So now that all three of the major console makers have some kind of motion controller system, I figured I’d stick my oar in and give my thoughts on what each platform offers. Major caveat: I’m not at E3. I’m basing all the following on what I’ve read, and building on the hard work the professional gaming press is doing in LA.
When the Nintendo Wii initially came out, it offered 2 weeks of great fun followed by a period of “This is it?” for a lot of early adopters. Playing Wii Sports was awesome, but once that was out of the way, a long procession of games with ‘forced waggle’ followed, and many gamers quickly tired of randomly shaking the controller in order to accomplish anything.
Eventually the waggle-wave cooled a bit, and games started coming out that used motion control where it fit in naturally (e.g. pointing, or a quick flip to reload a gun), and standard controls for the rest of the game. Suddenly the Wii was interesting again, and I actually grew fond of the nunchuk/remote combo for controlling games. Having the controller essentially broken into two halves made gaming very comfortable.
Nintendo (Wii Motion Plus):
Next week, the Wii Motion Plus comes out. This is supposed to add more precision and 1-to-1 correspondence between controller and on-screen presentation. This means we’ll have to get up off the couch again. When Tiger Woods 10 is played with the Wii Motion Plus, you’ll have to actually do a full swing of the virtual club, rather than a quick pendulum motion with the WiiMote. At least, that’s my understanding. Hopefully the Wii Motion Plus won’t set back the state of Wii games by very much.
At this point, the Wii is essentially the ‘base line’ of motion controllers. Both Sony and Microsoft seem to be leap-frogging Nintendo in the motion controller arena.
Microsoft and Project Natal:
Microsoft really wowed audiences with its controller-free motion control system. A sensor bar consisting of an IR camera, an RGB camera, and a microphone sits in front of (or on top of) the TV and reads the movements of players. The IR camera actually measures heat, and via heat, distance from the TV. The microphone is for voice commands.
Folks who’ve tried the system say it really works. The neatest demo I saw was a version of Burnout hacked so that the player steered just by holding his arms out as if they were on a steering wheel. When they turn the imaginary wheel, the car turns. Sliding their foot forward and back controlled acceleration. Very neat tech demo.
But I have some concerns. First of all, how well is this going to work when I’m wearing a checkered shirt and standing in front of a paisley-print couch? [Update: After pondering this for a while, it occurred to me that this might not be an issue, given the IR camera. It could use the heat of you body to tell the difference between you and the couch.] The demos were done in an empty room with white walls. Apparently the system can adjust for lighting differences, so they have that much licked.
Assuming the tech works, is this what we really want? If you have a choice of playing air guitar Rock Band, or fake-instrument Rock Band, which would be more fun? Props are important; they give play a visceral feel. I find it ironic that when the PS3 came out with a controller that lacked rumble, they were heavily criticized for losing that feedback. But now Microsoft has a system that by definition has no feedback at all, and everyone is going nuts for it. Nintendo’s Wii Remote has rumble and a microphone and these aspects really add to the immersion. When you wallop a tennis ball with the Wii Remote, you hear and feel the impact of the racket hitting the ball. You won’t get that kind of feedback with Natal, nor is it clear how you’d move around using Natal. How do you get your on-screen character to run, turn (without you turning so you can no longer see the screen) or fire a gun?
So I think Natal will spawn a new genre of games that take advantage of the hands-free control system. But where I think Natal will have the largest impact is with the overall UI of the Xbox. The idea of never having to search for the remote is very appealing. I wave my hand to browser through video or music selections, then I say “Play” to begin playback. Now *that* is both radical and useful, and I’d really love to see MS license Natal to other consumer electronics manufacturers.
And then there’s Milo. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in Milo. The demo was a heavily scripted event (Molyneux himself apparently admitted that) that made the demo seem more than it was. One of the most interesting aspect of Milo was the facial recognition. A person could stand in front of the Natal sensor and say his name, then when he returned, ‘Milo’ could identify who the person was. That’s pretty neat. The bit where the player splashed around in the water wasn’t anything new: the Sony Eyetoy has been able to do that for a while (granted the fidelity was better here). The conversation stuff was the most scripted…apparently Milo ‘understood’ just a few questions: this is understandable. If Milo worked as well as he *seemed* to work (without tricks) then he’d be about as smart as the voice actuated and controlled computer on Star Trek, and we just aren’t there yet.
But what was really, really cool about Milo was the head tracking. As you walked around the room, the view on-screen changed to reflect how you’d see the virtual world from that new location. This is really huge because it allows some very cool ‘virtual 3D’ effects; I can’t wait for MS to roll those out (see the video at the end of this post for an example of what I’m talking about).
So Milo was a really fun tech demo with some really cutting edge aspects, some rehashed stuff, and some smoke and mirrors. But the aspects that people seem so excited about (talking to Milo) isn’t what was really cool about the demo.
Sony’s Wand System:
Lastly we have Sony’s wand-based motion-control system. If you haven’t seen it, it consists of a pair of wands that include traditional controller buttons, and a light on the end of each wand. The Sony Eyetoy can track the lights with a high degree of fidelity. During the Project Natal demo, a player ‘painted’ by splashing buckets of paint on a wall. During the Sony demo, a player very legibly wrote his name on a virtual wall. That’s the difference in fidelity between the two systems.
In a lot of ways the Sony system seems like the Nintendo Wii Remote on steroids. A bunch of game applications immediately spring to mind. It has buttons so you can shoot a gun, and they could put an analog stick on it so you could move around a 3D space that way (a la the Nintendo nunchuk). The demo showed a very simple RTS game being played using the wands like a mouse. Let’s just pray that we don’t get a bunch of waggle games from Sony!
Really the three systems map well to now, soon, and future. Nintendo is the now solution. Depending on how much Wii Motion Plus adds, we’re all pretty familiar with what Nintendo can do. Sony offers the next step; an enhanced way of controlling your games that should be available and working well pretty soon (Spring 2010 they’re saying). And Project Natal represents the dreamy future. When Natal launches (my guess? sometime in 2011) it’s going to mean a rebirth of the Xbox 360 in much the same way that the NXE did. I don’t honestly see a lot of mainstream games supporting Natal, but I do see it refreshing the entire UI of the Xbox in remarkable ways, as well as adding a new genre: Natal Games.
Back to the head tracking issue. Here’s the video I mentioned. This fellow now works for Microsoft, but before he went to the big M he was hacking Wii Remotes:
*THIS* is the technology of Project Natal that I am most excited about!
UPDATE: GameSetWatch has a brief article up confirming that Johnny Lee is working on Natal.
UPDATE: Johnny Lee himself chimes in on his blog.