If you’ve been paying attention to the gaming world this week, Sony gave an official name to their motion control add-on to the PS3. While not exactly awe-inspiring, the Playstation Move makes sure you know exactly what you do with it. We’ve known about it for a while, same as Microsoft’s Project Natal, but this week was the first we saw what sort of games were being developed to make use of the new technology. It got me thinking more and more about motion controls. Specifically, are motion controls going to make a difference in games or are they just another gimmick? You know what time it is. Let’s Think Deep.
Don’t Get Caught Under The Hype Train
A few years ago I was working at Game Crazy when Nintendo finally announced what the Revolution would be. When they showed the controllers, I was shocked. I thought, “Are you crazy? That’s just a remote control.” This was right before viewing the video demoing what the soon-to-be-called Wiimote could do. People were swinging it to play baseball, to fish, to attack with a sword, to fire a gun, to do everything. All of a sudden my skepticism caved to rampant excitement, similar to how a kid gets ridiculously hopeful the night before Christmas, expecting the next day to be the best day of his life.
You wouldn’t be shocked to learn that I suffered the same sort of post-Christmas feeling after the Wii came out and the motion controls were, gently put, awful. There were definite exceptions to this though. I loved the controls for the bow in Twilight Princess. I felt more in control of that action than every before. And pointing at the screen for various things worked just fine for me. Similarly, Mario Galaxy was designed to implement only the most basic needs, and Metroid Prime 3 made sure the aiming was spot-on for controls. Generally, I was just fine with the controls since the games I played the most on the system, specifically Smash Bros, Mario Bros, Zelda, and Metroid, didn’t slam me over the head with complicated controls, and when they did, they worked. I can’t describe my disappointment with Wii Sports Golf after discovering that it was borderline unplayable, despite how fun Wii Sports Bowling turned out to be.
Years later I’d hear people say that the Wii was nothing more than a waggle-box built for kids, despite the unheard of amount of money rolling in for Nintendo as a company and the placing of it way in front of either Microsoft or Sony as number 1 in the video game industry, something that hadn’t happened in a long time. While I wasn’t surprised to see both Microsoft and Sony announce motion controls for their systems, I was blown away by the warm and almost ridiculous cries from supporters of both Microsoft and Sony claiming that these new implementations of motion controls were the real wave of the future. The only thing I thought of when I saw the demonstration for Project Natal was, “Fool me once…”
Kinetic Dissonance at Its Finest
The real issue I’ve found with motion controls is not the lack of function for the controls. A flick of a Wiimote isn’t a big deal, or even the Sony Sixaxis control when needing to do whatever Sony thought the Sixaxis controls were supposed to do. That’s not the problem. It’s just that these controls are relatively unneeded. I see Project Natal with a camera that can sense where a person’s body is in relation to the game and move accurately as the gamer moves and I think, “Why?” Why do I really need to move? I’ve seen this and it was called the Eye Toy and it sucked. I don’t want to play a bunch of mini-games where I flail around like a goober to knock around pretend balls or destroy pretend buildings. I want to know how this technology will help me play games like Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid, Modern Warfare, Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, God of War, or any game I’d play normally in my day-to-day game playing. Am I ever going to find this technology useful? It’s one thing to have me aim a Wiimote at the screen to simulate a gun, but to aim nothing at the screen? Suddenly I don’t feel all that cool playing my game.
The problem is Kinetic Dissonance. There is a definite disconnect while playing a game where you can supposedly knock over an opponent with a kick but don’t feel any feedback from said kick. Your leg moves but you feel no real contact with an enemy. Your opponent may knock your avatar down, but still, you don’t feel this in the real world. Suddenly the movements of your avatar as they fall to the ground and struggle to get back up are not your own. Think of how big an innovation the Rumble Pak was to games. When your ship exploded in Star Fox 64 the Rumble Pak went nuts. There was something drawing you closer to the physical world of the game. Metal Gear Solid took this a step further by making the controller move using the rumble feature as if a character in the game was doing it with his mind. What does Project Natal accomplish with a controller-less controller?
Granted, I don’t think Sony’s Move is much better. I am impressed with the concept of the design in which a light-up ball at the end of the controller lights up with a color different from anything else in the background, allowing the Eye Toy to track the colored ball easier. When you move the controller forward or back the Eye Toy can see the colored ball shrink or expand, allowing it to sense depth a whole heck of a lot better than the Wiimote can. I was somewhat impressed, despite the nagging feeling in the back of my head that Nintendo just did this sort of thing with their console and the market for motion controls is somewhat tapped out as well as jaded to the thought of motion controls for their games. I then saw what the games looked like with the Move, and if Motion Fighter is anything to judge the catalogue off of, then motion controls are still a bad idea to base an entire game off of.
Here’s what I’m seeing as the key problem beyond the Kinetic Dissonance thing: Motion controls aren’t terrible when they’re used within a game to accomplish a specific task, but basing an entire game around their use becomes a problem. Mario Galaxy’s use of the Wiimote was based entirely off pointing the Wiimote at the screen to pick up Star Bits and flicking the Wiimote to make Mario do a spin jump/attack. The game didn’t make this the only aspect of the game. Or more simply, Mario Galaxy wasn’t a game that was built to show off the controls. Rather, the controls were forced to fit into the structure of the game. Play a game like WarioWare: Smooth Moves, a decent implementation of Wii motion controls, and you’ll see the shortcomings of having a game built solely around the controls. While some mini-games work perfectly, some are near impossible like the team mini-game where you and a partner have to jump over holes by holding the Wiimote at your side and literally jumping. I could hardly make it work when doing what it said to do (literally jumping), and I could only make it work half of the time by doing it my way (flicking the Wiimote upward). It only succeeded in making me wish the motion controls were better all around.
This is the same sort of problem I see popping up for Project Natal and Move. The first time I become frustrated as a result of the controls not working, the game becomes broken to me. Even Metroid Prime 3 had moments where I’d become aggravated that the Nunchuk couldn’t sense that I had flicked it to rip an enemy’s shield off, causing me to take needless damage in the game. I have to have a game work properly, otherwise the game’s faults begin to show through more and more. You can read about my exploits in Resident Evil 5 to see how broken game mechanics have cost me a genuinely enjoyable experience.
My whole point comes back to the question about whether motion controls are something worth noting anymore or if they’re just something that’ll fade out in a few years. We all saw what happened when the Wii promised us a revolutionary system and failed to deliver on all those promises. Now Microsoft and Sony are hyping us up for their versions of Nintendo’s promises. Where does it end? Are motion controls really that important? I’ll let you be the judge for yourself.