Control Issues

Paul ponders the motion control revolution we're promised

Nintendo, without a doubt, started a big ball rolling when they announced details the Wii's motion control abilities. It seemed a risky move to pin the hopes and dreams of the company's new hardware on the success of innovative controls ahead of graphical prowess. Thankfully for all involved, it worked. Such has been the run away success of Nintendo's motion-controlled revolution that it was almost inevitable Microsoft and Sony would follow suit with their own take on the idea. With rumours of new hardware from both camps rife it came as little surprise when this years E3 saw the debut of Microsoft's Project Natal and Sony's PlayStation branded effort, the motion controlled game was most definitely on. Now, with the dust settled on both announcements, it seems an ideal time to have a look at what all this new technology means for the future of the industry and ponder its effect on the games we'll be playing in the future.

First things first, while we're all by now familiar with what the Wii can do it's worth going over what Microsoft and Sony's new gizmos bring to the table. While the existence of the Wii has clearly played its part in the development of both new technologies it is interesting to note that neither are directly trying to do the same thing as Nintendo's offering. Instead the core of both systems appears based around cameras and their ability to recognise and interpret movement within a 3D space.

First up comes Microsoft's Project Natal. Pitched as a completely gesture based control method, you won't need a gamepad or any other kind of handheld controller at all. The magic to make this possible comes from a small sensor bar that can be positioned either above or below the TV. Inside the bar is a whole bundle of technology including an RGB camera, a depth sensor, a multi-array microphone and most interestingly it's own processor. This processor will be used to run proprietary software that provides the system with full body 3D motion capture as well as facial and voice recognition capabilities.

All very impressive sounding and it's looking good too if the tech demos seen so far are anything to go by. Milo and Kate from Lionhead is the current poster child, Peter Molyneux's offering provided a spookily convincing interaction between the player and an on screen child. Other game ideas demoed were perhaps a little less instantly impressive and included Ricochet, a 3D Breakout-esque game where the player uses his or her body to bounce the balls towards the blocks and Paint Party which involves lobbing cans of paint onto a wall to create, well, whatever you want really.

Over on the other side of the debate comes Sony's as yet unnamed effort, referred to by US chief Jack Tretton as the "PlayStation Motion Controller". Consisting of a handheld wand, the existing PlayStation Eye webcam is used to do all the movement tracking while internal sensors on the wand itself detects motion. Sticking out of the end of the wand is an orb that can glow in a range of colours. This coloured light will serve as a marker which the PlayStation Eye can use to calculate the wand's position, the fact that it will also know the exact size and shape of the light will mean it can calculate depth too giving it the ability to track movement in a full 3D environment.

There's not been a whole lot of actual game footage of any titles in development for the PSMC as of yet although the E3 presentation did show how a pair of controllers could be used in tandem for certain tasks and there's apparently the possibility to use one alongside a standard PlayStation pad, for example if you want to use the wand as a sword while holding the pad as a shield.

So, now we've got three different interpretations of motion control, one from each of the three big players in the console war. All that's left is to sit back and watch what happens next, to see if a clear winner appears and what gamers make of all this new technology. It may not all be plain sailing though, the Wii's been around for a while now and despite it's obvious success it's not been without its critics.

If there's been one central criticism the Wii has suffered from ever since its release it's been how focused its games have been towards the casual gamer. While it is easy to blame this apparent shift in focus away from the hardcore on the very real success of Nintendo's attempts to market the Wii to a more mainstream audience, its just as possible that a lot of developers are genuinely struggling to use the console's abilities for much more than mini game collections or waggle friendly family games.

If its Nintendo's hard won mainstream market position that's dictating the style of games then the appearance of motion control on the more hardcore focused PS3 and Xbox 360 could finally see any shackles imposed by perceived market requirement come off. Developers may finally feel able to let their imagination fly, safe in the knowledge their efforts don't have to appeal to both six and 60 year olds. Such a development could also help those Wii gamers looking for more interesting innovation as successful ideas move cross-platform.

