Friday, November 13, 2009

The Gaming Landscape 2000 to 2009 Part 4: Everything Is Set In Motion

Up until recently, there was really only one way to control a game: You plugged in a controller and pressed buttons to make the character on the screen move.  It was a seemingly simple system, and everyone seemed to be fine with this system, but there were a few flaws in it.  For instance, in order to add more functions to games, controllers needed to get more and more complex.  From 1990 to 1999, they'd jumped from three or four face buttons and a D-pad to two analog sticks, four face buttons, and four shoulder buttons.  The Dualshock 2, released in 2001, made those analog sticks pressure-sensitive, adding essentially two more buttons, while the D-pad stayed behind and got reassigned to create even MORE face buttons.

So, now we're dealing with what amounts to 10 face buttons, two analog sticks, and four shoulder buttons.  For the gamer who had been brought from basic, two-face-button controls on to more complicated controllers it was easily manageable.  There was a curve of difficulty that we followed and we had no problems managing it.  New users had no chance whatsoever.  Add in wacky button layouts like the Gamecube controls, and it was all getting a little ridiculous.  At the rate things were going, games would soon be demanding full-size keyboards within a short while.  Clearly, controllers needed to be simplified.

The first shot across the bow was the DS.  At the time, the touch-screen mechanic was looked at as "interesting, but why?"  The only game that Nintendo showed that really utilized the screen was Yoshi Touch N' Go, and it was awful.  It was only until Kirby: Canvas Curse launched that developers and gamers alike understood the potential of a touchscreen:  Making simple motions easily accessible and understandable for the average user.  It didn't take long for other developers to jump on board with the idea, and the DS has become one of the most successful systems of all time.

However, the DS was just the beginning.  Nintendo experimented with motion controls with the Power Pad and Power Glove back in the NES days.  They were sloppy and confusing, and died quick and well-deserved deaths.  Sega even released the Activator, which was an absolute mess.  For those who don't remember the Activator, it was a ring you placed on the floor.  When you moved your arms or legs over the Activator, it was akin to pressing buttons on the controller.  You couldn't use it in areas of low ceilings, you couldn't use it with reflective ceilings, and I think you can see the problem with trying to hold down multiple buttons at once.  The Activator basically turned your gaming experience into high-speed, inaccurate Twister.  So we can see that the concept of motion controls were nothing new, but they never caught on.  They were either too clumsy or not accurate enough to make a difference.

That changed when Nintendo launched the Wii.  Here, in a tiny little remote control, were simple, responsive and fun motion controls.  On top of everything, the Wii was cheap and inoffensive.  It may be hard to convince your grandma to play Gears of War, but ask her to try Wii Bowling?  She's on board right away.  Anyone could grasp the simplicity of swinging the controller to imitate playing tennis, or moving your arm to bowl.  In a sense, the Wii brought gaming full circle.  Gaming didn't automatically start with an audience, but it built one up over the years.  Similarly, the Wii started a whole new group of people along the path of gaming goodness.

At first, Sony and Microsoft scoffed at the Wii, only seeing the poor graphics and not noticing how people connected with the controller.  After seeing the Wii take off, there was a motion-control-induced panic, as Sony and Microsoft both tripped over themselves to come up with their own motion controls.  Sony especially jumped the gun with their Sixaxis controls.  Instead of focusing on one thing, like the Wiimote did, they tried to meld traditional controls with motion and ended up pleasing no one.  Microsoft took a longer view and unleashed Natal, a controller-less system that looks promising.  As of yet, there's no release date or pricing, but the tech behind it promises to further reduce the barrier between the gamer and the system.  Sony is also giving it another go with their Wand that they hope to launch, but there are still a lot of hurdles for Sony to overcome.

Some have decried motion controls, calling them "waggle" and complaining about the amount of crapware on the Wii.  First, waggle can be defined as unnecessary movement in a game that doesn't need it.  It is an issue, as developers race to place motion controls in places where they're not needed.  The same issue plagues early developers of the DS, as they tried to cram stylus controls in every nook and cranny.  Now, they use the stylus more judiciously, if at all.  Motion developers will also learn when is the right time and the wrong time to deploy motion.  Second, crapware comes with the territory.  The NES had oodles of crapware as well, as developers tried understanding this new medium and how to make it work.  Motion controls represent a paradigm shift in game design, so there are bound to be some growing pains.  Add in the fact that many people purchasing the Wii are first-time buyers and don't what games to avoid and you can see where the problems come from.  Over time, these problems will be ironed out, as developers learn how to make games that handle motion controls judiciously while still providing good content, and consumers get savvier with which games they purchase.

That's really the crux of the matter here:  Reducing the amount of barriers to success.  With a standard controller, in order to pilot a character onscreen, you need to have a substantial knowledge of hand placement, hand-eye coordination and muscle memory in order to accomplish anything.  Most gamers have that ability since we have experience in gaming.  Those who are new to gaming don't, and motion controls provide them with a helping hand while allowing old hands like us to view games in a different light.  It's a win-win.

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