The situation is reminiscent of the N64 Expansion Pak, another add-on that was created to help the system compete with big-selling rivals. The Expansion Pak was required by only a number of games, like Donkey Kong 64, Zelda: Majora's Mask and the majority of Perfect Dark, and while it did make these incredible experiences popular, most developers never really seemed to buy into it. Will the new motion systems - and this includes Nintendo's own peripheral, Motion Plus - fall into the same trap?
Or will these technologies be more like the Rumble Pak, a cautious first step into a new sensory realm that will become an industry standard in the space of a few years? The mid-90s were a heady time for system redesigns, and the mid-generation metamorphosis of the original PlayStation controller into the Dual Analog controller (and quickly thereafter into the Dual Shock) didn't prevent the success of the PS1.
But those changes occurred in a very different market. The economics of modern development are on a completely different scale. Platform exclusives from third parties themselves are all but finished, unless they come with substantial support from first party (or to use the vernacular, moneyhats). Multiplatform development is a struggle that many studios are still coming to grips with it, and one high-profile failure has been enough to doom more than one studio.
Now imagine how these new control schemes are going to complicate things. If Natal or Sony's wand is an optional extra, it will be difficult to persuade developers to devote time to what amounts to a fraction of the market. Consider the fact that there are almost as many Wii Balance Boards on the market than there are PS3s, yet there are fewer than two-dozen games that support it. But if Microsoft and Sony force support for Natal and the wand on developers, then everyone will be required to come up with two entirely distinct control schemes for every game they create.
Consider the one motion add-on that is out on the market, Motion Plus. Right now, at the start of every new Wii project, developers must consider if a new game will ignore, use or require Motion Plus - a puzzle to which there is no perfect solution. Ignoring it means the game will be potentially less responsive than rivals, and the experience overall may suffer; using both the regular controls and the Motion Plus controls requires the creation of the game around two different control schemes, neither of which may work; and requiring Motion Plus either severely limits the potential audience, or requires a costly pack-in of the Motion Plus adapter.
Motion control is the future, but the way we are rolling it out means that that future may be further away than it seems.
We have reached a technological barrier, where improvements to graphics or processing power are costing ever more and making ever-smaller impact on gameplay. If the first parties can find a business model for their motion add-ons that satisfies both developers and consumers, then even with their competing standards, we may be moving in the right direction after all.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and fears he is being naïve to think the new controller will mean an end to "waggle" jokes.