With Sony and Microsoft finally showing off their own motion-based controllers at E3, we can at last put away the waggle jokes and the stories about HDTV sets broken by flying controllers and accept it: Love it or hate it, motion control is the future of gaming.
Since the day the Wii was revealed, there has been no going back. Motion control had been attempted in many forms before, but with the Wii, Nintendo made it commercially viable. We can no more go back to only standard controllers than we could go back to just d-pads once the analog stick was part of our toolbox.
This doesn’t mean that the future holds nothing but motion-controlled games – to continue the analogy, the DS, the best-selling game system on the market, doesn’t have an analog stick. But the fact that each first party now has its own motion model means both developers and gamers are going to have to think about it seriously.
Gamers are the easy part. Motion has gotten a bad name merely through idiotic fanboy prejudice – the same prejudice that would have you believe Halo 3 sucks, or that there are no good games on the PS3. A few choice motion-controlled games on each system will have gamers won over in no time.
No, the hard part is getting to those games in the first place. In typical games industry fashion, we’re not making the transition to this new technology easy. While Sony and Microsoft have finally joined Nintendo in loving motion control, all three first parties now have completely different, incompatible technologies. Each one of their systems seems to work, and control, in completely different ways.
On top of that, plans for the rollout of Sony and Microsoft’s motion systems are still up in the air. Rumors abound that Project Natal will be used both for the Xbox 360 and for an upcoming console to succeed it. Sony doesn’t even have a name for its new controller, much less a plan for rollout, but with Sony’s famed 10-year model for PS3 it’s hard to believe it’ll be used for anything other than the PS3.
How are these models going to work in practice? There was a time after R.O.B., the Superscope, the 32X, and the 64DD that the accepted wisdom in the games industry was that peripherals could not be successful, period. The success of the Wii Balance Board and the various guitar-related games have disproved that old adage. But while Microsoft’s big E3 push last year, the New Xbox Experience, was a massive success in rejuvenating its system, it was free and downloaded itself. Getting Natal to customers will take a lot more work.
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.