Joysticks are great. I grew up with 8-bit and 16-bit Nintendo systems, with their four-way directional pads, and I attribute a conservative 800 deaths and losses to their unforgiving, thumb-pinching nature. When I first held my college roommate’s gargantuan XBOX controller, it was a revelation. You nudge the stick just a bit, and Master Chief moves just a bit, in that specific direction.
It feels like magic, until it feels completely broken. That’s what has happened inside far too many Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons, during the worst possible time. And now it’s seemingly happening to the still-very-new PlayStation 5 DualSense controller. Drifting joysticks are sending people’s games wandering off in unexpected directions. Like Nintendo, Sony’s solution is to mail your controller to them for a fix. Like always, we humbly suggest that people should be able to fix these things themselves, at home, without forcing them to buy a backup or go without, especially during a pandemic.
Joysticks—or thumbsticks, or (slightly erronously) Joy-Cons, or just sticks—have been around in the modern era since the N64 arrived with one in 1996 (the PlayStation picked up two sticks in 1997). Despite the many advances in gaming tech since then, joysticks are still mostly analog devices. You press a stick in a direction, and two objects move in a column underneath the stick. Those objects could be potentiometers, twisting and changing the amount of voltage in a circuit. Or, in the case of the Nintendo Switch, you are moving two little butterfly clips along sensitive contact pads underneath (see below). Another small piece of tech constantly monitors and translates your stick movements into x/y coordinate data. When you’re not pressing, springs shove the stick back to a neutral center position.
Or, at least, that’s how they’re supposed to work. A lot can go wrong with tiny, constantly moving mechanical parts, packed into devices where space is both limited and formed by ergonomic demands. We don’t have a definitive answer why the sticks on a console many people still can’t buy yet are showing signs of failure, while the joysticks on N64 controllers from 1996 often work perfectly fine. Is it wild to guess that devices in heavy demand, produced during a global supply chain disruption, under an utterly inflexible deadline, could have seen mishaps along the way? We shall see.
What is wild is how, under those same trying circumstances, the only repair option for fixing a controller that turns Miles Morales into a twitchy, indecisive failure is mailing it to Sony. Just getting to that point is painful, too. Ari Nortis at games blog Kotaku ran the gauntlet for their readers, bringing back this sad report:
When I tried hitting up support, I was told to reach out to a customer service agent via the contact page for PlayStation support. In a conversation over instant messages, an agent told me to call 1-800-345-7669 and press 1 for PS5. I did so, and then listened to, no joke, a dozen different pre-recorded messages informing me that PlayStation support is not the place to inquire about finding a PS5. I was then kicked over to hold. … Once I eventually made it through to a person, I was told that DualSense drift is covered under warranty. You will, however, have to pay for shipping your controller to a Sony repair center—a cost that varies based on a number of factors, including location and the total weight of your package—but Sony apparently covers the return shipping. No recoup on whatever you pay for that first shipping label.
This tiring, log-jammed repair process is due largely to Sony’s decision to solder the joystick modules to the board inside the DualSense controller, and attempt to keep PlayStation repair entirely in-house. The PS5 controller is generally easy to get into, and many parts come out without a hassle. But the joysticks aren’t going anywhere.
It’s not impossible for someone to de-solder and re-solder joystick modules at home—we have a PS4 controller replacement guide from iFixit contributor/all-star oldturkey03 that shows a similar fix—but it requires tools and materials not everyone will have. In any case, you can’t get replacement joysticks yet, because Sony doesn’t sell them, and few if any PS5 units have made it to the repair/recycle/resale market.
Designing a device so the parts that take the most wear can be most easily replaced makes better sense. After the first iPhone, a miserable device to work inside, Apple started to prioritize access for screens and batteries. Sensible laptops made for business deployment, like HP’s Elite series, still have batteries, memory, and storage that you can get to with common tools. Game controllers are no longer kids’ toys, and deserve the same kind of repair-forward design and replaceable parts.
Nintendo’s Joy-Con joystick drift debacle is ongoing, and Nintendo still asks customers to mail in their Joy-Cons for repair (something that was impossible to do when they shut down repair centers at the first surge of the coronavirus). My friend is debating whether to send in a second pair for a drift fix, while having already purchased third-party replacements. And yet people with all kinds of repair experience can swap out their Joy-Con joystick—something we demonstrated by having our editorial team fix their own Joy-Cons on-camera with our Joy-Con fix kit. It’s not perfect, but it’s far better.
Maybe a design or production problem is the culprit for PS5 controllers drifting. But Sony, Microsoft, and other console makers should design controllers so that the parts that take a beating can also be replaced. Give people the parts and manuals so they can fix their stuff, and help them avoid waiting in yet another queue to get to their games.