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Interview: The designer of Astro's Playroom talks about the PlayStation 5's DualSense

By Tim Augustin & Aaron Yip - 5 Nov 2020

Interview: The designer of Astro's Playroom talks about the PS5's DualSense

Image: PlayStation Studios

It’s time to talk about the PlayStation 5 game we’re all going to play. 

When you first set up your PlayStation 5 console, you might notice a fun little game already pre-installed and ready to be played. This game is Astro’s Playroom, a snazzy sequel to Japan Studio’s VR game Astro Bot Rescue Mission. It’s so much more than a fun platformer to kick off your next-gen gaming adventures, however - it’s also a showcase of the PlayStation 5’s new DualSense controller.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with the head of PlayStation Japan Studio, Nicolas Doucet, to talk about Astro’s Playroom, which will be the very first next-gen game you’ll play on the PlayStation 5. 

 

Greatness from 80 tech demos

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. Astro’s Playroom is a platformer game - think Super Mario Odyssey - where you play as a cute little robot collecting coins and exploring levels. These levels are filled to the brim with easter eggs celebrating 25 years of PlayStation history, and also designed to show off the new DualSense controller’s capabilities. 

So how was it made? According to Doucet, it started with his team and PlayStation’s hardware division being physically close to each other. “We’re based in Japan and the hardware division is also based in Japan, along with the engineers making mechanical prototypes of the new controller. We happened to be working really closely together,” he explains. While most of the team worked on Astro Bot Rescue Mission, a smaller team worked on tech demos for the new controller. 

“We ended up doing about 80 of these tech demos,” Doucet says. “The tech demo could be really simple, like shooting an arrow using the new controller and adaptive triggers.” He stresses that at this point, these demos were fairly bare-bones - not done in the style of Astro Bot, and in fact, not visually impressive at all. The team was simply experimenting with gameplay prototypes, and ended up with a collection of different demos. Some of them were first-person and third-person, while others centred on driving and flying. 

Image: PlayStation Studios

“When the option to work on this preloaded game came up, we just thought that it was a real privilege to introduce so many people to this new hardware,” Doucet excitedly says, adding that the natural next step would be to convert their demos into a collection of minigames. “But we wanted to challenge that and make something meatier.”

This would be quite the transition from Astro Bot Rescue Mission, however. “As strange as it sounds, our team had no experience making non-VR or non-AR games. That’s all we have ever made,” he admitted. “With the DualSense, it was all about the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. We started from there, and then built situations around the hardware. If you feel like it’s been designed for the controller, that’s because it was.”

 

Astro’s Playroom and the DualSense go hand in hand

Image: PlayStation Studios

The team behind Astro’s Playroom put their all into making a game that didn’t feel like a glorified tech demo, but also served to show off everything the DualSense controller can do. The controller is a big departure from the earlier DualShock controllers, both in size and tech. Controller vibration is far more accurate, and its adaptive triggers can now fight back against you with varying degrees of pressure, simulating different in-game actions. 

This might be a little jarring to experience coming from earlier console generations, but the game serves as a neat little introduction to what you can expect from the DualSense. Still, it was a tricky balancing act for Doucet’s team to make a game that both highlighted the DualSense’s features and felt fun to play on its lonesome. “We have to be measured and careful, so the game doesn’t feel suffocated by tech demo gimmicks. At the same time, the game is there to be an ambassador for the new technology. It can’t just be a normal game.”

The PlayStation 5’s new technology allowed Astro’s Playroom to shine in ways it otherwise wouldn’t have. While a lot of the design decisions Japan Studio made was centred around the controller, the new console provided plenty of new opportunities in development. “The loading is almost invisible, to the point that we were entering levels and respawning too quickly. I had concerns that it would be too much for the player, because when you die in a game, you usually have a moment to collect your thoughts and try again. Now with the SSD being so fast, you can literally have instant retries,” Doucet explained. 

“So that was an interesting conversation, because we purposefully delayed the respawn times to give people a break.” Doucet did seem interested in fully utilising the SSD’s power someday however, saying, “In the future, we could actually make something built around the SSD. The structure would be different.”

 

Celebrating 25 years of PlayStation history

Image: PlayStation Studios

Putting the platformer and tech demo-y aspects of Astro’s Playroom aside for a moment, the game also shines as a dazzling celebration of 25 years of PlayStation history. Almost every element in the game is either a reference to the PlayStation 5 console itself, or the consoles and iconic games that came before it. “We’re going to be pre-installed in every console that has a 25-year history,” Doucet said. “We’ve never celebrated this history in a videogame to that degree, but we can now.”

The game features 50 collectible artifacts that players can find in all of its nooks and crannies, each pointing to an iconic moment in PlayStation history. You’ll also find 96 puzzle pieces that make up a panorama detailing the history of PlayStation, all the way from the first console to the last. “We love PlayStation as much as the gamers do,” Doucet says. “That’s why we did things this way.”

Astro’ Playroom will have you dive into the PlayStation 5 console itself, which is why its environments are all themed after the console’s hardware. Cooling Springs for example, is a level that pulls you into the next-gen console’s cooling hardware - though you might’ve guessed that from its icy theme. Japan Studio’s, “art direction Bible,” as Doucet puts it, dictated that all of these environments and their gameplay elements felt as authentic as possible. 

Image: PlayStation Studios

“If you think about it, inside the console, there should be no organic materials. There can’t be wood or stone, for example. However, you can find carbon fiber and crystal-like materials, which exist in physical devices. The materials are important in this game, because they define the DualSense’s haptic feedback.”

Being that strict with environmental materials meant that the designers had to jump through logical hoops to include them in the game. The water you’re swimming in for example, is cooling fluid. When you’re in mud, you’re actually in thermal paste. From far away, you’d be forgiven for mistaking environments as simple sandy beaches and icescapes, but that really isn't the case. “When you look at the details, everything is actually made up of materials found in product design,” Doucet says proudly. 

 

Japan Studio strikes again

Image: PlayStation Studios

Astro’s Playroom offers a little something for everyone, it seems. Older fans of PlayStation will likely derive nostalgia from the game’s many easter eggs, while newer fans will just have fun bouncing around as Astro in its gorgeous levels. Above it all though, this game serves as a unique introduction to the DualSense controller - a device that might shape how we perceive the next generation of PlayStation gaming. 

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