Since time immemorial (or at least since the late 70s), games have experimented with ways their users interact with them. With joysticks, trackballs, flight sticks, or skateboards, designers have been trying to find new and interesting control methods to further immerse the player into whatever activity they’re digitally re-enacting, be it sword fighting, racing, or real-time table flipping. The latest in hot immersion action has been the recent surge of motion gaming. Game companies have promised real immersion by letting you swing the sword or learn new dance moves, but all we’re left with are flung remotes or sticks with glowing ping pong balls on the end, dancing herky-jerky in front of a camera that can barely keep up with our movements, broken TV screens and damaged pride. Have we really entered the future of gaming experiences, or will the almighty controller still have a place in our living rooms?
Before we look at where motion gaming is going, we must first see where it came from. The first example of “waggle” comes from a device created by DataSoft called Le Stick. Other than sounding like bad “franglish,” it was the the first device created for home gaming that let you control your Atari or Commodore 64 games with a wave of your hand. Two main problems prevented it from ever catching on. First, no one created any games that took advantage of it, not even the company that made the darn thing. It would work on already developed games, but it essentially mimicked what you would do if you using a regular controller, making it rather pointless. Second, it was prohibitively expensive, and being released on the cusp of the great video game crash of the 80s essentially doomed it to obscurity.
Later years saw many attempts at immersing the player without the use of a traditional controller. Nintendo produced the Power Pad, a giant mat with buttons that you jumped around on and was supported by a grand total of 11 games (only one of which was actually made by Nintendo). The U-Force was a set of infrared sensors you placed around the border of your TV which allowed you to use hand movements to interact with your NES games. More well known is the Power Glove, which was given mythic prominence by its use in The Wizard, a Super Mario Bros. 3 ad disguised as a movie. When worn, games would react to both squeezes of the hand as well as button presses on the controller mounted on the forearm. Sega released the Activator for the Genesis, which has you entering an octagon filled with sensors and requires the player to hit infrared beams to use various fighting moves. As crazy as these devices are, they all have one thing in common: they’re all considered some of the worst controllers ever made. Either by intermittently cutting out, or just flat out not working as intended, the ambition behind the products could not overcome the technical limitations of the day.
The first viably mainstream motion control breakthrough was the Nintendo Wii. A curiosity when it was first announced at E3 in 2005, gamers and journalists literally stampeded their way into the convention hall to try out Nintendo’s answer to a question no one was really asking. Rather than focusing on graphics, Nintendo decided to innovate with the input device; instead of the more conventional button layout that has worked just fine for the last two decades, they turned the controller into a remote control-like device, with built in gyroscopes, motion and infrared sensors that let you actually do that thing in the game rather than just pretend and hit buttons like a sucker. Swinging the controller would let you wield a sword, swing a baseball bat, roll a ball, or do whatever WarioWare: Smooth Moves was. With the Wii Remote, the development possibilities were endless.
Or they were for Nintendo, at least. While the Wii sold like gangbusters (as of September 30th, 2012, the Wii has sold 97.18 million units — compared to 70 million for Xbox 360 and 70.2 million for PS3), the games weren’t exactly flying off shelves. In typical Nintendo fashion, their own games sold very well while the third-party offerings from most other developers were largely ignored. It could have been because most of the other games where crappy mini-game collections — pale imitations of ideas Nintendo had already done before and better. It could have been because while your Farmville-playing co-worker picked one up for the novelty of Wii Sports, your typical hardcore gamer was too busy paying Call of Duty on their Xbox 360 or PS3 to notice or even care. Either way, other than a few exceptions, developers other than Nintendo rarely took advantage of the unique capabilities of the Wii Remote. Third parties couldn’t port their more powerful games to the system without severe losses in graphical output and fidelity, and it took more resources most were willing to risk to create unique games for the Wii, as they could not guarantee they would see a return on their investment due to the nature of the fickle Wii owning populace.
Microsoft and Sony didn’t care though. Once they saw how amazingly successful the Nintendo hardware was, their eyes — not unlike that of a cartoon character — turned into dollar signs and they focused their attentions on replicating that same success Nintendo had for themselves. They each had a different strategy to achieve the same goal: Sony decided to copy Nintendo outright, while Microsoft decided to do away with the controller entirely.
Sony’s response to Nintendo’s success was the Move controller, which functioned almost identically to Nintendo’s Wii Remotes (gyroscope, buttons, etc), except it was painted black, had a giant rubber ball on the end, and used a separate camera called the Playstation Eye rather than using an infrared sensor bar. The ball would glow using a multicolored LED, which not only delineated which controller belonged to which person, but would also allow the camera to pick up exactly where the controller was located, providing a much more accurate targeting system. It also allowed for the game to replace the controller you were holding with whatever object the game wanted you to hold; when looking at yourself on screen, it would actually look like you were holding a cartoon sword rather than a goofy looking controller. It was actually a pretty nifty device and was a decent evolution from the strides Nintendo made in motion gaming. You’ll have a hard time actually finding any games that make decent use of it, however. Outside of a few decent titles (like Sony’s incredibly bland take on Wii Sports), it was mostly just shoehorned into games that never asked for motion controls. Because, honestly, what Heavy Rain was really missing was me waving a magic wand like an idiot to open a door.
