The challenge and promise of DualSense | Opinion
PlayStation 5's advanced haptic system is arguably the most interesting innovation of the new generation, but it creates a tricky marketing conundrum
Among the countless hours of video that have been published this week reviewing, probing and discussing the new console launches, one theme has been pretty consistent -- lots of people are really impressed with the PlayStation 5 controller's advanced haptic system, and absolutely nobody knows how to convey what it actually does in a video.
That hasn't stopped everyone from trying, on occasion resulting in some bizarrely entertaining and borderline absurdist sequences -- including a number of channels which have resorted to capturing the noise of the DualSense's haptic motors with a sensitive microphone and playing it back amidst exhortations to imagine what these sounds would feel like in your hands.
Attempts to induce synesthesia aside, it does seem that Sony has hit upon something pretty great with the DualSense. It's not entirely a bolt out of the blue -- the Switch did some quite smart stuff with haptic feedback too, and devices like smartphones have been making incremental improvements on this technology for years -- but it is, by all accounts, a very significant leap over any other kind of touch feedback system games have had so far. In a generational transition that's largely been defined by continuity and which feels more like a straightforward evolution than perhaps any previous hardware transition, many people have homed in on DualSense as something genuinely new and exciting.
What appears to be PS5's most intriguing feature is difficult to convey without people literally getting their hands on it
I'm saying things like "by all accounts" and "many people think so" here because, well, I'm in the same camp as most consumers. I haven't laid hands on a DualSense in person and didn't get lucky in the PS5 pre-order lottery, so the descriptions of reviewers (useful) and weird attempts to create the world's least pleasant ASMR by shoving a microphone up against a controller (less useful) are all I've got to go on. This highlights a pretty significant challenge for Sony; what appears to be the PS5's most intriguing, promising and innovative feature is one that it's really difficult to convey without people literally getting their hands on it.
Ordinarily, this would also create an opportunity. Sony could capitalise on this by pushing the PS5 out to as many places as possible where people could experience it -- shopping areas, live events, and so on -- and try to build a buzz around the experience of the controller and its haptics. This kind of hands-on experience has been a recurring part of the PlayStation promotion strategy since the mid-1990s, to such an extent that it's arguably pretty deeply baked into the PlayStation brand itself.
DualSense seems to be an absolutely perfect fit for that approach. It's easy to imagine showcase titles for DualSense -- like Astro's Playroom, the system's pack-in game -- being playable on demo pods in tons of locations, building up "you have to try this" consumer word of mouth around the new functionality.
It remains quite possible that the more advanced possibilities of the DualSense will be somewhat overlooked
Of course, that runs into a brick wall this year, because in most countries in which PS5 has launched, there are no live events and the shopping areas are empty. We can't say for sure whether extensive hands-on demos of the new system were a big part of Sony's promotional plan for PS5 at any point, but given the focus on haptics and the (rather less talked about thus far) advanced audio system, neither of whose advantages can be effectively conveyed in videos, it's reasonable conjecture that in-person engagement did form a big part of the marketing plan at some stage.
This year's events have thrown a curveball that's entirely wrecked any such plans. Even a more scaled back effort to put demo units into key retailers won't be possible in most places, and there are plenty of markets where the possibility of people simply showing off their new PS5 to their friends won't be happening for at least the next couple of months, if not longer.
Of course, the year's challenges also seem to have contributed to some pretty serious supply constraints for PS5, so it's worth bearing in mind that by the time consumers on the fence are actually able to buy the system, we may already be in a better situation regarding the pandemic. Not being able to effectively demonstrate a key feature to consumers right out of the gate isn't ideal, but it's hardly a death knell -- these devices have long lifespans and Sony will, in theory, get a chance to set this right at some point down the line.
The bigger problem, however, is the question of how Sony convinces its development and publishing partners to throw their weight behind supporting DualSense properly. This was always going to be a bit of an uphill struggle -- as the apparently lacklustre support for the feature from most early third-party titles seems to confirm -- and the speed with which the haptic features of the Switch fell by the wayside after launch is a pretty sobering lesson in how promising technologies can end up being entirely ignored if the early response isn't strong enough.
The buzz around DualSense in early reviews and coverage, along with the unexpectedly strong positive response to Astro's Playroom, might be enough to save this technology from that fate. Had Sony been able to push the haptic features to the front and centre of its marketing strategy, however, it would have helped immensely in securing support for the feature from third parties. Without the ability to do so, it remains quite possible that the more advanced possibilities of the DualSense will be somewhat overlooked, leading to the new controller ultimately being pushed to the side as a technical curiosity rather than embraced as a major new feature.
That would be a huge shame. For all the promise of the new systems, DualSense is arguably the only really new thing Sony is doing -- Microsoft's closest equivalent in terms of "really new things" being the remarkable instant game-switching feature. While PS5 is undoubtedly a fine console even without it, it would be a waste to see a rare bright spot of hardware innovation fall by the wayside because of unfortunate timing and unforeseeable obstacles.