Two-Player Mode: Is Motion Control The Future Of Games?

Is there a hotter topic in the games industry right now than motion control? The Wii is running away with this generation. Wii Sport Resort is out now with MotionPlus. Sony and Microsoft have both responded with their own rival technology. But is it really the future?

Screen Play editor Jason Hill asked me that very question to kick off today's long-overdue return of Two-Player Mode. We examine every aspect of what motion control may mean for the industry, the three console makers and their audience of gamers. We'd like to hear what you think, too, so read our exchange and then have your say in the comments below.

From: Jason Hill To: David Wildgoose Subject: Is motion control the future of video games?

Hey David,

Sorry it's been a while since we last chatted. Things have been flat out since E3. But I did want to explore your thoughts on E3's big talking point, motion control.

We all know that motion-based control systems have been around for a long time. Microsoft released their Sidewinder Freestyle controller over a decade ago, then quickly shelved the idea because of a lack of interest. Sony later went on to enjoy fantastic success with their EyeToy range, particularly with the youngsters. And of course most recently and spectacularly, the Wii has captured the imagination of millions of people around the world with its novel motion-based magic wand.

It was no surprise to see Microsoft and Sony have now heavily invested in new motion control systems that will attempt to compete against the huge mass-market audience that have so embraced the Wii. But today I'd like to start by asking you a simple question: do you think there will be consumer demand for either the PlayStation Motion Controller or Microsoft's Project Natal? Do you think Sony and Microsoft will be able to capture the imagination (and dollars) of the more casual gaming audience like Nintendo has done, and will hardcore gamers embrace the technology?

From: David Wildgoose To: Jason Hill Subject: Is motion control the future of video games?

Hey Jason,

It's good to be back. And it's good to have finally recovered from the stubborn cold I've suffered from ever since E3. After nine E3s, you'd think I'd be used to that by now... but apparently not. You'd also think I'd be used to seeing major console manufacturers slavishly copying each other's successful products. But that's not what happened.

Everyone may be in agreement that industry growth is constrained by the intimidating inaccessibilty of the control pad. Reaching not just the casual gaming audience, but the entire non-gaming population is the objective. The surprise is that all three console makers look set to tackle the problem from quite different angles. Nintendo has demonstrated its solution over the past three years. Yet, surprisingly, neither Sony nor Microsoft unveiled a blatant clone of the Wii controls.

Microsoft followed the controller problem through to its logical conclusion: no controller. It may seem a pedantic distinction, but Natal strikes me as less "game controller" and more "console interface". Gamers won't be tossing aside their trusty 360 pads to wave their arms through Halo 4. Natal won't impact heavily on the genres we play today, but I can imagine motion, face and voice recognition enabling separate experiences not quite so grounded in gaming tradition.

Forget the silly minigames you saw at E3, the real potential of Natal was seen in Peter Molyneux's Milo demo. Yet a word of caution there too: such a natural interface may sound great in theory. But if your grandad is flummoxed by the presence of a couple of sticks and a handful of buttons, what is he going to do when there is nothing to press at all?

Sony - perhaps more conservatively - seem to be evolving their Eyetoy technology to deliver enhanced fidelity. What was most telling to me was that, after exploring controller-free technology with Eyetoy, Sony has decided to change tack and reintroduce a handheld device. And I have to say, I'm inclined to their way of thinking.

Certainly as far as traditional games are concerned, I think you need that reassuring tactile sensation that only holding a physical controller provides - not to mention feedback features such as rumble. As a result, Sony appears more gaming focused than Microsoft and it's easier to see their tech supplementing existing games while also making them more approachable to newcomers.

With the technology still a work-in-progress, both Sony and Microsoft have only showcased prototypes thus far. I'm interested to hear what you might think we'll see from them in terms of actual launch software. The initial range of titles could make or break motion control on both platforms, so what should those first games be?

And where does Nintendo stand? They're already out there in the market. They've just updated their motion control with MotionPlus. Is that enough? What's their next move?

From: Jason Hill To: David Wildgoose Subject: Is motion control the future of video games?

In terms of software, I hope we see a wide variety, and I hope we are surprised by what we see. You would think that the possibilities for Natal in particular are only limited by developer's imaginations. But there’s little doubt that dedicated (and ambitious) applications like Lionhead's Milo and Kate will be rare and come almost exclusively from Sony and Microsoft. Third-party developers are going to be extremely cautious, just like during the launch phase of any new hardware platform. They need to see there’s a market first: that the hardware is going to sell. Which means that even though we might be able to expect plenty of games that offer Natal controls as an option, very few will make motion or voice control mandatory. Sports, music and racing games are obviously the best fit for motion, and hopefully they will make good use of the full body tracking, while voice controls will be particularly handy for strategy games. For the PlayStation Motion Controller, early on we’ll probably just see lots of clones of games that developers know have worked well on the Wii - which is Wii Sports, and not much else.

Clearly, developers and publishers both have very good reason to be cautious. As successful as the Wii hardware has been, there have been precious few good advertisements for motion control beyond Wii Sports. And Natal in particular is going to be very expensive technology, so it really is going to desperately need a “killer app” like Milo that can capture everyone’s imagination and convince them to splash out. Microsoft says the hardware isn't final, but it uses a "groundbreaking" new sensor that combines a camera, depth sensor, multi-array microphone and a custom processor in conjunction with proprietary software. It's not going to be cheap.

