After getting our first, mind-blowing hands on with the PS5
's controller and Astro's Playroom
, we sat down with Nicholas Doucet
, Studio Director at SIE Worldwide Studios
, Japan Studio
. The topics of discussion: Grade-A geek level nostalgia, the pressures of making a “built-in” game and becoming a bold explorer of a whole new way to play.
Before I'm given the go ahead to talk to the man (arguably) most responsible for Astro's Playroom, Sony PR insists I play an hour of it on a PS5 beforehand. And I do mean instead of Spider-Man: Miles Morales
or Demon's Souls
Don't even get me started.
On the one hand, I figure a bit more familiarity with the product would make perfect sense in a Q&A scenario. On the other, it still feels redundant – my uninformed understanding of Astro's is that it's a tech demo. I imagine it'll be yet another attempt to teach me how to use a DualSense, typically via adorable on-screen robots. This I could do without.
How wrong (and somewhat stupid) I felt after having actually played it. If Sony would have let me, I would have spent the entire day playing Astro's Playroom to 100% completion. The power of the DualSense controller – particularly in its mind-blowing haptics – is not a smoke and mirrors show. The feedback it produces is so novel and so nuanced, it makes ordinary in-game things like walking – freakin' walking
– a borderline magical experience.
Much like I did when I took off the PSVR after my very first session with it, when I put down the DualSense I caught myself wondering: how the hell am I going to articulate this new experience to readers. Then I realised, with much relief, that if I'm smart I don't have to. I'll just get the man himself – Nicholas Doucet, Studio Director at SIE Worldwide Studios, Japan Studio – to do it for me.
Basic Performance and Controls
: For our readers who are coming to this title fresh, what would be your synopsis for Astro's Playroom?
: Sure. Astro's Playroom is a pre-installed game for PlayStation 5. It's also a game that showcases all of the features of DualSense working together. This new controller has tons and tons of functionality – the haptic feedback, the adaptive triggers and improved upon previous features, like motion-sensing. The haptics, in particular, are difficult to explain in words, but once you kind of try it – the sort of surfaces and materials which may be felt through it – it's really one of the main focuses of this title.
"The haptics, in particular, are difficult to explain in words, but once you kind of try it – the sort of surfaces and materials which may be felt through it – it's really one of the main focuses."
: So, I imagine when you develop a game – any game – there's a certain degree of pressure to perform. But then there's the rarer, once-in-a-generation project that is developing a piece of software that every user of the console will boot up. You're a multi-award winning studio, but even still, did you feel an increased sense of pressure?
: Oh yeah, of course. It's pressure but it's also opportunities. Because we're based in Japan and have this very close relationship with the hardware division, it gave us this unique situation to get our hands on this controller prototype very early on and try a lot of things.
We've actually been prototyping for over two years on this. We ended up with a huge collection of tech demos of all sorts, which in turn made us excited to be given the chance to put some of them in front of users. The challenge, of course, was making all of them work together [in a cohesive package]. Some of the tech demos were first person, others were character controls and I recall one that was racing (to see if you could feel the road conditions via haptics). So yeah, the challenge was adapting what we had around a single genre. We wanted to avoid having just a loose collection of mini-games.
: From what little I can gather after only an hour's worth of Astro's Playroom, it's a relatively short experience whose replaybility is greatly enhanced by sniffing out coins and collectables. Do you have a rough internal estimate of how long it'll take to 100%?
I think 4 to 5 hours to finish the game is the “classic playtime” estimate. The section you would have sampled for an hour was Cooling Springs – it's one of four “component worlds” branching off from our lobby space, the CPU Plaza. Complete the other areas that unlock and branch off from there and you'll also see a final area.
The Insane Fan Service Within
: Fair enough. And hey -- speaking as an obsessive collector of gaming peripherals and paraphernalia, I have to say: amazing job on the [90+] unlockable mini-models. Did you hand pick and curate those bits of retro Sony hardware? Or was it a case of, “well if it was ever an official peripheral, we're just gonna include it?”
: You're the first person to ask and I'm glad you did because I'm a massive collector as well. Working on this project has been very satisfying for me, purely from a nostalgia point of view.
Selecting what goes in has been a case by case basis thing. Of course we couldn't feature every single iteration or version of every PlayStation console ever released – it would just be too much. So we went for the original launch hardware as it was first released. For example: for PS3 you get to unlock a 3D model of the fat version (which, incidentally, if you flick up on the touchpad it opens up the memory card bay to show you all the slots).
"We've actually been prototyping for over two years on this. We ended up with a huge collection of tech demos of all sorts, which in turn made us excited to be given the chance to put some of them in front of users."
In terms of the peripherals, it was just as difficult. We couldn't include every single thing ever made [for the PS One, PS2, PS3 and PS4]. So we tried to come up with a list that made sense to users around the world. I mean, regardless of the region you're in, the collectibles set is the same, but you may see some things that weren't released near you. For example: I'm thinking of the PocketStation – that lovely designed PS One memory card with an LCD screen that only came out in Japan.
: The level of detail in those mini models is downright painstaking. I mean, you guys even went so far as to replicate the serial number and warranty warning stickers on the back of them, yeah?
: [Laughs] We sure did. That's been really fun. And again, working with the hardware division over the decades, it's been interesting trying to track down physical examples of these peripherals. We've been really lucky to have some super passionate modellers who have really wanted to jump on the chance to faithfully recreate stuff. And they've done amazing things where even the fonts of the stickers are accurate and the surface materials used give off the same reflective sheen you'd see in real-life.
: I also loved spotting a ton of incidental Easter Eggs that are cheeky nods to some of PlayStation's most iconic heroes. You'll probably want to keep most of them secret, but what can you say about them in a general sense?
