Recently, PlayStation explains to the UI/UX Director of Returnal here at Housemarque. My role in the project has been both taking part in the design and overseeing and supporting the work done by the team.
The developer Johannes Koski has the privilege to work with a diverse multi-disciplinary group of amazing designers, artists, programmers, and audio specialists. They’ve just launched a game that has been my ultimate dream project since he was a little kid, so he was super excited to be able to share something about our game’s UX.
The goal of a game’s UI is pretty straightforward: it guides the player and supports the game. In other words, it gives the player all the necessary information and tools they need to understand and enjoy the game’s mechanics and at the same time, it supports the game’s artistic core and storytelling with aesthetic means.
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Now, PlayStation’s Housemarque hopes you are all enjoying Returnal. they’re so amazed by and grateful for the responses so far. I want to thank you on behalf of the entire team.
In Returnal their goal was to use the DualSense wireless controller to provide a physical experience of feeling, fighting, and exploring Atropos. They wanted to add texture and feedback both in terms of gameplay but also bring a new level of immersion and atmosphere.
For the technical side and implementation, they have Harvey Scott, one of our amazing sound designers from PlayStation Studios’ Creative Services Group in London contributing to this post. Harvey was a key sound designer for the haptic feedback in Returnal, and a lot of what you feel in the game is Harvey’s amazing work. More from him later in the article.
During production, our teams were some of the first in the world to experience and learn about PlayStation 5 at Housemarque. I remember clearly our XDEV Producer Pedro Sousa showed us some technical demos from teams in Japan, and he inspired us and drove us to make the most of this technology. Users were all struck by the DualSense controller prototype and the potential presented by haptics and adaptive triggers.
With the adaptive triggers on the DualSense controller, our Player Team at Housemarque performed lots of tests and research into how they could use this new functionality in Returnal. They had amazing weaponry on Atropos and using the adaptive triggers for this firepower was a natural fit.
Henri Markus, the game designer, researched and spent a lot of time with the adaptive triggers, and eventually, Henri and Harri Tikkanen, co-founder of Housemarque, came up with the alt-fire trigger functionality – pull halfway to focus aim, feel the satisfying click, and then all the way down to enter the alt-fire mode.
Less than a week after receiving the PS5 development kit and our own prototype of the controller, the feature was in the game. At first, implementation didn’t click for us. However, as they tested, refined, and polished, it all came together.
Next up, Harvey Scott, a sound designer who worked on Returnal, explains how Returnal’s soundscape ties together with the DualSense controller to make a truly immersive experience:
The DualSense controller’s haptic feedback is powered by technology that makes it similar to that of a loudspeaker or headphones. This means that as a sound designer, I can take the same principles and techniques used for designing sound and apply them to creating interesting haptic feedback experiences.
When they first began working on Returnal they had to realize the full potential of the DualSense controller, whilst also staying true to the other design pillars of the game, and above all, creating the best possible experience for the players exploring Atropos with Selene.
The immediate new potential the DualSense controller brought to the table is the ability to fully convince and immerse players with haptic feedback detail that simply was not possible before. We can now provide subtle details that cross the threshold for what the hands and brain believe to be real and truly bring the player’s consciousness into the world on screen.
As an example, the rain in Returnal is complemented by subtle raindrop haptic pulses, that are procedurally synthesized at runtime, which allowed us to refine and tweak the feel of them on the fly whilst playing in-game. The end result of that approach is that along with the visuals and audio, the haptic sensations produced by the DualSense controller give your subconscious brain yet another indication that it really is in the world of Atropos, standing in the rain.
Another key element of the haptic experience in Returnal is making sure the player can really feel their control over Selene’s movement during gameplay.
Along with immersion, communication via haptics is yet another key game design tool unlocked by the DualSense controller, allowing us to telegraph critical cues during combat in new and attention-grabbing ways.
An interesting concept in Returnal that they wanted to communicate to players is parasites, which can grant beneficial traits to a player, but also ones that will actively damage you.
When talking about what we wanted to convey via the DualSense controller in Returnal, we tried to use the full dynamic range of the haptic feedback capabilities and in doing so reserved power for when it was needed. Whilst the DualSense controller is capable of producing delicate raindrops, it’s often surprising that it is also able to produce jolts of power.
For example, Returnal’s alt-fire ability known as Killsight produces an immensely powerful single-shot projectile that devastates enemies as it travels through them at high velocity. To convey that level of focused power, they maximize the intensity of that haptic pulse so it stands out from all other haptic feedback, giving your hands a real sense of kickback and selling the power behind that ability’s potential for damage.
So, although it may be tempting to give every aspect of the game haptic feedback that turns the DualSense controller’s power up to 11, by reserving it only for the right moment the developers can help ensure that Returnal provides a huge range of different tactile sensations from individual raindrops, to the sensation of releasing arcing bolts of electricity that shatter Selene’s foes with immense power