• Duncan Robertson

Interview: Hellcouch Creators Share Thoughts on DualSense

Updated: May 7, 2020

What do two game developers on the cutting edge of controller design have to say about the newly revealed PlayStation 5 controller?

Last year, Carol Mertz and Francesca Carletto-Leon developed Hellcouch. Hellcouch is a couch co-op game where the couch is the controller. The concept of the game is that a demon has been trapped inside a sofa, and as a player, your job is to release it by using the newly invented, and totally original input of "butt-buttons" to activate certain cushions that the demon is possessing. These possessed cushions are made obvious with visual and audio feedback within the couch itself because unbelievably, there is no screen! That's right, these two built a video game in which the controller, visuals, audio, gameplay, and story are all an inanimate piece of furniture.

Essentially, there is no one better to ask about controller design...

First off, what gave you guys the idea to make a game where a couch was the controller?

Francesca: Carol and I were already working on a few game projects together and the previous semester we had taken an alternative controller focused class at New York University. We were interested in pursuing a larger project using the skills we had gained. We lived near each other and often took the subway home from class together, talking about games we dreamed of making.

Carol: It honestly just started with a joke. I turned to Francesca and said, "Wouldn't it be funny if we made a couch co-op game where the couch was the controller?" And so, the seeds for Hellcouch were sowed.

Carol and Francesca showcasing Hellcouch at GDC 2019

How fun was making and playtesting Hellcouch?

Carol: It was fun, but it was also SO exhausting! We had to lug these huge sofas all over the building (and then, eventually, all over the USA)—it was heavy and cumbersome and sometimes quite painful. I'd say making, playtesting, and showing Hellcouch was equal parts giggles, high fives, crying, and bruises. But it was worth it!

Francesca: Yeah, I think there were definitely moments we regretted taking on such a LITERALLY huge project! On top of worrying about potential bugs in code or troubleshooting hardware and wiring issues, we also have to worry about the integrity of the actual couch. While playtesting our first couch a really enthusiastic group of players actually broke our couch in half, it cracked right down the middle! All of our future installations involved a ton of reinforcing materials which meant extra planning, components, and time. When we went out to GDC we were so worried the couch wasn’t going to hold up for the whole week, we added 4 additional support legs and a metal bar underneath the couch!

Carol: Oh yeah, it was a lot—I was so impressed that it survived. The GDC build is one of only two remaining assembled Hellcouches in the world, thanks to its nine legs.

What were the challenges of making a game with such different forms of player input?

Francesca: A thing we started saying often was “everyone knows how to sit on a couch, nobody knows how to play one”. That’s what was so appealing about Hellcouch, we’re taking an everyday piece of furniture and turning it into a playful object! It incites curiosity, because we’re presenting something players are familiar with but having them interact with it in a totally new way.

Carol: Figuring out how to tutorialize the experience was a big challenge. Hellcouch doesn't have a screen, so we had to use only audio and LED strips as player training and feedback. It took a ton of design and iteration to get it to a point where the game could teach players what to do without us there to guide them.

Image Credit: EMi Spicer

One of the best things about Hellcouch is that it makes the controller such an integral part of playing the game. How important is it to tie an experience to a controller, and what are some ways you can do that?

Carol: I love it when an input feels thoughtfully connected to gameplay. I think the best mainstream example of this is Guitar Hero. Playing a rhythm game on a guitar controller makes you feel like a rock star in a way that something like Gitaroo Man on a PS2 controller just can't. That is to say, they're both fun, but one controller makes you feel like you're good at playing guitar (even though you're not actually playing guitar), where the other makes you feel like you're good at playing a videogame. Custom controllers allow for this powerful feeling where the player becomes a part of the game. If a designer can integrate an input device that captures the real-world actions performed in the virtual game, it really levels up the player's emotional experience and feeling of connection to what's happening on screen.

