Right at the start of 2023, I published an episode of Access-Ability talking about aspects of gaming accessibility that I wanted to see the video game industry make standardized industry wide going forward.
One of the topics that I discussed in that video was Co-Pilot Mode, a feature on Xbox consoles that allows two controllers to be registered as a single player on a system level, which enables increased gaming accessibility in a few different ways, from allowing more varied controller setups for a single disabled user, to allowing a second player to assist with gameplay features without the primary player having to hand over their controls entirely.
We knew at the time that Co-Pilot mode support on PS5 was theoretically possible, because while it hadn’t been implemented on a system level, it had been included in a first party developed PlayStation 5 game the previous year, 2022’s Horizon Forbidden West. The question was, would PlayStation take the step to make it a system level feature going forward?
We actually had a positive update to this story pretty early in 2023, when PlayStation announced that the PS5 Access Controller was in development.
Initially revealed as Project Leonardo, PlayStation’s answer to the Xbox Adaptive Controller would, when released at the end of 2023, support the player using up to two Access Controllers, and a DualSense controller, all as a single player input, mirroring the functionality of Co-Pilot mode on Xbox, but for up to three simultaneous devices.
Still, it was unclear if this functionality would be extended to support two DualSense controllers without an Access Controller, or whether it would arrive before the release of the Access Controller itself at the end of the year.
That was why it was such positive news when, earlier this week, an update on the PlayStation blog announced that as part of the newest PlayStation 5 Firmware Beta, select players would be getting access to, among other updates, “Assist Controller” support, which seems to be PS5’s answer to system level Co-Pilot mode on Xbox.
I was lucky enough to get access to that new beta, and have been playing around with Assist Controller mode on PS5. As such, I now have a decent idea how it stacks up when compared directly to Co-Pilot Mode on Xbox.
So, let’s dig into a little history on what Co-Pilot mode is, and how PlayStation’s alternative solution compares.
Originally added to the Xbox One as part of an update in early 2017, Co-Pilot Mode basically allows an Xbox console to assign two controllers to the same player, effectively having them both recognised as the same controller at the same time. This is done on a system level, so game developers don’t have to put any effort at all into making it work with their games. Every game, first or third party, released on Xbox Consoles, supports this feature.
The same seems to be true of Assist Controller mode on PS5, which by all indications and all of the etsting I did works across all games, regardless of developer input.
Co-Pilot mode and Assist Controller mode each allow for two people to divide up in-game actions between them. This might sound obvious, but it allows for circumventing a lot of common accessibility issues that crop up in games.
Let’s say you’re playing an action game that features no option to disable quick time events or button mashing sequences that you personally cannot complete. You can hand a second controller to a friend, play the game 100% solo, and have that friend there simply to jump on any quick time moments when they pop up. You don’t have to scramble to throw the controller to a friend with no warning, they’ve already got the controller, ready to do that one bit of gameplay the developers didn’t give you the option to disable.
If a game itself doesn’t let you avoid an aspect of its gameplay mechanics, and you have a friend around, you can simply give someone else responsibility for those actions on a separate controller.
While in a perfect world we wouldn’t need to overcome accessibility barriers this way, this kind of system level support helps overcome certain shortcomings in games not designed to be inherently accessible.
Beyond that, Co-Pilot and Assist Controller mode both allow disabled players the option to spread their controls out into positions that they may find more comfortable to reach. With a single regular controller your buttons are all set in static fixed positions, and if the position of a button button isn’t accessible, you’re out of luck.
Co-Pilot mode on Xbox allows for players to spread their buttons and sticks out, and with system level remapping even change stick and button mappings independently per controller. If you can’t use one of your hands to operate one of your analogue sticks, you could place a second controller on the floor and use your foot to move that analogue stick. You could place a controller sideways on the table and map your triggers onto its face buttons. There’s no end to the ways that you could orient and map a second controller, to offer new ways to access certain button inputs, which allows for a lot more player setup control.
At present, in Beta, this is the main area where PlayStation’s Assist Controller feature falls a little short of Co-Pilot Mode. Yes, you can spread your inputs out across two controllers, BUT the functionality is a little less versatile, because Assist Controller mode does not allow for independent button remapping of each controller. You get one button remapping profile which applies to both controllers, meaning that layouts where one controller for example is rotated sideways, with the right direction on an analogue stick remapped to become up, are not possible on the current build’s implementation of assist controller.
This has a lot more implications than you maybe realise, in that it also prevents things like remapping the triggers on a second controller to be accessed using the face buttons. There’s a lot of things that co-pilot mode can do that assist controller mode currently can’t do because of it only having one button map.
Co-Pilot mode is particularly useful on Xbox Consoles as well, because of the fact that the Xbox Adaptive controller exists, a modular controller that allows for first and third party peripherals to be hooked up to create custom disability focused controller layouts. By allowing players to tell their console that their regular Xbox controller and their Adaptive Controller are one and the same, Players are able to integrate their existing controller into their accessible setup, and in some cases avoid purchasing extra peripherals. If you’re a gamer who for example simply can’t use your controller’s triggers, you could use the regular controller as normal, then press the two big buttons of the Adaptive Controller with your feet in place of those triggers.
While this is not currently the case on PS5, the PS5 Access Controller releases on December 6th 2023, and we know up front that this sort of functionality will be supported on PS5. The button layout of the PS5 Access Controller can be remapped and customised, hopefully independently of a DualShock that’s also part of that setup.
Co-Pilot mode is one of those wonderfully helpful accessibility features that seriously comes with no drawbacks. Assist Controller support on PS5 looks from all accounts like it takes a “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to emulating Co-Pilot mode support, with one small drawback currently present but otherwise largely identical in functionality.
While not yet available to every PS5 gamer, with the software update being rolled out more widely later this year, this is a great sign that one of my main wishes for video game accessibility standardisation this year is starting to come to pass.
We really want to push for this to be better, it would be great to see PlayStation allow for independent button remapping for both controllers, but this is still a positive step forward and it’s going to really help.
Now if Nintendo would catch up with the competition and implement similar functionality on their consoles, that would be great.