As you probably know, Microsoft's Project Natal and Sony's Arc (rumored name) face inevitable launch this Fall. Given the Wii's extraordinary success bringing affordable motion controls into the family market (using cheap airbag-style accelerometers, no less), it's easy to see why Microsoft and Sony are putting so much time and money into creating the "next generation" of 1:1 motion controls.
But did either company ever stop to think whether these peripherals are really going to change the way consumers view their products? And have consumers figured out what exactly motion controls add to the gaming experience?
Followers of my blog (poor souls) will recall my criticism of Atari's ill-fated and wasteful development of a VR peripheral for its Jaguar console:
Even worse was the idea of an extremely complex, motion-tracking VR headset, much publicized at trade shows but which never surfaced save for incomplete prototypes. Again, the idea itself was novel—in the same way Sega's ill-fated hologram arcade titles seemed novel—but the demand for VR technology wasn't strong enough to account for Atari's research and development focus.
Again, the demand for seemingly "immersive" motion controls is now much higher thanks to the Wii, but that doesn't mean that such demand will transfer accordingly to the 360 and PS3. In fact, I'm rather surprised Sony hasn't learned a lesson from their own under-utilized Six Axis controller technology, which was a hasty attempt at beating the 360 to Nintendo's newly broadened market. Remember Lair, the game that was nigh-unplayable until a patch added analog controls? Or Uncharted's use of motion controls for aiming grenade tosses, a mechanic that was wisely replaced in the sequel?
In fact, the PS3's Flower may be the one truly successful use of the technology, but I fail to see how the game could not be done equally well with regular controls. At the very least, the motion control interface is hardly an integral part of what makes Flower such a wondrous experience. It's the visual and aural sense of flight… not the fact that the player is waving his/her controller all over the place.
Sony and Microsoft obviously have the budget to bring these tools to fruition and even hook a few early adopters in on their way to store shelves. But keeping in mind Atari's VR helmet, I wonder if Natal and Arc are going to be similarly misguided exercises in catering to consumer whimsy and adoration for fads.
Let's look back at some motion-style controls and unique interfaces that failed to fully deliver on promises of exceptional game experiences. Then, perhaps, we can come to some determination as to how successful Natal and Arc can be, and what Sony and Microsoft need to do to create truly useful peripherals.
Sure, the NES Zapper wasn't the first light gun for use with console games or home computers (Magnovox Odyssey, for any trivia buffs), and light guns had been used for years in arcades and shooting galleries. But Nintendo's Zapper is by far the peripheral most synonymous with this particular brand of motion technology, with Namco's GunCon perhaps a distant second. I'm guessing many a video game player feels pangs of nostalgia whenever the Zapper is mentioned, recalling fond memories of playing Duck Hunt in the family den, but here are some things you may not recall: 1. It was horribly inaccurate, relying on simplistic light-difference detection; and 2. out of the hundreds and hundreds of NES games, only seventeen supported it. I dare you to name three or more (not counting Duck Hunt) without consulting an internet resource.
Since the release of the Zapper, other, more powerful light gun peripherals have been released, some quite sleek (the aforementioned GunCon, the Dreamcast Gun released in Europe and Asia), and others less so (Nintendo's Super Scope, the Atari XG-1, anything made by Mad Catz). The question, however, is whether this particular form of motion control has added anything to gaming that couldn't have been achieved with a mouse. I'd like to think that for all the minor successes of console light gun gaming (particularly Time Crisis 1-3 and House of the Dead 2), the latest light gun games have pretty much solidified the marginal status of this technology. Wii light gun games use the Wiimote as a mouse substitute, complete with free-moving cursor, and Namco's Time Crisis 4 for the PS3 is a horribly botched experiment in bringing light gun peripherals into the LCD TV era (too bad they made the sensor tethers usable only with 36'' TVs and smaller). What's more, these games have been slow sellers; the light gun is no longer a mechanic that captivates the masses.
Frankly, the act of holding a gun-like object, though initially quite stimulating for some, is an awkward way of controlling a game. What's worse, the same set of controls can be achieved more simply and ergonomically with simple pointing devices like cathode-ray light pens. Once that visceral thrill of "Cool! I'm holding a plastic gun without any of the real-world menace or societal implications!" wears off, the user is left with an unwieldy piece of plastic that is more gimmick than innovation. In fact, I'd argue that the more immersive quality featured in many of these products—particularly the arcade light guns—is tactile vibration and feedback. Yet that, too, has been made commonplace in all other sorts of controllers (and even some headphones and seat cushions).
