No Joy in Stickville The End of Game Controllers?
Published Aug 23, 2009The codename for Nintendo's GameCube sequel was "Revolution," which seemed presumptuous since the Japanese gamemaker was then wallowing in third place. It was replaced with the initially silly, now iconic name Wii — a console that abandoned Sony and Microsoft's technological refinement in favour of upending the couch-bound status quo. Now that Nintendo has launched its much needed, accuracy-improving MotionPlus peripheral while its competitors spent this summer's E3 showing off their own upcoming motion-control tech, Revolution doesn't seem so ridiculous.
This recessionary summer has been slow for gaming — except for Wii Sports Resort, the sequel to the biggest-selling game ever (albeit because Wii Sports is packed with every console), which comes with a MotionPlus and sold a couple million copies worldwide in its first few weeks.
Sports Resort's dozen mini-games include new sports like frisbee, wakeboarding, basketball, table tennis, air sports and archery alongside upgraded bowling and golf — and as before, will become an indispensable addition to rainy Sundays, drunken house parties and old folks homes alike.
Though beefier than the original, the game itself is still basically a super-fun tech demo. But its near one-to-one motion controls are even more intuitive and that's what made the Wii such a mainstream machine compared to the PS3 and 360, with their complex, button-covered controllers. Of course, increasing the sensitivity of the Wii's motion sensing is also a tacit admission that Nintendo hadn't quite delivered what was originally promised. Sports Resort finally supplies the realistic swordplay we expected in launch game Red Steel, Mario Kart's wheel can't compete against the franchise's old-school control scheme and most third-party developers simply added lazy motion controls derisively dubbed "waggle."
So while MotionPlus is a great advancement, it currently only works with a few games (Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10, Virtua Tennis 2009 and, eventually, Red Steel 2) and isn't backwards compatible, so won't improve your old ones. Still, it demonstrates the hunger that exists for more motion-sensitive gaming, a lesson heeded by Sony and Microsoft who are working hard on their own technology.
Sony pioneered motion-controls with the PS2 EyeToy and included motion in the PS3 controller (though only Jenova Chen's indie hits flow and Flower used it in a gratifying manner). But the real deal will arrive next spring. Still in prototype stage, the wand-like PlayStation Motion Controller uses a glowing ball to achieve "true one-to-one tracking" in 3D space by working in concert with the PlayStation Eye camera rather than a Wii-like sensor bar.
Microsoft is going even further with Project Natal, a "revolutionary" motion control system that does away with controllers altogether to pioneer full-body gesture-based gaming. It works via a device housing a camera, microphone and depth sensor that turns the human body into a game controller.
After the buzz-boosting E3 demo — Steven Spielberg said, "this is a pivotal moment that will carry with it a wave of change, the ripples of which will reach far beyond videogames" — a thousand dev kits went out to game studios. Clearly confident in the continued rise of motion gaming, Microsoft dubbed Natal "the birth of the next generation of home entertainment."
This motion-control arms race will certainly help bring virtual reality closer to reality-reality while further increasing casual gaming population — but is it the best direction for gaming? The lack of any controller input makes Project Natal worrisome, no matter its alleged accuracy. Sure, controllers can scare the casual crowd — Microsoft called them "a barrier separating videogame players from everyone else" — but what about the "gamer" crowd who require more sophisticated controls? Not to mention how often I'll play 360 or PS3 when I don't have the energy to stand up and Wii.
Many once dismissed motion sensitivity as a novelty and three years later the Wii revolution has clearly been televised. But if motion-controls are to ever really replace traditional controllers — which have enjoyed decades of evolution — they'll have to make games better, not just easier. Or all they'll have done is turn the gaming nation into a land of mimes.