Francesca: Exactly, it’s a way for the player to be totally embodied in an experience. I think controllers built for particular types of interactions heighten gameplay, because they highlight the best and most important parts of a game. Think about your favorite game and then imagine what controller you would build specifically for that game. Embodied action through controllers also increases the potential for emotional responses from players. I think a great example of this is The Book Ritual by Alistair Aitcheson. It’s a game where the players rip, defile, and destroy books, which I think is such an awful feeling and emotionally powerful. The game is about loss, which you can feel because as a player you’re taking an action resulting in the permanent destruction of an object. If this interaction was presented as “Press F to destroy book”, the emotion of the action is lost.

Are there any features or design choices on a modern video game controller you'd say must be included?

Carol: Accessibility consideration is so important. It's frankly inexcusable at this point to ignore the conversations around how controllers can be more comfortable, adaptive, and accessible for all kinds of folks.

Francesca: I think we’re at a place where new controllers are experimenting with offering multiple input styles. We have consoles which offer both buttons and touch controls and controllers which allow for movement based input. I saw the PS4 controller’s gesture touchpad used in innovative ways by indie designers, but it was unfortunately largely unused by mainstream games. Offering more options in how we interact not only heightens the experience of interaction, but also increases accessibility and creates additional design opportunities for developers.

The Newly Revealed DualSense controller

What do you think of the newly revealed DualSense?

Carol: It bears repeating: I think it's inexcusable at this point to make a controller without accessibility at the forefront of the design. From what I understand, Sony is taking feedback on how they can improve, and I hope they implement that feedback prior to launch.

That said, I like the idea of well-executed haptics and reactive buttons—that sort of feedback really can help bring you deeper into the gameplay experience. I also like the idea of having an integrated microphone array; I remember a handful of games for 3DS used the microphone as a game input, which was always fun (if a bit cheesy). I'm curious to see how designers take advantage of those updates to make more interesting playful experiences.

Francesca: My first impression is that it’s stylish and looks comfy to hold, which is what I want from my hardware. I’m honestly impressed Sony has moved away from their iconic and recognized controller design. The increased feedback is neat and I’m glad they’re keeping the touchpad but, as Carol mentioned, I hope the next generation of games will take advantage of these features and use them in cool ways!

Given that you two are on the cutting edge of revolutionary controller design, how ambitious do you think Sony has been with the DualSense?

Carol: Ha! This is a very different kind of controller than those we design, so I'm curious to hold it in my hand and see what it feels like in-game. I think a lot of what they're implementing in this iteration feels like an obvious progression of controller evolution at this point, with the exception of the many unconfirmed accessibility considerations like colored buttons, adjustable haptics, and rear buttons.

Francesca: I think there’s a huge difference between designing alternative controllers for one-off playful experiences and designing a commercial product that will be used by millions of players. Our controllers are designed for one purpose and one type of interaction, the DualSense has to be practical for all games coming to the platform and serve as many players as possible. The version of the controller we’ve seen appears to be focused on the idea of giving players a more immersive experience with heightened feedback, I think that’s a great step forward.

Where do you sit on the debate about offset analog sticks vs symmetrical ones?

Carol: I don't have much of an opinion on this. I'm comfortable using a controller either way, but I really think the debate comes down to a person-to-person preference depending on hand size, shape, and ability.

Francesca: I totally agree. There are controllers, mice, and keyboards that are really comfortable for my partner, who has larger hands, but I have a hard time using them. I like when I have multiple controller options for one console, so I can choose which one is best for my body. For this particular question, my preference changes depending on the game I’m playing and the overall shape of the controller. Reaching for offset analog sticks can sometimes put strain on my hands, especially with something heavier like a Switch in handheld mode.

We've seen a lot of boundary-pushing ideas for controllers over the years, but not many of them have been received well. What's the secret to making an out-there controller concept work?

