The evolution – or not – of the DualShock

As you may have noticed from the flood of coverage online this week, Sony have unveiled the PlayStation 4. Or haven’t, in that we didn’t get to see the box itself. But we could argue over semantics all day. (We won’t.) They did show the new DualShock 4 controller, so let’s focus on that.

I wrote a piece nine years ago entitled ‘Sony, Change Your Pad’. The thrust of it was this: the DualShock concept is fundamentally flawed, because it evolved from the original PlayStation pad, but didn’t keep evolving. Amazingly, that’s still the case. What do I mean? Let’s take a closer look at that evolution.


PlayStation Controller
PlayStation Controller
Dual Analog Controller
Dual Analog Controller

The original PlayStation launched in 1994/95 with the standard digital-only PlayStation Controller. The position of the d-pad was, presumably, optimised for comfort. The short-lived Dual Analog Controller was introduced in 1997, adding the titular sticks in the controller’s armpits – and rumble, but only in Japan.

The DualShock launched in 1997/98, rendering obsolete the Dual Analog, which was discontinued in 1998. There were a few changes in addition to the vibration feedback, most obviously shorter arms, and a move from smooth concave thumb sticks to textured and convex. With the majority of the PlayStation catalogue at this point not using the analogue sticks, the d-pad was understandably left in its original optimum position.

PlayStation 2

DualShock 2

New console – new controller? No, Sony just copied the DualShock, and called it the DualShock 2.

The only meaningful change was to make all the buttons take analogue input. Otherwise, according to the very thorough Wikipedia article, the changes were only to weight, colour, stick stiffness, screw position, logo and connector shape.

Sony can’t have failed to appreciate that the d-pad was not going to be the primary means of direction control. Yet they left it in the original, optimum thumb-position. What they should have done seems obvious: move the left analogue stick to that optimum position. But they didn’t.

PlayStation 3

DualShock 3

There’s no point distinguishing between the SIXAXIS controller which launched with the PlayStation 3 in 2006/07, and the DualShock 3 which followed in 2007/08 – the latter did nothing more than reinstate force feedback once a patent dispute had been resolved.

In fact, externally, there’s not much to distinguish between the DualShock 2 and its PS3 successors. A move to wireless and the addition of motion control were the big changes. But that d-pad is still up there in the prime position. Baffling.

PlayStation 3 'boomerang' controller

Part of the explanation could be the reaction when the PlayStation 3 was first shown, alongside it a radically different ‘boomerang’ controller. It was – probably quite rightly – laughed out of town. So maybe you can’t entirely blame Sony for being ultra-conservative with their second attempt.

PlayStation 4

DualShock 4

Which brings us up to date, with the big reveal of the DualShock 4 this week. It’s definitely the biggest change to the DualShock form in its 15 years, with less pronounced shoulders and rounder arms. And of course there’s the small matter of a front touch pad, PlayStation Eye sensor, and share button.

But there he is, in the same position he’s been in for nearly 20 years, the bloody d-pad, stubbornly refusing to budge from under your thumb’s natural resting place. Or at least that’s how it looks: the redesigned arms might change the way your hands rest on the pad. I’m not holding my breath.

I’m cheered to know that I’m not the only one with this bugbear. As the very first commenter on the DualShock 4 reveal post on the official PlayStation Blog Europe put it:

“i cant help but feel a little disappointed that you didnt move the left stick to the dpad position.”

Hear hear, Coody-Baroody, hear hear.

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