If you were told to draw a video game controller, what would it look like? Odds are, you’d scribble a rectangle with two downward wings for your palms to grip, a D-pad, four face buttons, shoulder triggers, and a pair of thumbsticks. In other words, you’d draw a PlayStation controller. Sony didn’t invent the controller, but it did essentially invent modern controller design, shaping the look and ergonomics of how we’ve interacted with games for over two decades.
There’s plenty of credit to award when it comes to video game controller design. Nintendo pioneered the core button layout with the SNES (D-pad on one side, face buttons on the other), and both Nintendo and Sega beat Sony to shipping an analog thumbstick for their consoles. But ultimately, it’s Sony’s innovations and ideas that would go on to become the elemental base of what we think of as a “video game controller.”
It’s a clear demarcation line for controller design
There are two pioneering parts to Sony’s foundation of the modern controller. First is the original PlayStation controller that launched in 1994, which would establish the broad design (elongated palm grips, shoulder buttons, and the D-pad / face button combination). And then there’s the Dual Analog Controller from 1997 (followed by the more well-known DualShock models), which would change 3D games forever by offering a second analog stick: one to control a character and one to look around.
Let’s start with the basic design. Before Sony, video game controllers came in all shapes and sizes, from the rectangular NES pad to the Sega Genesis and its massive triplet buttons to whatever the Atari Jaguar was trying to do.
Then came the PlayStation controller. After it, there’s a whole bunch of controllers that just look like the PlayStation controller. It’s a clear demarcation line for controller design. And yes, we’ve still seen some controllers break from Sony’s overall shape, like the motion-controlled Wii remote. But after generations of experimentation, with different game companies all trying to solve the problem of “what makes a good controller,” nearly all of the successful controllers to date are based on Sony’s original design.
The other massive advance that Sony brought to the PlayStation controller came later, with the Dual Analog Controller in 1997. Games were just starting to make the jump to 3D with the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64, and it was clear that a new control solution was needed. The D-pad alone wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Nintendo saw some success with the N64’s single joystick, but it wasn’t until Sony’s Dual Analog controller came around that the final piece of the modern controller would be invented: the twin stick setup.
It would still take time for games and the industry to adapt to what Sony had started here, but the DualShock’s basic inputs of four face buttons, a D-Pad, shoulder buttons, and two analog sticks would shortly become the standard for not just PlayStation games, but for basically all console video games. The design was so successful that Sony has barely changed it four console generations later — and it looks like the upcoming PlayStation 5 will be following in the DualShock’s footsteps, too.
Fast-forward to today, and we can see some variations on analog stick and button layouts. But in the broader sense, the DualShock’s design has been the blueprint that everyone has been following for the last two and a half decades. Pick nearly any modern controller, and you can trace its base design back to the original PlayStation’s.
Nothing will ever come close to what Sony achieved
The list is endless: the GameCube controller, the Wii Classic Controller, the Wii U GamePad, the Switch Pro Controller, the Switch Joy-Con controllers, the Xbox controllers (both the Duke and the Controller S), the Xbox 360 controller, the Xbox One controller, Google’s Stadia controller, Ouya, and countless other third-party models. All of them built on the foundation that Sony laid.
Over the years, Sony would add other innovations to its controller lineup. Some, like the rumble feature in the DualShock, would go on to be standards across the industry. Others, like the PS3’s tacked-on Sixaxis motion sensing, would be less successful. The company is still experimenting with new features for the PlayStation 5, like improved haptic feedback and “adaptive triggers” that can give different levels of resistance.
Maybe we’ll see those changes appear across the industry in the coming years, too. But nothing will ever come close to what Sony achieved with the first PlayStation controller all those years ago. The fact that the modern DualShock 4 is functionally identical speaks to the quality of Sony’s original design, which has lasted longer than entire console brands. And with things looking to stay the same with the PlayStation 5 next year, it seems that Sony thinks so, too.