This is where Sony has been smart. Not only have they leveraged their experience from EyeToy, but they have come up with technology that is cheap to produce. This has been the key to Nintendo’s success and profitability. Like SingStar, Buzz and EyeToy in the past, you can imagine that the PlayStation Motion Controller hardware will be bundled with more casual-orientated software and be popular as a good-value gift. It’s also not going to be the be-all and end-all of the PlayStation 3 platform, just another experience to add to a long list of capabilities the machine offers for those that want it.

As for Nintendo, clearly the company remains in the box seat. It’s easy to be cynical about the Wii because of its limited number of standout games, but the reality is that the machine is in over 50 million homes around the world, and Wii Sports Resort will no doubt ensure that MotionPlus enjoys a healthy adoption rate and the Wii audience isn't too fractured, even if MotionPlus is hardly the revolutionary improvement over the original Wii Remote that many expected. You have asked what’s the next move. I’d suggest it’s more of the same strategy that has brought them to where they are today. Harnessing cheap technology in (hopefully) innovative ways.

One thing I wanted to ask you is how strong your “BS detector” is and whether it went off at any stage during Microsoft or Sony’s presentations at E3. Sony’s press conference display was arguably stronger because it was all live demos, whereas much of Microsoft’s Natal technology was only shown in video form. I’ve since had a couple of developers laugh at the content that was shown, and suggest it was a long way from reality…

From: David Wildgoose To: Jason Hill Subject: Is motion control the future of video games?

As far as a BS detector is concerned, E3 attendees are only fooling themselves if they don't have it equipped and activated at all times. Microsoft has admitted that much of what they showed of Natal was smoke and mirrors, save for the painting application and Breakout game they demonstrated live on stage. Sony was more up-front with its suite of prototypes, but I'm only slightly less reluctant to draw too many conclusions from such tech demos than I am from Microsoft's mocked-up video.

Having said that, criticising either company for "faking it" seems unfair. After all, if Natal and Sony's motion controller worked exactly as intended and were running a stack of interesting games right now, well... they'd be launching right now. But they're not. They're both launching at undisclosed dates and for undisclosed prices and in undisclosed hardware and/or software bundles. You'll recall the infamous E3 2005 Killzone 2 pre-rendered trailer turned out to be surprisingly close to the mark, albeit nearly four years later.

Price will be a significant issue. You're right, Natal looks expensive and I don't believe the audience they're chasing is terribly interested in expensive things. But I'm not sure Sony's looks all that much cheaper - it does, after all, do many of the same things and requires two pieces of hardware. It's way too early to be talking about it as a "good value gift".

In this area, if Sony and Microsoft can learn anything from Nintendo, they surely should realise they have to bundle their motion control solutions with the console to achieve the necessary market penetration. Sony may have much experience with Eyetoy, Buzz and Singstar, but what third-party titles were there on PS2 that supported those accessories? And of course, the less said about the 360's Live Vision camera in this regard, the better.

My hunch is that Wii Sports Resort will be massive, resulting in a viable market for MotionPlus-only games. Third-party publishers will support it in a big way, finally delivering on the pre-launch promise of the console. Give it a year or two and we'll see it bundled with the console and the majority of Wii games unplayable with the original Wiimote.

Sony seem determined to prove that the PS3 can follow the same trajectory of the PS2, so I'll bet on their motion controller ultimately remaining a niche propped up by a handful of impressive first-party games.

Meanwhile, Microsoft will re-launch the 360 late next year with Natal integration. However, it will be too expensive to reach a broad audience, initially only selling to the hardcore whose existing consoles have red-ringed.

Ultimately, Sony and Microsoft have a huge uphill struggle ahead of them. I really do think the future of motion control is already here.

Two-Player Mode is a regular column across Kotaku and Screen Play. Join in the discussion on both sites and let us know if you have an idea for a future discussion topic.


Comments

    Nice write-up guys.

    Im excited with Natal. There is so much potential. I still want to have controller in my hands, but with voice and head/bodymovemnt added in it will bring a new dimension to gaming.

    Price is going to play a huge factor. They have to keep it under $150-$200max with bundled games and have a good line-up for the hardcore and casual market.

    When do you think Sony & MS will launch the new hardware? Surely it will have to be by sept/oct next year.

      Sony mentioned a "Spring 2010" launch at E3 - that's a northern hemisphere spring, btw. Strong rumours suggest a late 2010 launch for Natal.

      Interestingly it was Microsoft who shipped out dev kits to publishers and developers first. You could conclude that Natal is thus further along the development cycle. Or it may just be that, as I've heard from numerous sources, Microsoft is better at supporting its development partners.

    I have a question for you David. Do you think its too late for Sony and Microsoft?. By the time these things come out and have established themselves with a few notable games and a loyal fan base, we will well and truly be over half way through the lifespan of the next generation consoles. Is it really worth it to try to take over some of the Wii’s monumental market share?

    With Sony I can see some potential because they seemed to be less geared towards the casual market with the motion controller, but based on what I’ve seen from natal, they are pretty much putting all their eggs in the casual basket

    I’m probably wrong here but what if motion control is just s fad?, sure its one that has single handily carried Nintendo to the top of the console ladder within a few years, but what if by the time the next consoles come out people are fed up with the novelty of motion?, what happens to all these games then?

    Unless they actually manage to make motion control demonstrably superior as an input system to the tried-and-true gamepad, they're always going to be little more than interesting toys for a mainstream audience. Smoke and mirrors.

    Natal wowed everyone with complex AI, not with motion control. There wasn't a proper game there, there was a few interactive toys. Ditto Sony's offerings, though they were a little more practical.

    If you want to look at actual developments in human-computer interaction then you need to look more toward multi-touch displays, convergence, and augmented reality. That is where the real future is IMO.

    Motion control is just as much the future of gaming as is virtual reality...

Join the discussion!