Carol: In our case, we had to work hard not to overthink the interaction. We started with a common object and asked, "how would people normally interact with this, and how can we use that as a game input?" So, sitting became our only input. Trying to overdesign or jam too much interaction into one object can be confusing and alienating to folks who haven't played many games or used many modern controllers. Videogames have grown to incorporate very complex systems, and have evolved to take advantage of the dozens of inputs on these small console controllers, but as someone who is constantly wondering how we can expand the medium to welcome more kinds of players, I have to acknowledge that controllers like that are not very welcoming to new players. I'd like to see controllers that are simpler and easier to use, rather than the current trend of becoming more and more complicated.

Francesca: That’s a throwback! I love the “boomerang”, it looks like something straight out of Star Trek! I totally agree with Carol about keeping things simple and focused. Really think about who this hardware is for and who will be using it. Then, look at your design and ask who won’t be able to use this? Who wouldn’t want to use this? Why? Can we iterate on this design and make it accessible to more players while continuing to fulfill our original intention?

What, in your opinion, is the best video game controller of all time, and why?

Carol: I'm pretty partial to Hellcouch, to be honest. There aren't many games you get to play with your butt. I'm also a fan of the fact that it's both a game and a cozy nap spot; the latest version of Hellcouch is actually my living room sofa, so this controller is a very important part of my life.

Francesca: That’s true! There’s not a lot of controllers you can also take a nap on, so Hellcouch definitely has that going for it! This is a really interesting question, because it’s making me realize there aren’t any mainstream console controllers I feel very strongly about. Controllers are standardized and impersonal. Once they’re in your hand they’re not meant to be looked at, the most successful controllers are ones you forget you’re holding because the interactions make sense. All of my favorite controllers are alternative controllers, because those are the ones that are meant to be looked at, enjoyed, and touched in new ways. I’ll give a quick shout out to a controller that made me particularly emotional (in a gagging and revolted sort of way). The project is called A.B.C (Already Been Chewed) by Claire Carré. The game is digital, you play it on a PC, but the star of the show is the gumtroller, a disgusting blob of chewed gum. You push into it, trying to find the buttons underneath, it’s wet and squishy, it makes awful sounds. I hate it. It’s so cool. I couldn’t even look at it, it’s so gross! I definitely had an emotional reaction to that controller and I’ll never forget it.

Carol: Oh god, yes, I will never forget that controller either—I loved watching folks play but I refused to touch it. It filled the room with this thick odor of warm, wet bubblegum. What a brilliant and disturbing object.

There's a co-op game coming out very soon called Moving Out where players have to move furniture out of chaotic settings. Do you think we could ever see a cross-over event in that game where players have to try and move Hellcouch into a van while also playing Hellcouch in-game?

Carol: Oh my god, it's too much like real life.

Francesca: I don’t want anyone else to have to experience that! It was enough that we had to do it! I’m really looking forward to Moving Out, but every time I move a couch I’ll have flashbacks.

Adaptive triggers are great but nothing's more ergonomic than a couch...

Are there any other inanimate objects you'd love to see turned into a controller?

Francesca: Everything! The neat thing about alternative controllers is that you can make sensors out of anything, I’ve seen sensors made by crocheting conductive yarn or stretching conductive goo! Every inanimate object that can be touched and interacted with can become a controller! I love installation style projects and am currently thinking about how spaces could become controllers, like hallways or rooms. The possibilities are seriously endless.

Carol: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's a really fun space to work within, especially thinking about how you can control a game by doing everyday things—play becomes so much more accessible for folks who aren't comfortable with traditional games controllers, or without a broad games literacy. I have a couple of half-baked projects that involve household objects that I'm hoping to have ready for when festivals are a thing again.

Thanks so much to Francesca and Carol for taking the time to answer our questions! Click on their names above to follow them on Twitter and keep up with the ingenious things they're creating. To hear more thoughts on the DualSense listen to the latest episode of our podcast.

Image Credits: Francesca Carletto-Leon and Carol Mertz, GamesPress, Sony Interactive Entertainment, EMI Spencer

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