Thursday, September 23, 2010

Forwards Compatible Redux II

Originally Posted: June, 2009

'The Downside of Motion Control'

>>> By Dustin Rodgers

As games become more expensive to produce, developers want to maximize their profit. This often translates to multi-platform releases, making games available to as wide an audience as possible. This is a good thing for gamers, but for console manufacturers, fewer exclusives means fewer reasons to buy your console.

This generation, Microsoft and Sony have each had a difficult time separating their release lineups from one another. Services like the Xbox Live Marketplace and the Playstation Network have provided several exclusive titles for each machine, and console-specific downloadable content for Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto 4 has also been successful. New distribution methods like these are worthwhile for console manufacturers, but they are not as alluring to gamers as full retail exclusives can be.

Thanks to the Wiimote, Nintendo has found a way secure exclusive game releases without having to pay for them. Because many Wii games cannot be played without the motion controls, every Wii game (including the ones ported to the system) is an experience exclusive to the Wii. In conjunction with other factors, the unique control scheme has actually resulted in more exclusives for the Nintendo’s Wii than exist for the Xbox 360 and PS3 combined.

By changing the way we play, Nintendo was able to overcome the bidding war Microsoft and Sony had fallen into. That was until last week, when both of the lagging companies arrived at E3 with their own ideas to change the way we play. Microsoft’s depth-sensing camera, Project Natal, and Sony’s motion-sensing wands, are both unique and exciting ways to play a game, but just like Nintendo’s Wii Remote, they open the door for more exclusive console games. This controller diversification is a move opposite to a single-console future.

Gamers are always interested in new ways to play games, and the new technology offered by Project Natal, the DualStalk, and Wii Motion Plus fascinates us. The prospect of 1:1 detection of movement sends gamers reeling from the potential applications. We seem to be impressed by each company’s shift toward motion input, but what negative effects could this have on our future? Do we want our gameplay to be console-exclusive? Do we want to play with more peripherals? What effects will this have on PC gaming? Could precise motion detection actually make games less accessible? Even if you think it can do no wrong, I’m still interested to hear your thoughts on the implications of motion control.

>>> Second Take, Matthew Armstrong

I’m all for diversifying the market, but if all of this mumbo jumbo is nothing more than a subtle farce to achieve some blind goal that games should be accessible to “everyone”, well I’m totally against that. It could also be the first real progenitor-leap at virtual reality as motion-control is a fundamental movement in how that eventuality will work. How does Natal really plan to make Milo something worthwhile? As harsh as it sounds, I’m leaning more and more towards the opinion that the developers are caught up in the novelty of the technology, more so than the actual practicality of its usage. Even if this technology works precisely as intended it will reset the way games will have to be made for a while (further exacerbating my earlier stance here that they keep leaving behind already-amazing tech in lieu of something that MIGHT be more superficially profitable).

I honestly just hope the technology can find the fruition it deserves. Even the Wii selling as well as it is, only managed to mildly dent the design of its own motion controller interface. If you have an argument of contention, please present it. The Wii Motion Plus is an outright admittance at this fact. Think about it…how many games have really made us appreciate the worth of motion control? For me, I honestly can’t move past the pack-ins party games like Wii Sports and Wii Play (and even those can only keep my attention in the company of others). It’s always been on the slower end between a simple gimmick and something uniquely surprising (which only a few games use either way). I appreciate the idea of things like Wii-Fit and Wii Sports Resort, but that’s not for me so it’s kind of irrelevant to my point.

My point is pretty much that all these developers are simply throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. This in turn causes a chunk of the gamer population to develop built-in noise filters when dealing with the fact. It’s not because they’re bad ideas, bad technology, or even bad games. It’s because developers are now striking out to aimlessly wander around in even darker territories than they have been and it’s a little more than annoying at this point.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on how much all this crap is going to cost either.

Roundtable Discussion

>>> Jeff Grubb
Editor, Forwards Compatible

It is as if Sony and Microsoft didn’t get the memo. The technology behind these devices almost doesn’t matter. Sure, it matters to those of us that are writing about games every week, but it doesn’t really matter to the typical consumer. The normies have already decided which machine they want to buy for their family’s waggling needs. The Wii has already won this race. Even the Wii Motion Plus has won the 1:1 race, as if that matters.

Natal and Ball-on-a-Stick are going to have their great games, but what is the potential that either of these technologies will be bundled with every single system sold in 2010? Zero. There is no chance of that. What exactly is the business model for Sony and Microsoft to lure the companies currently making exclusive Wii games to more barren pastures?

