Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Opinions 2 months too late - Motion controls are not the future

The big news at E3 this year was that both Sony and Microsoft had both developed their own motion control systems, Sony's unnamed magic wands, which I assume can be called PS-3-motes, and the Microsoft's Natal, which is an even creepier baby sounding name than the Wii (or Christmas if you're Portuguese...). Seriously, just as an aside, Natal is a terrible, terrible name. Sure it's not as juvenile as Wii, but it deserves scorn and shame.

Meanwhile, back with the topic of this post; This is not surprising. The Wii still has a large share of the console market and all it really has is motion control, so it's understandable the other two companies would want to move in on that. And also let's not forget that Sony had already tried this once before with Six-axis. And the Eye-Toy/Playstation-Eye. By the way Sony and Microsoft have both jumped on the motion contol wagon, it's looking more likely the next generation of consoles will be supporting motion control from the beginning.

But let's take a brief step back and look a what Nintendo has done with their control system. To me, it feels like Nintendo are always going back to their past and re-imagining older products. It's easy to follow the progression of the Gameboy as it moves away from the old LCD Game&Watch, and then gradually starts moves back to the old look and feel again before adopting the double screen fold out variant now represented by the DS. In a similar way, the Wii's motion controls invoke memories of the NES Powerglove. So Wii's motion control, while not perfect, nor as cool (in an 80's way) as the powerglove, is basically Nintendo getting an idea from the past and fixing it for the present. I'm still hanging out for the new R.O.B.

As great as this is (and indeed, as sales have confirmed), what has this meant for gamers? Unfortunately not much... The Wii has been criticized for it's lack of "Hardcore" games and in most cases, hastily shoved in motion controls. While there has been a few games that have made decent use of the Wii's potential, most simply play as minigame collections. This may change with the advent of motion control plus, but at the moment, actual gaming on the Wii is pretty stagnant. In my experience as well, implementing the motion controls into a game is tough without having to simplify things. Motion controls most definitely restrict the design process rather than compliment it.

So why?

Think about a game you enjoy playing? Would it work with motion controls? Lets look specifically at a couple of the bigger games on each console.

Halo (and indeed any FPS) - So aiming and shooting might be pretty fun, but how about movement? Let's say you want to quickly turn around and shoot someone behind you? With Natal, wouldn't that involve spinning around on the spot, which would then end with you facing away from the screen? Sure, you could have a voice recog that would accomplish that move, but would'nt that kinda defeat the whole purpose? And who wants to yell out "180" all the time while playing?

Metal Gear Solid - Once again, aiming and shooting would be easy, same with hand to hand combat. But how do you implement the sneaking and cover without simplifying it to the extreme? Do you make the player lean against an imaginary wall to simulate Snake hiding up against a wall?

That's not to say there aren't some games motion controls would work well in, but in both of those cases, there are several gameplay mechanics that in no way work better with motion controls, and a few that do. The problem with that is if you start mixing between control methods you begin to end up making the game feel like group of minigames rather than something consistent. These are existing games though, surely games being developed for these systems that would specifically be designed around this right?

Maybe so, but lets look at some of the other limitations that they'll haver to work around:
-Not everyone plays games in a nice big living room that gives you space to move around. Or is unashamed enough to jump around like a manic frog while other people are around. People think watching others play Guitar Hero is awkward, imagine driving an imaginary car.
-There's no feedback between character movement and player movement. You can just wildly swing around as your sword hits a wall or something. Theres nothing stopping you from getting into positions not possible for the in game character.
-It's much easier to move a couple of fingers and thumbs rather than your whole body. And it's a lot easier to know where to put them when you've got something tactile to touch.

And lets not forget the lessons we've learned from the Wii so far:
- Motion control gets shoved in for the sake of having motion control.
- Control schemes get needlessly complicated when they are replaced by arbitrary motions.
- More games get turned into a series of minigames.

And thats not all, but it's as much as I can be bothered with on this train ride. I can elaborate further, but as I mentioned: Train ride. Over it. And of course, as a designer you should be doing everything you can to not let the bottom 3 happen, but as a player you know that's where the majority of games are going to go.

And lets not forget what this will do for competitive gaming as well. Imagine a finely tuned game like Street Fighter, where a character'sattack speed/priority/reach etc are all important. In a motion controlled fighting game, would that be necessary? Would it just be all about who can wildly wave their arms around the fastest? Will style and subtlely be damned? Games wont be won on skill anymore, they'll be won on fitness, and if its going to be like that, why bother with the console and game? Fitness is the natural weakness of the gamer.

So all up, I'm hoping this is a passing fad. Everyone knows a mouse/keyboard combination is perfection :P. For the record, I do think Natal is pretty impressive tech, but I also think Sony have a better idea of what they are doing (buttons etc on the wand will give you more options).

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