The spiritual progenitor to Konami's Dance Dance Revolution home games and Nintendo's Wii Fit Balance Board, Bandai's Family Fun Fitness pad, otherwise known as the Power Pad, was the first major commercial attempt to combine console video gaming with fitness. Not a terrible idea, although if you're like me, what you remember most about the Power Pad was how many kids would cheat their way through games by kneeling down and pounding on the numbers with their fists.
Unlike some of the other peripherals on this list, the Power Pad was actually pretty functional, and it added something to gaming that couldn't be easily emulated by other controllers. On the other hand, it was meant to be used primarily for full-body activity, which is not always a practical method of control for video games that have little to do with fitness. As with the Wii Balance Board, this sort of peripheral is really best used in the hands of first party developers armed with inventive ideas as to how it will be implemented across different genres. Anything else is relegated to one-off gimmickry, which is sadly how most people remember the Power Pad: as a goofy '80s relic. At the very least, it saw more use than the various third party spin-offs of Namco's arcade game Prop Cycle.
Mattel's Power Glove for the NES was a tremendous failure. 100,000 of them were sold in the US, and while that may sound like a significant number, that's a rather poor attach rate given the NES's installed base in 1989. Only two games were made for use with the peripheral, neither one very good, due primarily to the fact that the glove could only detect roll motion (no pitch or yaw). Poor idea, although Nintendo can't be credited with this stinker.
How many of you actually remember the Activator? Very few Genesis games were designed to use Sega's poorly conceived Activator peripheral, which utilized a "cage" of infrared beams to detect movement that broke each infrared plane. In theory, this would make playing fighting games more immersive, as nimble players could stretch out to hit one plane as a punch, another as a kick, and so on. Unfortunately, not only was the setup overly simplistic, with each plane representing a button on a controller, it was also inaccurate. Sadly, those infrared beams were startlingly easy to interrupt, with just about any conceivable movement or ceiling surface setting off an unintended move. Worse yet, the player had to recalibrate the ring before each game. Add this to a prohibitive price ($80 in 1993), and you have one of the worst peripheral releases in gaming history.
Conceptually, the Activator was trying to do something new, but it just didn't go the right way about it. It was the home console version of the infamous VR ring used in arcade setups like Virtuality Group's Dactyl Nightmare. Again, the question is whether we really need to flail our body parts in order to experience the feeling of forward motion. I'll return to this question at the end of this post.
It is important to recall Sony/Logitech's EyeToy peripheral here, not because it was revolutionary (PCs had been using webcams for casual games for years), but because the PS3's Eye is literally one half of the forthcoming "Arc" setup. Obviously, whatever the EyeToy was previously will have a lot to do with what the Arc is in the future.
And that should set off some warning sirens for Sony, because the EyeToy was never exactly a big hit. True, packages of the EyeToy bundled with a EyeToy: Kinetic game are still going for a lot of money on Ebay (at least compared to the average PlayStation 2 game), but that speaks more to the relative quality of the Kinetic games than it does the EyeToy. This is a lesson that I hope both Microsoft and Sony have learned: There is only so much a developer can do using an image of the player. And not every player really wants that kind of 1:1 connection with the game world; sometimes immersion is about hiding our contrived relationship to the escapist fantasy, not exploiting it.
The other problem with this form of motion control is that there is little in the way of visceral feedback for controls other than simply looking at the screen and seeing if what you did worked. And anyone who has played the aforementioned Kinetic games will attest that it is difficult to arrange enough lighting and space for the camera to recognize even the most forceful movements accurately.
In and of itself, the Wiimote + nunchuck setup isn't a failure… neither of imagination nor technology. It's a simple tool that can be used in a large number of contexts and game genres. It has also been a massive financial success, causing the miserable Wii Play to outsell just about any other game this past decade.