Of course, the flip side to that gaming utopia is that the slew of 'family friendly' rubbish we've seen on the Wii is instead indicative of third-party developers proving unable to master the new control frontier in a genuinely meaningful way. If that's the case it sends a stark message to both Sony and Microsoft in the run up to the launch of their own systems.

With a far more experienced and unforgiving user base there's a danger that unless both companies pull at least one or two truly triple-A titles out of the bag at launch the hardware will fail to sell in numbers significant enough to encourage further serious development. It's worth remembering that the Wii was sold as a motion controlled console while the PS3 and Xbox 360 haven't been until now; this means owners will need to be encouraged to go out and spend extra on this new hardware. Inspiring this additional outlay, especially amongst gamers who may be feeling slightly let down by the state of the Wii's release schedules, will require a stream of quality software that goes beyond the initial wow factor to provide genuinely interesting experiences.

With this in mind it's been encouraging to see the almost unbridled enthusiasm from developers for these new systems with early examples, particularly Lionhead who's Milo and Kate caused something of a sensation at E3. Little more than a tech demo and with a degree of smoke and mirrors holding the whole thing together the simple idea of holding a natural face to face conversation with a character in a game instantly pushed expectation for the new technology forward while Peter Molyneux's name alone proves industry giants are taking these new developments seriously.

I'll also be interesting to see how these new systems sit alongside the traditional gamepad. Are we to expect all new games to include motion control support alongside their normal options before phasing out normal control entirely by the time we get to the next generation of consoles? Or are games for Project Natal and PSMC to be kept separate, experiences designed exclusively for those with the required hardware. The key will perhaps be how well developers manage to fit traditional game genres onto the new control methods. As Wii gamers have found, the forcing of motion control into traditional games has been a worryingly hit and miss affair. While sports like tennis and golf have proved to be a natural fit and football has been wonderfully served by the groundbreaking Wii version of Pro Evo, other genres have suffered somewhat by comparison. Driving games often feel 'floaty' and imprecise, FPS's despite seeming suited haven't been really mastered yet while action games have often resorted to more traditional controls with the odd bit of waggling tacked on - and we're all still waiting for a proper sword (okau, Lightsaber) game to come along.

If developers struggle to find a way of making these fundamental genres work on Microsoft and Sony's systems in the same way they seem to have on the Wii then there's going to be a huge reliance on new, motion control specific ideas to keep the hardware afloat once people get over their initial enthusiasm and start to return to the gamepad.

It's also worth asking the question, do traditional gamers actually want motion control? The Wii has done a fantastic job of becoming everyone's second favourite console, the one you keep in the front room for when you have friends and family round. But in terms of the console people use to play games on when they're gaming for gaming's sake, lots return to either their PS3 or Xbox 360. Almost by definition gamers love shiny new technology but it would be wrong to assume we'll all simply follow the motion control marketing push like sheep and abandon the gamepad in favour of standing around waving our arms in the air. If games such as Milo and Kate become widespread and more conventional titles appear that actually play better using motion control then there won't be a problem, if it's used as a gimick or simply doesn't feel right then no amount of marketing wizardry will convince the hardcore to play ball. Something Wii developers are still struggling with. For every Tiger Woods or Wii Sports Resort there's a Red Steel or Ready 2 Rumble Revolution that make you wish for some duel analogue control, or more to the point makes you wish for a PS3 or Xbox 360 version instead.

Despite how these doubts may read I'm actually hugely excited by the possibilities for both Project Natal and PSMC. However, as someone who was also excited about the Wii when it launched and has felt, for the most part, massively let down ever since, I'm conscious that for all the promises and the clearly impressive abilities of the hardware what's really going to determine if motion control is here to stay is the software.

I'm hoping that in a couple of years we'll look back on the Wii and see it as a quaint first step that opened the door to the magic that was to come from Project Natal and PSMC. What worries me is that we could instead be looking back from behind our PS4's and Xbox 720's at ideas that sounded great on paper but never really took off, chuckling slightly as we remember how quickly we became tired (often literally) of waving our arms around like a mad thing to control a game when there was a perfectly good gamepad sat next to us.

E3 Trailer