Sony and Microsoft Do It Again!

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Consider for a moment Nintendo’s Wiimote reveal at the 2005 Tokyo Game Show. Looking back at that video it is clear how the Wiimote was going to be used. If you wanted to be a chef it was your knife, a fisherman, your fishing pole and as a conductor, a baton. That presentation made it apparent that the Wiimote was the tool that let people act out their fantasies. It was a breakthrough moment – everyone understood the Wiimote. The most amazing part of the presentation was that Nintendo didn’t even show games. They didn’t have to, their idea and their messaging was so clearly articulated that despite everything else the Wii would eventually offer, by the time 2006 rolled around people knew one thing: Something magical was going to happen when they got that remote in their hand.

Fast forward to E3 2009, as Sony and Microsoft reveal their own motion based retorts to Nintendo, and it’s clear that despite years of Nintendo observation both have walked away none the wiser. It’s too early to do anything but speculate wildly, but after absorbing some news and a video or two from the Microsoft and Sony press conferences regarding their motion technologies, I can’t help but feel like these two tech giants have missed the point once again. Somehow, they have managed to turn the really concrete idea of motion based control into another technologically esoteric arms race.

That’s all they’ve conveyed to me in their presentations: that their motion technology is more accurate and possibly more interactive – with the addition of a camera – than Nintendo’s. As of yet it’s not entirely clear how they’re going to use all this technology. The possibilities for these two control systems seem endless, and in watching the demonstration video for Microsoft’s Natal I was a little overwhelmed by all the ideas they presented. Between the interaction with Madame Tussaud’s escapee Milo and a daughter trying prom dresses out on her avatar with her friend via video conference, the video painted a picture of the next step in videogame interactivity. Sony’s control system was a similar story, showcasing a technically impressive exactitude in motion control that the Wii lacks.

But they’ve given consumers too many ideas to mull over, and in doing so the possibilities of these two interesting technologies become muddled. If Sony and Microsoft want to break through to mainstream consumers, the group they are ostensibly targeting with these motion technologies, they’ve got to be measured in how much of their vision they present to the public. They’ve also got to make the mainstream public care. Knowing that made Sony’s presentation all the more confusing as they seemed to be positioning their air traffic controller wands as a control solution for the hardcore gamer. In the presentation, the wands were used to control RTS, FPS and a sword fighting demonstrations. It seemed like Microsoft’s presentation spoke more specifically to the casual audience, but Natal was shown being used in so many different ways, it was difficult to tell what one thing it might do well.

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When Nintendo finally revealed a game for the Wii, Wii Sports, it showed some extremely simple concepts that were familiar to everyone: With the Wii you can swing the wiimote and by extension swing a tennis racquet or feign a bowling toss and be bowling. Regardless of how well the technology actually worked in the end, people knew the Wii could do one thing that no other system could offer – let them use their controller as a tennis racquet. As for what the Xbox360 and PS3 offered around the same time, well, that wasn’t particularly clear. Eventually they both focused on their consoles as HD entertainment gateways, a nebulous catch all term for a lot of features that people are probably only beginning to use in concert with each other. It seems obvious now that Nintendo’s clarity of vision played no small role in selling their system to a broader audience.

I know, I know – it’s too early to be complaining. And why am I giving these guys such a hard time? Who knows what wonderful applications they’ll have ready come launch day? I think both Natal and Sony’s air traffic controller system show immense promise. But I also think that once again these two companies are misjudging what mainstream consumers want. The videogame enthusiast will certainly care about how accurate Sony’s controller is and the many applications for Microsoft’s Natal, but everyone else just wants a new experience, and they need to be convinced that new experience is worth their while.

In the end, the Wii ended up providing a variety of different experiences and uses for it’s unique controller. But we could only have imagined those experiences based on Nintendo’s first reveal. What we knew was that Nintendo had a controller that you moved in order to play. The Wii channels and Virtual Console all came later. Giving people everything and the kitchen sink has, in my experience, defined Sony and Microsoft’s console strategies for this generation. That works for a certain group of gamers. But to appeal to that wider population Nintendo has tapped into so successfully, Microsoft and Sony need to take off the grenade launcher, silencer, scope and laser sight that are currently attached to their motion controllers and show people one good reason why their controller will change our lives.

Tom Endo is couch potato who both revels in and relishes the inertia that a traditional videogame controller provides.

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