But if you take a hard look, and I mean a really hard look, at how exactly this form of infrared motion technology has influenced game design in the past few years, you might struggle to come up with successful examples. The Wiimote is used to great success with Capcom's port of Resident Evil 4, but again, a mouse could perform the same functions admirably. Light gun games? Mouse again. And every so often there's a game that makes you shake the controller or fling it in one direction or another, but this is typically either: 1. inaccurate, or 2. gimmicky and an extraneous touch on an otherwise standard game. Even the best games on the system don't really benefit from motion controls. Case in point: Reviewer consensus on the Wii version of Okami determined that the PS2 version actually controlled more accurately.
The main selling point for the system was always something like Wii Sports, but behind the shiny, "Even Grandma can play!" veneer hides the awful truth that boxing, tennis, and pretty much everything other than bowling can be "skillfully" controlled by flicking your wrist about 1 cm forward.
Of course, there's Nintendo's Wii MotionPlus add-on, which provides the sort of precision that should have been tacked onto the controller to begin with, but the arrival of this peripheral has been met with little consumer enthusiasm. Lesson learned: When it comes to motion controls, consumers are more attracted to clever implications of what is possible using the controller (e.g., uniting the family), not what is plausible.
Let's Do the Twist
Is this what motion controls have come to? A floating mouse?
It used to be that sitting on a plastic bike in the arcade was enough to emulate motion. Nowadays, it's all about waving your arms or tilting your body. But in terms of control scheme, is Flower any more immersive in 2010 than Hang On's bike was in 1985?
It's a rather relative question; one that demands a subjective answer. Immersion, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. With regard to innovation, no one person has the answer and it's doubtful that anyone will invent a peripheral that knocks off everyone's socks equally. Immersion generally means "I feel like I'm really there." For some, this has to do with crafting a believable world. For others, it's about intuitive control schemes and methods of interacting with that world. But I've never seen it argued that World of Warcraft, Shadow of the Colossus, and Half-Life 2 are sorely lacking a Wiimote interface.
In terms of financial success, however, the motion market is a different story. Nintendo's Wii is in new territory here; none of the peripherals (not even the packed-in NES Zapper) mentioned above achieved the kind of cultural saturation that the Wii has. Something about the motion controls of the Wii has spoken to people like nothing before it, although this could be attributed more to savvy marketing than true gaming innovation.
What kind of future awaits Project Natal and the Arc? On one hand, if Microsoft and Sony are even half as quick-witted in the marketing department as Nintendo, both peripherals should see at least initial market success. On the other hand, that, too, says nothing for gaming innovation.
I would think that the best and most clever uses of such devices are not simple emulations of the kind of inputs humans do all the time with a gamepad or mouse, but rather things that we haven't yet thought of.
Here's another quick, related history lesson: Back in 1988, Nintendo announced the release of a "Hands Free Controller" for use with the NES. It was a chest-strapped device that would allow the physically disabled to play games using sipping and puffing motions and a chin-controlled joystick. I'm willing to bet that prior to that time, few physically disabled children would have been able to conceive of a method to interact with games, much less become immersed in game worlds. This was a controller that, while not aimed at the mass market, used innovative controls to make the impossible possible.
Again, the lesson is not that these sorts of control schemes are best left to marginalized or niche audiences, or that they require deep moral justification. Rather, it's that the best control schemes are the ones that broaden the concept of interaction itself. I think part of the reason music games have become so popular (save for this past holiday season) is that their peripherals are extremely attractive to a general audience that never thought they'd be able to access the kind of interactions required to, say, shake out a samba beat with maracas or play "Stairway to Heaven" on guitar.
Otherwise, gimmicky control schemes go against the inherent appeal of the regular controller: a portable, handy device designed to make all of these complex interactions as simple and intuitive as possible. And there's something to be said for the satisfaction of pressing buttons and moving around the joy/analog stick. It's a satisfaction that has become culturally ingrained in us, conjuring the comfort of the arcade in older gamers and the living room in younger ones. Take note, game companies: We actually like buttons.
So when I look at Project Natal and Arc, I don't think to myself, "Is this going to make playing digital tennis easier for Grandma?" Instead, I ask, "What new sorts of games and interactions will these devices yield?" This isn't simply a matter of designing new software around new control schemes. Developers have unleashed a slew of Wii games designed around the system's motion controls, and few impress.
It's a matter of integrating technology and gameplay in a meaningful, carefully considered way. There has to be a cogent design philosophy underlying every bit of hardware and first party software. I don't think Nintendo did this well enough with the Wii; imagine how hard it will be for Sony and Microsoft if their peripherals come off as also-rans.