: I mean a few have already been shown in the broadcast demo already, so we can talk about some of them...
: OK. Personal favourite: I saw one Astro bot wearing a bandana and hiding in a cardboard box that said Solid State. Amazing hardware pun...
: Oh yeah, he's a new one that was put in recently! The other ones you'll find in there are mostly from Sony owned intellectual properties, because there were already so many for us to treat. That said, we did pick a handful of iconic [third-party] IPs – maybe a dozen or so – which had a strong impact on the PlayStation landscape. You just know you're going to find some Final Fantasy in there!
All About Haptics
: Now, obviously the haptics and triggers are the main focus of this piece of showcase software. There are some really cool instances of how the tech can be used in gameplay. I'm just wondering, though, what was your balance between showing off cool examples, but also holding back on a few ideas. Just to give other devs a moment to shine with their own haptics ideas?
: There are a number of strong 'use cases' that we've not featured in the game. Sometimes for the reason you described – perhaps we're not the best game to feature this technique and another dev could do a better job. But also because of the sheer amount [of tech demos] that we had. Some couldn't be made to fit in a cohesive way.
Generally speaking though, I think that when there's a very strong example of an idea early on, everybody will then race to improve upon it next time. So there's no holding back in terms of “we don't want to step on the toes of other devs” or that we might be pushing too far and leaving nothing left, sort of thing.
This is especially true in terms of haptic feedback. My feeling is that in the years to come the way it's implemented – or at least our knowledge and our understanding of it – will have improved to a distant point from where we are now. Haptics are definitely a feature that will evolve over the course of the generation. I mean, I've seen how much it's evolved already, just in the last 18 months.
"My feeling is that in the years to come the way it's implemented – or at least our knowledge and our understanding of it – will have improved to a distant point from where we are now."
Quick example: early on we were trialing a new 'haptic expression', we would put it into the game and realise that it was beginning to “talk over” another one. That would then take away the sensation of what we wanted the user to feel. The solution became to separate them and give them priorities, one over the other. That's a logical approach in hindsight, but at the beginning we figured we could just throw everything at [the user through the DualSense].
When we [as developers] achieve a better understanding of haptics, that balance of them, I think that over time the rhythm and the tempo of how they can be used will develop into even more elegant ways. I can imagine that haptic feedback is going to take us to new places as well. I mean we're already considering “what does haptics 2.0 look/feel like for the next wave of games coming up?” There's still a wide range of things we can do.
How Haptics Will Become a Game Changer
: While I have you, I'm wondering if you might be able to provide some insight in terms of design document language about haptics. Because the critic in me realised early on that the phrase, “you do action X in the game and the controller will RUMBLE” doesn't even come close to encapsulating the experience to somebody else. You mentioned “haptics expression” back there – do you and your team have more nuanced terms or phrases to better explain what's being felt through the DualSense?
: Expression is definitely a term we use a lot. You're trying to get either a texture across to the player or a situation. For example: we have a sandstorm section in our game and a moment elsewhere where rain starts. In the first you feel buffeted by the wind and in the other you feel the pitter patter of droplets “on” the DualSense. You can close your eyes – and this is a good test that we do – to feel that haptic expression of rain.
"We have a sandstorm section in our game and a moment elsewhere where rain starts. In the first you feel buffeted by the wind and in the other you feel the pitter patter of droplets 'on' the DualSense."
Obviously “feeling” is a very strong word we use here as well. You would have experienced it in the demo when you're running on the various different surfaces, transitioning across them. That's something we want you to feel a lot in Astro's Playroom.
: I did. I was also very, very impressed when I made my avatar straddle two different floor surfaces and walk along with each of his feet landing on either material. I was pretty amazed that I could feel the difference between them, tracked through the left and right hemispheres of the DualSense.
: I'm glad you got that experience. Left and right [haptics] are indeed separated. So when you're swimming through the water and your legs are splashing, you'll be feeling a distinctive left and a right splash (to match the on-screen animation).
Actually, here's an extension to your question. This haptic feedback now means that our audio designers (who already do a big job) have increased importance, because these vibrations are sound-based. To begin with, we assigned [the field of haptics] to gameplay programmers because they're very technical and astute people. But over time the thought became, well the audio specialists should be the ones we need to slowly migrate to this new system.
"This haptic feedback now means that our audio designers (who already do a big job) have increased importance, because these vibrations are sound-based."
Usually, an audio designer would be handed an animation or an in-game situation that they would then need to add audio to. Now, it's more along the lines of having to create audio[/haptics] along with the gameplay, from the very, very beginning. So all of a sudden your audio specialist is being really dragged into the core of the design process. I believe that this is going to change the way teams will be organised, going forward.
: That is interesting. Also, I couldn't put my finger on exactly how, but it felt like it wasn't just the haptics themselves that were “selling” what I was seeing on-screen and feeling through my hands. The sounds coming from the DualSense's in-built speaker were clearly playing a part and doing some lifting there. A symbiosis of sorts.
: That's right. So you have the sound of the TV, the sound of the controller and the [haptic] “sound” that is inaudible and yet you can feel it. The number of sounds we have to create for the game has definitely increased, and it's quite important to select sounds that work together. Furthermore, it's worth noting that all three are not the same – what you hear from your TV, versus the speaker and the haptics are all distinctly different elements.
I'm trying not to get too technical here. But yeah, depending on how you mix the frequencies, you can achieve these really homogenous feelings or expressions to the player.
: Nicholas, you've given me quite a bit to ponder. Thanks very much for your work on Astro's and for your time here today.
: The pleasure was all mine!