Microsoft took things in an entirely different direction with Kinect. First revealed as “Project Natal,” this was going to be the next big leap in games interaction. By removing the controller entirely, you would become fully immersed in whatever world game designers could conjure up. This relatively small set of sensors and cameras would become an instant smash hit, with over 19 million sold as of July 2012. It’s just a shame that none of the games work like they’re supposed to. When Kinect was first revealed, it was said to have carried its own processing unit which would help calculate all of the complex motion tracking required for proper gameplay, as well as reduce input lag to a minimum. When it released in November 2010, the internal processor was removed, requiring the actual system (which is already showing its age) to do a lot of the heavy lifting. In layman’s terms, this means that the Kinect just can’t do the things it’s supposed to nearly as well as it should. It turned neat ideas like Steel Battalion into broken, unplayable messes. Plus, without any set of input controls for movement you’re essentially left with rail-shooters, where any sort of choice or movement ability is dictated by the game forcing you along a set path. At least the voice recognition (mostly) works, though I didn’t spend $150 on a piece of hardware just so I can tell Netflix to play the next episode.
And the problem with these fancy new motion controls is exactly the same as the older ones: they just don’t work that well. Once the “holy crap I’m holding a sword!” novelty wears off, all you’re left with is imprecise and imperfect controls, which is a huge problem when 99% of the games out there require split decisions and absolutely perfect response times. When the Kinect has a response lag of a few hundred milliseconds, that can be the difference between victory or constant failure. When an enemy whose only purpose is to see to your demise is rushing towards you, it no longer becomes fun when whipping that Wii Remote in a frenzy is met with zero response from the game. Heck, Nintendo even had to release the Wii MotionPlus, a little device that attaches to the Wii Remote to give it more precise functionality (you know, what it was supposed to do in the first place) and yet it’s still beset by constant calibration issues and imprecise tracking. Either the technology isn’t at the level it needs to be yet for accurate gaming, or the technology is at the level we need but is so expensive that no one will be able to afford it. Either way, pushing out tech that isn’t up to snuff just means that the software, and in the end, the brand, is going to suffer for it.
The future seems uncertain as to where motion gaming is heading. Nintendo’s Wii U, which just launched in North America, is the first of the deluge of next-generation systems and it appears that they have moved away from motion gaming almost completely. Sure, Wii U games will still use the Wii Remotes and Nunchucks, but it appears the focus is on the new Gamepad controller. The Gamepad does have a gyroscope, but it is used for such little movement that it works fine for what small purpose it’s required for, and every time I’ve seen a Wii Remote being used it’s either on its side like an NES controller, or as a pointer, downplaying its motion properties almost completely. Sony’s been pretty quiet on Move support in the last few months, save for a few games here and there that feature Move support along with conventional controller support. The last big announcement regarding the Move was their new WonderBook, an interactive game/book/learning tool combo announced at E3 this year. Since then we’ve heard nothing, and it came out the same day as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, so it looks like Sony is just sending this one out to die. Sony has seen pretty slow sales compared to Microsoft (15 million units shipped — not sold) and it’s hard to say what lies in store for the future of Move, though they have stated that Move will be a very important part of Playstation’s future. As for Microsoft, along with copying Nintendo’s second screen idea, they’ve made several patents lately regarding the Kinect, such as a way to project an image of the game environment on your walls or the ability to see how many people are watching the TV at a given time. It’s pretty clear that Kinect is here to stay, and the popularity of Kinect means that Microsoft is most definitely going to fully integrate the camera into whatever their next generation system ends up being. Hopefully that experience is more technically competent than what we currently have — a piece of tech with high potential that ended up being a broken mess.
There are also crazy things going on head tracking, which allows a game to see which way your head is turned and relay this information to the game. If you’re in a cockpit of an airplane, for example, turning your head down will actually move the camera down in the game, showing the control panels and flight stick in the cockpit. Devices like TrackIR and the Oculus Rift allow the gamer to directly experience being in the world of the game, while still having a conventional control scheme. TrackIR is a more basic head tracking unit, a small half-circle sensor on a stand which is simply placed on top of your monitor, and allows your PC games to react to your head movements. It’s pretty pricy though: it costs around $150 for the hardware and the list of games is pretty tiny. Outside of ARMA (and by association, DayZ), unless you’re a racing or flight sim fan, you probably won’t get too much use out of it.
The Oculus Rift, however, looks like it could be the future of where games immersion is going. It’s a set of goggles that you strap to your head (not unlike those awful VR headsets from the 90s), that provide a full 110 degrees of vision which combines with the 3D visual effect to completely submerge you into your game. You’re not looking into a visor or onto an obvious screen; this thing envelops you completely. Most importantly, it does what no other major console publisher can provide with their motion gaming controls– low latency movement. When you look around, the screen moves with you. Plus, with developers like id and Valve and current in-development projects like Star Citizen promising support, the future looks bright for virtual reality. My only concern is the cost: the development kit is available for preorder on their website for $300, but if they want it to be commercially viable and get even more developer support for it, they need to charge much less than that for the average consumer to latch on to it.
Motion gaming is only as good as the tech that drives it. Nintendo scored big with the Wii, but at a cost; they gained a large but fickle casual audience and alienated their hardcore fans. Sony’s response with the Move screams “me-too,” and its footing and purpose has yet to be realized. Microsoft found success striking out their own territory, but Kinect suffers because it was hobbled right out of the gate with underwhelming technical specs, and its lack of button inputs limits the kinds of games that work well with it. Head tracking looks great, but will it find a real audience, or will its PC roots and its hobbyist mentality keep it from gaining mainstream traction, forever relegating it to niche status? While some form of motion gaming will probably be here to stay with gyroscopes in controllers and tablets, it’s hard to say what new gadget will drive the future of how we interact with our games. We already know what Nintendo’s doing, and we should find out what Microsoft and Sony will come up with by E3 next year. Whether or not these studios continue to create new control experiences or iterate off of previous ones, I’d like to offer them one piece of advice: please, just make sure the damn thing works.