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Game Changers


Jun 2023

Video game controllers have come a long way since the simple joysticks and buttons of arcade cabinets. Today, gamepads (the name for most handheld controllers you’re familiar with) are pushing the envelope of advanced electrical engineering. From haptic feedback motors to wireless communication with increasingly powerful consoles, these controllers have transformed video games from simple entertainment into immersive tactile experiences.

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Super Nintendo SNES controller

Nintendo, 1991 & 2019

Nintendo established the blueprint for gamepads in 1985 with the iconic rectangular Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) controller featuring a directional pad (d-pad) and face buttons for Start, Select, A, and B. In 1991, the Super Nintendo (SNES) controller added four more buttons and took on a (slightly) more ergonomic design. Almost 30 years later, Nintendo introduced nostalgic NES and SNES gamepads to play the original consoles’ games on Switch. We decided to compare the guts of the original and the Switch controller to see what lies beneath their identical exteriors.

The majority of internal real estate in both gamepads is taken up by circuit boards. The original circuit patterns in the original gamepad (on top) consist of basic traces and connections, with larger components spaced farther apart. We see exactly where each of the buttons makes contact with the circuit board. 

The Switch circuit board has much finer traces, densely packed components, and more intricate routing to accommodate the increased functionality and advanced features of the controller, such as the battery-powered wireless connection to the Switch console.

Zooming into the original Super Nintendo controller, we find a 12-bit shift register chip. This chip converts button inputs into digital signals that can be transmitted to the console. The connection interface is a traditional through-hole design, where the pins of the chip pass through holes in the circuit board and are soldered on the other side.

The Switch controller has more advanced connection interfaces. On the left, we see a Ball Grid Array (BGA), a type of surface-mount packaging for integrated circuits. The BGA provides a more compact and efficient way of connecting the microcontroller to the circuit board, allowing for a higher density of connections. To the right of the BGA is a Quad Flat Package (QFP) for some of its integrated circuits.

The controller cable attaches to the back of the original SNES gamepad circuit board with a soldered 5-pin joint. This solder joint ensures a secure and reliable electrical connection between the wire and the circuit board.

The newer controller features the same lithium-ion battery that’s inside the Switch Joy-Con. The battery lasts up to 20 hours in Switch, so should go even longer here because there are no haptic motors or joystick. Cropping into the battery, we can crisply visualize the location of the anode tab, connected to the positive terminal of the battery and the leads.

The evolution in engineering between these two gamepads has opened the doors to higher component density, faster assembly times, and improved electrical performance. It also facilitates automated assembly processes, reducing costs and increasing production efficiency.

For more on Nintendo’s iconic handheld gaming systems — including details of the Switch console — check out our January 2022 Scan of the Month.
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PS5 DualSense wireless controller

Sony, 2020

The PlayStation controller has changed significantly since the 1997 DualShock, which pioneered a new level of immersive control by adding a second analog stick and vibration feedback. If Nintendo provided the initial outline, Sony fleshed out the gamepad as we know it. Ever since, double joysticks and haptic motors have been standard for any controller worth its salt.

With the release of the PlayStation 5 in 2020, Sony introduced the DualSense controller, marking a major leap forward in controller technology. The DualSense features linear resonant actuators and adaptive triggers that provide variable resistance, enhancing gameplay by simulating different levels of tension and feedback in response to in-game actions. Let’s see how they work.

A linear resonant actuator is nestled in each handle of the DualSense controller. Cropping into the CT scan from the side, these rumble motors look more like an audio speaker than the usual weight spinning on a shaft. At the core, we can make out the two main elements: a voice coil and a mass. The voice coil consists of a wire wrapped around a cylindrical former. The mass, typically a small magnet or weight, is attached to the voice coil. When an electrical current passes through the voice coil, it generates a magnetic field that makes the mass oscillate along a linear path within the housing. The halo of springs you can see on the top and bottom of the housing help translate that movement into controlled vibrations.

But the DualSense’s real edge is its adaptive trigger technology, which adjusts the level of resistance you feel when you press the triggers (L2/R2), simulating the tactile sensation of interacting with different objects and environments in the digital world. The spring in the upper left activates a small gear, which turns a larger one that connects to a small motor with a worm drive. The flat plate you’re looking at is the dedicated potentiometer circuit board, which relays the player’s inputs to the PlayStation. All in a split second, the lightest pressure on the trigger returns sensations ranging from a bow tautening, a car running out of fuel, or even bugs crawling around inside the controller.

And on the face of the PS5 DualSense gamepad, just above the dual analog stick potentiometer housings, we find the touchpad, complete with the same surface-mount packages we saw in the Switch SNES controller. This responsive touchpad offers an additional layer of functionality and convenience, while the built-in microphone array allows for quick voice chats without the need for a headset.

In 2023, Sony released the DualSense Edge, which features all of the same cutting-edge internals plus an array of hardware and software-based customization options, such as remapping button inputs, adjusting stick sensitivity, swappable stick caps and back buttons, and replaceable stick modules.
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Xbox wireless controller

Microsoft, 2021

The original Xbox console was released in 2001 as Microsoft's answer to Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Nintendo’s GameCube. With its powerful hardware (the first to include a built-in hard disk), Ethernet connection, and the launch title Halo: Combat Evolved, Xbox became a massive success. A year later, Xbox Live redefined online gaming for consoles, and an entire ecosystem of multi-player games has followed in its wake. 

Though the original Xbox controller started off a little bulky, over time Microsoft has streamlined an ergonomic design with steadily refined haptic feedback and heightened precision of control. Xbox also has the distinction of having made gaming more accessible for people with disabilities with the Xbox Adaptive Controller, allowing players to use external devices such as switches, buttons, and joysticks to create a custom experience that suits their specific needs.

The two joysticks are situated at the top left and bottom right of the Xbox gamepad. Each high-strength plastic lever connects to a potentiometer and a tact switch. Housed inside this metal box, springs and tensioners measure the change in resistance and convert it into an electrical signal, which is then interpreted by the console as a specific direction and degree of movement. They also allow the joystick to spring back to the neutral position when released.

Looking at the Xbox Wireless Controller from below, we see two rumble motors with differently-sized weights. When an in-game event occurs that triggers haptic feedback, the corresponding motor spins an off-balance weight. The imbalance this creates causes the controller to vibrate. By using two motors of different sizes, the controller can create a broad spectrum of tactile feedback by varying the intensity and combination of the vibrations. The larger motor (on the left) handles powerful vibrations for high-impact events, while the smaller one (on the right) generates subtle vibrations for lighter actions.

Zooming in beyond the weighted disc in the right handle of the controller, we can closely examine the armature core of the small DC motor, which is composed of stacked laminated metal sheets. As electric current flows through the copper windings wrapped around these sheets, a magnetic field is generated around the armature. This magnetic field interacts with the magnetic field created by the stationary coils, known as the stator. The interaction between these magnetic fields causes the rotor, which includes the armature, to spin.

Unique to Xbox, each trigger has its own independent rumble motor, spring-controlled miniature versions of what we just saw in the handles. These have long been part of the Xbox gamepad design, and they do an excellent job of mimicking the sensation of pressing a car’s accelerator or brake. To the right of the motor we’ve cropped into here, you can also see the contact clamps for the AA batteries that power the controller.

Xbox’s latest and greatest custom controller is the Elite 2 (and Elite 2 Core), which offers customization across the board. You can swap out both adjustable-tension thumbsticks, the d-pad, and paddles on the back. With a wraparound rubberized grip, it offers even more ergonomic comfort than ever before.
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