading developers in the 'shootosphere'.

"We sent a bunch of different types of controllers to famous FPS designers and let them play with them. And it's the current design [of the Dualshock 4] that came out of that experience. We concluded that the two analog sticks placed at the same level work perfectly well," explained the manager.

This is elementary physics, Watson

And I totally agree with that. For FPS, in particular, I always have the feeling of a certain imbalance with an Xbox One controller in my hands, which I push too much to one side or the other depending on the stock I'm soliciting. It's surely a matter of habit and taste, I don't deny it. But for the purposes of my argument, I will invoke Newton's third law which states that - thanks Wikipedia - if object A exerts a force on object B, then object B exerts a force of the same value and opposite direction on object A.

Except that with asymmetric sticks, the opposing forces exerted by your thumb A and thumb B (when aiming and moving in opposite directions in an FPS) stretch across the diagonal of the controller. Personally, when I tested Apple Arcade for two months with an Xbox One S controller, I had to constantly readjust the controller in my hand.

Whereas with symmetrical joysticks, the opposing forces stretch from one end of the joystick to the other, but in a centered manner (visualize a line like the earth's equator). The opposing forces cancel each other out more effectively and I feel less discomfort since the controller doesn't move.

But if the laws of physics and the preferences of the video game industry play in favor of joystick symmetry, both amateur and professional gamers disagree. This is not the first time that the video game industry is out of step with gamers' expectations. The preference of the latter for the Microsoft pad popularized with the Xbox 360 seems to confirm this trend.

A matter of taste, good taste

Indeed, some will argue that Sony's symmetrical placement is totally arbitrary and unnatural. It would simply have been decided in a hurry, to remodel the first PS1 controllers to match the Nintendo 64 controller but without changing the original design.

Another argument is that the directional cross is almost useless on modern games compared to previous generations. The choice of Microsoft to put back the left stick instead of the directional cross thus seems logical.

But the bottom line would be that asymmetrical placement would simply be more natural, that your thumb tends to be positioned on the top of the controller by default. But then, why not put both sticks on top, keeping the symmetry?

In short, it's a never-ending debate and the vast majority of gamers seem to be leaning towards asymmetrical controllers. Even the PS4's pro controller, designed by Nacon but validated by Sony, features asymmetric sticks. This positioning is only one element among many others. The grip on the edges of the joysticks gives Microsoft an advantage, the haptic feedback and trigger hardness levels too. The share button, which Sony has maintained on the DualSense raises the question of its usefulness. But I won't give in and I'm delighted that Sony held on to its classic placement on its new DualSense. Sometimes it's better to be right against the crowd than to be wrong with it.

What kind of controller do you prefer? Symmetrical or asymmetrical? You are forbidden to answer "a keyboard-mouse is life!", we see you PCists coming.

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Antoine Engels

Antoine Engels
Senior Editor

Black belt in specs sheet analysis. OnePlus fanboy in (slow) remission. Average estimated reading time of my articles: 48 minutes. Tech deals fact-checker in my spare time. Hates talking about himself in the 3rd person. Dreams he was a gaming journalist in another life. Doesn't get the concept of irony. Head of editorial for NextPit France.

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    Deactivated Account Apr 11, 2020 Link to comment

    Controller looks awesome.