PS5's DualSense reveal puts Xbox Series X at an accessibility advantage

Heidi Nicholas - April 10th 2020

The Xbox slogan — “when everybody plays, we all win” — is a clear example of how accessibility and inclusivity is a big focus for Microsoft. Earlier this year, Aaron Greenberg, the head of Xbox Game Marketing, was made honorary Vice President at SpecialEffect, a UK-based organisation which aims to help those with disabilities to play games, with the wider goal of improving mental health, confidence, and rehabilitation. SpecialEffect also collaborated — among others — on the adaptive controller, which was in itself a huge step forwards for accessibility in gaming. Microsoft's comments about accessibility, such as that "Xbox strives to eliminate barriers and to empower gamers to play the way they play", coupled with the reveals of the Xbox Series X console and its controller, all suggest that accessibility remains a primary goal with their next-gen console. The general consensus seems to put Xbox Series X ahead of the PS5 through the former's clear, concise, and open marketing - as opposed to the latter's delayed and, at first glance, slightly baffling reveal of the PS5 specs. Xbox also currently appears to have the advantage, through clear messaging of accessibility features, on the controller front.

An Xbox Wire post following the reveal of the Xbox Series X controller included an interview with Ryan Whitaker, Senior Designer at Xbox, who said that “being more inclusive” was “part of the design process from the very beginning... Whether we’re redesigning our standard controller or inventing a completely new one, like the Adaptive Controller, we ask ourselves and gamers, ‘How can we make gaming a better experience for everyone?’” To this end, Whitaker said that the Xbox Series X controller will fit “a wider range of hand sizes, especially smaller hands”, and that “by accommodating hands similar to those of an average 8-year-old, we found we could improve accessibility and comfort for hundreds of millions more people without negatively affecting the experience for those with larger hands.” This new design includes rounded bumpers, rounded parts for the triggers, and “carefully sculpted grips”. Likewise, the new design of the D-pad incorporates this: it’s a "hybrid" of the "crisp cardinal directions", "well-defined edges", and "accurate diagonals" of the swappable D-pads for the Elite controllers. Whitaker adds that "the slightly deeper dish" of the new D-pad, "gives your thumb a nice little “home” to sit in. The angles are finely tuned to give you a good amount of leverage with minimal movement.”

This interview provides transparency about the design from the outset. PlayStation also released a detailed post about their new controller, but while it does describe how much the controller will greatly add to an immersive experience, through adaptive triggers and haptic feedback, it doesn't yet seem clear what accessibility features are incorporated, nor how the new design might allow for greater inclusivity. However, the reveal of the PlayStation 5 DualSense controller was then followed by a tweet from Mark Friend, the Principal User Researcher and Accessibility Specialist for PlayStation, who invited fans to share comments or concerns about accessibility for the DualSense controller. Friend has since said that he's taken the tweet down "while I work out what to do with" all of the replies, most of which seemed to be about the lack of colour for the buttons and triggers, which many seem to feel would reduce readability for several players. Friend's tweet evidences the desire to improve the accessibility of the DualSense, but perhaps also shows how the messaging and marketing behind the controller could have been bettered, as does the mixed response to the new design. Friend's tweet also seems to be the only avenue fans have had so far to voice suggestions or concerns on the subject.

Spencer often comments on Microsoft’s focus on accessibility. In a recent podcast, he said; “Everybody should play. I believe that playing video games is innately good. The more people play, the better it is for all of us.” This push on inclusivity has been mirrored in Xbox exclusives such as Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Dan Smith, Senior Producer at Xbox Game Studios, mentioned the thinking behind one character having a disability: “I have a son with special needs, and at Moon and Xbox Game Studios we really take diversity and inclusion very seriously.” Microsoft is including that diversity and inclusion at every level: in their games, in their marketing, and in the design of their next-gen controller. The fact that Sony’s own accessibility specialist reached out to fans is clear proof that PlayStation are equally as determined to make their DualSense as accessible to all, but the messaging behind it perhaps hasn’t been as obvious; the reveal doesn't seem to include details on accessibility features, leaving fans wondering how the controller would work for players with disabilities, and leaving the design open to criticism.

It would, perhaps, have been more effective to either include details about the controller’s accessibility in PlayStation's initial reveal, or to hold that discussion in a more visible and efficient space, where all fans could voice their thoughts. Friend's determination to work through the accessibility suggestions sent to him, coupled with Sony President & CEO Jim Ryan's statements that "the new controller, along with the many innovative features in PS5, will be transformative for games" and that it will continue their "mission at PlayStation to push the boundaries of play, now and in the future", reinforces that readiness to engage with fans on how to make their controller even more accessible for all players. The wish for greater inclusivity is clear, and Ryan adds that more information is forthcoming on the PS5, so we will perhaps hear more details then. We've also reached out to Sony for more details.

Overall, both Sony and Microsoft appear to have that same desire for accessibility, inclusivity, and diversity. So far, however, it seems that Microsoft has best managed to effectively communicate how this translates into their design for the controller. If Microsoft continues with this clear and effective communication, they can continue to build on the advantage they've already established with the Xbox Series X.