Motion Controller Wars

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.

Nintendo (Existing):
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.

9 thoughts on “Motion Controller Wars

  1. Someone said that Nintendo came up with the games to support the idea of the technology, as opposed to what MS and Sony are doing, which is to come up with the technology HOPING that someone will find a use for it.

    That being said, I think that the idea of Natal is quite exciting, although I get a strong sense that it will have very little “gaming” applications. Obviously, a side-scroller or platformer might be able to bastardize the Natal, whereas an FPS might allow a greater possible use with the head tracking, or — gawd forbid — running in place in order to move (take that, Wii Fit!).

    I see Natal more as a supplimentary control system/alternate reality option. Say you have a large screen TV mounted to your wall, and are having a party. You’ve got the Xbox acting as the jukebox (for some reason…I don’t know). Now, guests can approach the TV, and select songs “Minority Report” style, dragging them into the queue. Maybe when they walk past the Natal unit, the TV displays some kind of overlay; maybe an aura, or even a random avatar overlay.

    That’s a pretty specific and probably not mainstream use, but it could be a viable application. I think that it might serve as more of a “Microsoft Surface” add-on for the Xbox then a game controller.

  2. “How do you get your on-screen character to …fire a gun?”

    1. Close fist.
    2. Extend index finger, or index and middle fingers together, straight out.
    3. Stick thumb up at right angle to extended index finger(s)
    4. Lower thumb to index finger to fire (saying “bang” optional, supports dual wielding semi-automatic pistols, good luck with that Uzi)

    Seriously, I think you’ve hit on the issue that the Wii has run into so far – the tech is nice but there needs to be an actual gameplay reason why it makes sense to use a motion interface instead of a traditional controller. Then again, this is far from the worst crime against gaming being committed at E3 this year. If you want to see adoption of gaming set back by a decade or two, look no further than:

    “Dyan Williams, Senior Producer of “EA Girls,” takes the stage with four little ones. Announces: “Games that celebrate what’s great about being a girl.” Girls are about to play a game called “Speed Hair Teasing” — no joke! — a mini-game in “Pajama Party” for Wii.”

  3. I can’t tell what you have an issue with: the fact that they’re touting games for girls, or the TYPES of games they’re touting 😀

  4. For some reason Pete, when I first read the title of your post green lasers emanating from spaceships with a “pew pew!” sound entered my head… rambling aside, I think you are right about the point that the games still need to be made to support these (including Nintendo’s Wii upgrade) and I’m still waiting for a good sword fighting game on the Wii. All the ones so far are lame.

  5. Speed Hair Teasing is a bit out there, but I work with a guy who has 3 daughters and they really get into a lot of these games that we take issue with, so I think there really is a market for them. But again, Speed Hair Teasing may have crossed that line.

    But stuff like the “Style” games and cheerleading games… his daughters love those.

    Thallian, In theory Red Steel 2 could be the swordfighting game we’re waiting for, but after seeing it demoed on G4, I don’t think it is. I want a game where I really have to swing the sword, not make quick short motions, y’know?

  6. I bet Sony and Microsoft will have more quality motion-control games than Nintendo with a year or so of releasing their new systems.

    It has nothing to do with the motion control. Nintendo’s game libraries have shrunk with each generation, and each library has had a worse ratio of great games to mediocre ones. Microsoft, on the other hand, has attracted many quality games for the 360 and has many more on the way. Sony took a while to get going, but the PS3’s got a lot of quality stuff coming out as well. The Wii has some great games, but the other companies are attracting more quality design, for whatever reason.

    The Milo demonstration was heavily scripted and controlled, but Molyneux has said that Milo wasn’t just made for E3. That’s a part of Lionhead’s full game project, and Molyneux demonstrated with Fable 2 that he’s learned to control expectations. Not all of that demo will show up as true gameplay, I’m sure, but Molyneux seems to believe that most of it is representative of his future game’s honest potential.

    The two most important parts of Molyneux’s demonstration were when the player reaches down to catch what Milo throws (I have no doubt most people would reach down) and the passing of the paper from the player to the virtual character.

    Project Natal is brilliant and has enormous potential. EA will be able to pump out a dozen fun mini-games, ala Wii Sports, in the first year. If they made an air hockey game, a fitness game, and a fighting game, people will buy 360s just for that. Yes, dueling with a lightsaber with nothing in your hand would feel weird, but no more so than having just the short Sony or Nintendo controller in your hand — and Natal could allow you to grab any stick-shaped object from your house, or include a styrofoam saber, to complete the experience.

    Sony’s system also blows the Wii away. As I’ve said before, all they have to do is make one action-RPG using the sword and archery combat from their demo and I would go into debt to buy a PS3… as would hundreds, if not thousands, of other gamers. People who don’t normally game would buy a PS3 for that, and similar experiences. The fast-tracking and accuracy is great, and Sony has enough quality-focused developers in affiliation to produce many good motion control games.

    November of next year at the earliest, perhaps summer of 2010, gaming will be taken to a whole new level. 🙂

    And don’t forget the advent of modern 3-D technology being introduced to gaming with Avatar!

  7. “The two most important parts of Molyneux’s demonstration were when the player reaches down to catch what Milo throws (I have no doubt most people would reach down) and the passing of the paper from the player to the virtual character.”

    I would have liked to see what happens if you don’t reach down. Do you not get the goggles? To put the goggles on, you have to make circles with your fingers and hold them up to your eyes, but does the program decide that you do or do not have goggles based on whether you ‘caught’ them, or is that just for show?

    Interestingly, there’s an EyePet video going around where a kid draws the parts of a plane on a piece of paper and holds it up the camera, and the virtual pet takes it and turns it into a 3d model to fly around on.

    It’s surprisingly close to Milo’s ‘draw me a fish’ thing. I don’t remember what Milo did with the fish drawing after he got it. If I draw an orange ball on the paper, would ‘he’ see that as an orange fish, or would he be able to say “This has no tail, it can’t be a fish.”

    Still many questions. I’m encouraged by the fact that Natal has its own processor — some seem bothered by that, but to me it makes the whole demo more plausible. If there’s a duo-core level chip crunching data I’m more willing to believe there are fewer tricks and more “A-life” to the demo.

  8. Yeah I know what you mean about the sword thing Pete. I’d love an Rurouni Kenshin finesse style game or something. Oh well. I’m personally fascinated to see what “Artificial Intelligence” which is really just copied intelligence from the programmer(s), accomplishes in the next few years.

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