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Five years later, Sony looks back at how the DualShock 4 Share button happened

Five years ago, if you pulled off an amazing Counter-Strike shot or discovered a long-hidden Easter Egg lurking in the code of your favorite game, you had to purchase hundreds of dollars worth of equipment and wrestle with fussy online platforms to share your radiant moment with the rest of the world. In today’s ever-connected world, it’s never been easier to share your incredible Overwatch streak or a funny bit of God of War dialogue through your preferred social media platform, often without even leaving the couch.

For PlayStation, nothing represents the current era of social media better than the tiny notch nestled between the digital pad and touchpad: the Share button. And although the modern replacement for the long-forgotten “Select” now stands as an integral part of Sony’s PlayStation platform, it originated not with the core PlayStation 4 design team, but a staffer at Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, Nathan Gary, who has since left the company.

“The concept of sharing was really important to the PlayStation 4 console from the start,” says Toshi Aoki, one of the key designers behind the feature. “At that time, a lot of players who were uploading game videos were using capture boards through their PCs, and it required a lot of setup. In that discussion, we had a lot of members of different departments of SCE [now known as SIE], and our game teams like Naughty Dog, Guerrilla Games, Santa Monica Studio ... In one of those discussions, Santa Monica had the idea to simply and easily share out gaming content.”

This idea came during the early discussions of the PS4, back in 2010, before livestreaming superstars were racking up thousands of subscribers, before YouTube had fully transformed into a glitzy repository of fathomless money, fame and youth — the concept of a mainstream figure like Drake sharing a virtual stage with a gaming celebrity like Ninja seemed a distant dream.

As Aoki recalls, the PS4 was designed with sharing capabilities in mind from the start. So by the time the Share button was first pitched, Sony had already decided to use a ring buffer — a circular data structure that overwrites the oldest footage first — to record the user’s last few minutes of gameplay, though the exact length varied with the day. Before that, the planned share functions had required users to dig into the PS4’s hardware menu, like on the PS3 before it. With this previous approach in mind, the concept of introducing a new button on the DualShock 4 dedicated to sharing seemed like a way of making the player’s life a little easier.

“It really resonated in the room,” Aoki says. “It obviously was a great idea, that a hardware button is incredibly easy to understand. But more than that, it’s a message for the PlayStation side of things, that users can share out, connect, show other players their epic moments. It just matched up. After that, it was easy for me to pitch that up to the executives, because it went along so well with the core PS4 concept.”

Though Aoki found it easy enough to convince the higher-ups of the appeal of the Share button, the process of designing the tech itself came with its own clutch of issues. In particular, Aoki and others in the PlayStation group found themselves distressed at the concept of adding another button to the controller, as they felt that each represented another barrier to a those less initiated into the ways of gaming. “We’re always concerned about increasing the complexity,” Aoki says. “The DualShock 3 had a lot of buttons already.”

After a series of meetings, the hardware side decided it was best to leave it up to the various game teams to decide which button to place onto the sacrificial altar, but Aoki wasn’t surprised when they ended up slicing off the oft-neglected Select button. “I mean, it’s kind of obvious,” he says, laughing. “The joke is that Start never starts the game, and Select doesn’t select anything.”

As a result, the two buttons fused to become Options, and the Share button claimed its own real estate to the left of the gesture-friendly touchpad, which Aoki’s team originally conceptualized as one of the biggest new features of the controller.

As they dived deeper into the design process, Aoki and his compatriots built prototypes with several different locations for the novel duo of Options and Share, each designed to minimize faulty fingerwork with the new touch interface. “We wanted the option for easy gesture inputs,” Aoki says. “We tried many different places — right next to the sticks or further out next to the shoulder buttons. All of those produced more mishits. The current position is a compromise between the two, but what really mitigated that concern was lowering the heights of the buttons. After a long process, that ended up being the best place for it.”

Still, even with the physical design of the button itself finalized, it wasn’t a jaunt through calm waters to launch day. As Sony began to fully embrace the Share button as one of the “killer features” of the PS4, many game developers began to express concerns about the potential for spoilers, the details of their immaculately-drawn worlds and stories spilling out across social media in an unruly mess of trolling and outrage. Aoki recalls one long meeting with first-party Sony developers that resulted in a compromise — in order to prevent their precious ships from leaking, developers got the authority to block sections of the game from broadcast, up to and including the entirety of the campaign.

“It was one of our main concerns,” he says. “On a system level, it’s really hard for us to understand what the game wants to do, so what we ended up doing was giving game developers the power to select what to block, when to block, or whether to block at all. When we would say we wanted to share everything, some developers would reply with: ‘We don’t want to share! ‘We don’t want to share!’” Aoki recalls, laughing. “[...] At the beginning, some teams were really nervous. They’d block the whole recording until you finish the game, and you could only do it on the second playthrough,” he says. “Of course, that got some negative feedback from the player side. I think the game team now realizes the potential and meaning of having a lot of players sharing the cool content out, and how that represents a positive for the game.”

In his words, this sort of thinking has largely ebbed away, with game-makers slowly shifting towards the concept of shareable content, especially from the first-party teams that he works with closely. “They’re really more positive about it,” he says. “They’re creating in-game modes that take advantage of the feature, like photo modes, or capture modes, or even editing modes. They’ve gone from ‘please don’t share!’ to ‘please share!’ because they realize that players have this creativity that they want to express through the system. When you look at the photo modes in Naughty Dog’s games, you see that they want people to share out better content, more beautiful content, than what you get in that game.” But not everyone has followed suit. One of the most notorious examples of this took place well after launch, when developer Atlus disabled all of the PS4’s share features for the entirety of its iconoclastic role-playing game Persona 5, claiming that it would ruin the game for the dedicated fans who had waited almost a decade for its release.

Still, to Aoki speaking generally, not just developers have come around to the idea of sharing — it’s changed the ways that players behave, too, even when they don’t even have a controller in their hand. At launch, the PlayStation team was happy to find people sharing video clips and screenshots of the likes of InFamous: Second Son, though it was surprised by the volume of players using the Share functionality to broadcast themselves doing everything but playing games. “There would be no gameplay,” Aoki says. “People would just criticize the games, or host talk shows. Of course, there was inappropriate content that we had to block. But we wanted to support those creative people, because that was really a use we hadn’t even thought of.”

Even five years ago, the notion of using your video game console to broadcast yourself just hanging out, talking about the latest video game — rather than just simply playing it — was virtually unthinkable to Aoki and the rest of the team, a testament to how quickly the surge of livestreaming has broken and flooded over the world.

As Aoki looks back over the five years since the PS4’s launch in November 2013, he says that the simple innovation of easy sharing remains one of the console’s lingering legacies, especially since consumers now regard such features as standard in the industry — including more recent additions, like SharePlay, which allows players to grant control to their friends, perhaps for a tricky boss fight. But while each step towards building a better sharing ecosystem has brought its own unique pitfalls — “I seem to recall one player taking control and deleting his friend’s data. Obviously, that’s bad,” Aoki recalls — altogether, he feels that the slow arc of development has generally curved towards a more connected gaming experience, to the point where he thinks it enriches the games themselves, whether or not players even realize it.

“Because of all the content you see on the various social networks, even when you’re playing God of War, you think, ‘oh, I didn’t see that quest, or that enemy, or that scene, or that beautiful waterfall. I’m gonna do that.’ It creates that mode for people to go back and play again, to try to see different paths. It opens up the depth of gameplay and story for people to explore more. Games are becoming more open world, as opposed to just a linear story, and I think sharing has absolutely helped with that.”