In December 2019, Sony announced an official attachment for the DualShock 4 that adds two programmable buttons to the back of your controller. The attachment’s set to release January 23, and it’ll set you back $30.
It’s also the most exciting peripheral I think they’ve announced in a long while, and it’s exciting for two reasons.
The first is that the announcement of a seemingly overpriced (and probably overdeveloped, judging by the sexy yet unnecessary OLED screen they’re including with it) gives me some hope that back buttons might become standard with the PS5’s controller.
The second is that back buttons are easily my favorite innovation in game controllers over the past decade or so, and I can’t wait to add them to what’s already a very, very good controller.
Innovation in control design
It’s easy to take your controller for granted when you play games regularly. Muscle memory tends to bridge the gaps in whatever control shortcomings we might encounter, and we tend to only really notice controls or the controller when things go wrong.
Outside of actual mechanical malfunctions like broken buttons, we typically talk about game controls in terms of how they feel. High latency between your button input and the corresponding reaction in a game feels bad, even if you don’t immediately recognize why that is.
A good controllers feels more like a natural extension of yourself. You stop thinking about the gamepad. Eventually, it just disappears.
Good game design can sometimes compensate for hardware that’s less than ideal. I remember my friends raving about how great Goldeneye felt to play back in the day despite the N64’s controller looking like this:
But a good controller has to provide fertile ground for game developers to work and innovate, and it should also feel good for gamers to actually use.
Our own opinions about what which controllers are good might change over time, too.
The Xbox launched alongside the “Duke” controller, and I thought it was just about perfect. I liked how hefty it was and how it fit my hands (despite the fact that my hands are relatively small).
When Microsoft released the S-model controller, I remember my friends and I laughing about the redesign and how pathetically tiny it felt by comparison. But by our next Halo tournament, nearly everyone had converted to the more compact and comfortable model.
In retrospect, I think the reason we liked the original model at all to begin with was the fact that, for many of us, it was the first controller that made dual-joystick controls feel mainstream.
It’s funny to think about in retrospect because we take dual-joystick controls for granted now. But their inclusion in all standard controllers in the sixth generation of consoles marked a dramatic turning point in the evolution of modern game design.
It made possible a level of three-dimensional control fidelity (or close to it) that had previously only been available to PC gamers with mice and keyboards.
Subsequent console generations brought further innovations such as motion controls—the full potential of which I believe we’re only just beginning to see in the VR and AR spaces—and touchpads.
But for me, the best innovation in modern controllers is one that hasn’t (yet) fully entered the mainstream.
While the current generation of consoles failed to include back buttons on any of the standard game pads, the launch of Microsoft’s first-party Elite Wireless Controller and Valve’s Steam Controller and the rising popularity of high-tier third-party manufacturers like Scuf, who even managed to secure a partnership with Sony to produce an officially licensed elite-tier controller, have brought them closer to the mainstream than ever before.
I received my own Elite controller as a gift not long after the original model launched, and, honestly, using it for the first time felt as revelatory to me as when I first put my thumbs on two separate joysticks. Suddenly, I became aware of just how inefficient face buttons were.
When you use a typical game pad, you typically use your right thumb to control both the right thumbstick and press each of the four main face buttons during gameplay. In other words, four to six of your fingers are just resting on the back of your controller doing nothing as you play.
Back buttons allow you to put those previously useless fingers to work for you, and that means you get a number of advantages over standard controllers.
First, you have more immediate access to those them. Sure, it may take literal milliseconds for an experienced player to move their thumb from the joystick to a face button and back, but that’s milliseconds more than it takes to press the button or paddle your finger’s already resting against.
Second, it means that you rarely if ever have to remove your thumb from the joystick. In shooters, for example, you almost never have to give up control over your crosshair and/or camera.
It’s an immediate leg up on your competition. If you encounter another player and, all other things being equal, they have to move their thumb off the thumbstick even once, you’re going to win. Every. Time.
Configuring your back button controller
The Elite controller allows you to install up to four back paddles in the controller, and each paddle can be configured to the button of your choice. After some experimentation, I found that installing all four paddles diminished my ability to grip the controller too heavily.
So I ultimately settled on a three-paddle configuration that I’ve been using ever since.
Primarily with shooters in mind, I mapped the A button to the lower-right paddle and the B button to to the upper-right. A being my preferred jump button, and B typically being assigned to crouch and slide.
The left paddle I originally assigned to X so that I could reload my weapons without needing to reach up for the face button, but I found that the added convenience actually lulled me into reloading too frequently, and I found myself getting killed mid-reload more often than I had before.
Instead, I mapped the left stick’s button to the paddle, and it’s made sprinting in most shooters much more comfortable and speedy to activate. Frankly, I didn’t realize how much I hated clicking the joystick before making the change.
The configuration’s darn near perfect to me, but the beauty of the Elite controller and others with back buttons is that they typically allow gamers to experiment and find what works best for them.
Sony’s upcoming DualShock attachment provides just two back buttons, which is probably enough for most. And the touchscreen will conveniently let users update their configurations directly on the peripheral itself.
The back-buttoned future of game controllers
Again, Sony’s official attachment sparks some hope for me that the DualShock 5 may actually include back buttons, and what’s most exciting about that prospect is that it means game designers would actually be able to utilize them as completely independent inputs altogether (L4 and R4, for example).
But even if the DualShock 5 launches sans underbuttons, I think most gamers owe it to themselves to at least experiment with a controller that includes them. They’re a no-brainer from a user experience perspective, and the competitive advantages they offer is second only to, perhaps, keyboard and mouse.
And if you’re already using back buttons, well, capture some footage of you dancing around your opponents with them and upload your clips with our app. Our growing, positive community of gamers would love to see them.