Natal isn’t going to be cheap, how much do we think that thing costs? Two camera technologies and a built-in processor? I think the technology has great potential, but its potential in the market is meager. Sony has a better opportunity, they should have several PS eyes already in the wild and shipping glowing balls on a stick should be relatively cheap, but how hard is Sony going to be pushing this? Sony will have to abandon its current posturing as the high end one box for all needs. Also, I’m not sure that I’ve heard anyone talk about this before, but Sony might also need to cut the price of the PS3.

These concerns are only the ones that I could think of, just wait till the third parties actually sit down and consider this. There will always be early adopters, both on the consumer side and on the development side, but does Sony or Microsoft have a plan to take these motion technologies into the next several years?

>>> Matt Spayth,
Editor, Forwards Compatible

When examining the possible downsides of motion control, I believe Itagaki put it best a few years back in an EGM interview. Below is an excerpt summarizing his early impressions of the Nintendo Wii:

“Games are all about input from the player and output from the game. Obviously, increasing the number of inputs increases the number of possibilities. What makes videogames fun is that the output the game gives you is many more times more impressive than the input- you push one button, and your character does amazing things.

The formula starts to break down as the inputs get greater. If you have to shake the controller madly, you’re upping the input for the same output. When you get to a point where the balance favors the input, and the output remains the same, well, if I have to do all this jumping around, I might as well ride a real Jet Ski.”

Itagaki made these comments before the Wii was released, and for the most part, his observations hold up quite well. Personally, I’m also concerned that an over-reliance on motion controls could eventually destabilize the balance between the input and output. As of right now, many Wii titles still uphold the formula that Itagaki addresses. Take for example Punch-Out!! The motion controls simulate real punching, but it nonetheless feels like a traditional gaming experience.

While technically impressive, I’m a little concerned that Project Natal might fail to keep this time-tested formula intact. Do I really want to kick an invisible soccer ball around when I could reenact the same movements in my backyard? This is where 1:1 controls can become problematic. The relationship between the input and output doesn’t have to be perfectly balanced. In fact, too much precision could undermine the gaming experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I was very impressed with the demo that Microsoft showed, and I believe the Natal provides some potentially excellent gaming possibilities. The real trick though to making this technology work is by preserving the balance that Itagaki mentions. Can this be done? I think so. However, if developers get too carried away with motion controls, the end result could be the demise of videogames as we currently know them.

>>> Daniel Sims
Editor, Forwards Compatible

I have responses to everyone’s view on this presented since the Second Take, but I’m gonna start with Jeff’s and snakeLinksonic’s. I don’t think motion control is really going to come into its own market-wise or game design-wise until we’re fully into the next console cycle.

Jeff is right that Microsoft and Sony aren’t going to get anywhere near Nintendo-level market penetration with their current motion control devices. This is why the Wii remote wasn’t simply an add-on for the Gamecube. Some have already speculated that the Natal launch will be like a console launch - an “Xbox Natal” that will be as the Wii was to the Gamecube.

Whatever they do though, it won’t truly matter in the market until the next console cycle when motion control will come standard with every system. The same issue struck online gaming, which penetrated barely 10% of the gaming population on the PS2 and Xbox but is now integral to each console’s working and is used by roughly half the user base. This is also true for game design which sLs addressed in the second take.

Console gaming has always come in generations of innovation followed by generations of refinement. 3D gaming when popularized with the N64 and PS1 was still embryonic and not as refined as 2D gaming was by that point, refinement of game design in 3D didn’t really come until well into the PS2’s life cycle.

I think that the Wii2, real Xbox 720, and PS4 will come standard with probably more refined motion control schemes and by then developers will start to have a handle on what kinds of games they should be making for motion control. We’re already starting to see the beginnings of it with Wii Motion Plus games.

In response to Itagaki’s quote about input and output, I think it’s absolutely true that we play games partly because they let us do amazing things with less input than they would really require. While one can argue that the gap between input and output is closing on the Wii, I think that if developers are careful it won’t close completely or cross over.

Right now I’m playing Virtua Tennis 2009 on the Wii, and its’ perhaps the first Wii game I’ve seen that is actually deeper and requires more skill compared to its PS3 and Xbox counterparts because of how much more control over your character is afforded the player. Despite this, the actions played out on screen are still exaggerated as Virtua Tennis is still an arcade game. What matters however is that you can feel a more refined difference between your inputs now.