Motion-Controlled Gaming Is Flailing

Motion-Controlled Gaming Is Flailing

I played the Wii for the first time at a trade show in Leipzig, Germany. The consoles were set up in tents, shielded from outside view. Standing in the queue, you’d watch people lift the folds of material in front of the entrance, walk in, then walk out with huge smiles on their faces after about 10 minutes.

(I’ll spare you the jokes we were making about what might be in there.) When my turn eventually came, I was paired with a German businessman in a grey suit. Two Nintendo reps in white stood guard inside the dim tent, at either side of the screen, like gleaming fun-sentinels. The remote was pressed into my hand, and we were in front of Wii Sports Tennis, the poster-child of the motion control revolution.

Our first swings were tentative. I was still extremely sceptical that the Wii would actually work. When it was announced at the previous Tokyo Game Show, my co-workers had laughed in derision as we watched the videos of people waving that remote around to Mario sound-effects. “That’s it, Nintendo’s over,” I remember one of them saying. At that point the DS had yet to take off, and we were coming off the back of the Gamecube’s failure to make a dent in the Playstation 2’s astonishing success. People were gleefully writing Nintendo off, back then, rather like many people are now. I’ve learned, since, that this stuff comes in cycles.

It took less than 30 seconds for Wii Sports Tennis to convince me that it did work, and that it was a lot of fun. I was really enjoying myself. But it wasn’t my reaction that made me think we might be looking at the start of something really interesting – it was my German partner’s. He was having a whale of a time, his grey suit-jacket flapping in the wind as he swung his virtual tennis racquet with unexpected enthusiasm. You see these guys at game conventions all the time, there to Make Deals and Look at Graphs and do whatever else it is that business people do, and they look like they have never played a video game in their lives. Yet here he was, having an excellent time. It made me think that the Wii might be a bigger deal than any of us expected.

The Wii did turn out to be a revolution. Wii Sports, particularly, is one of the most important games in history. Years later, both Microsoft and Sony followed with their own motion-control devices, bringing their own flagship games with them and pouring money into their development and marketing. Now, though, as the Wii’s successor languishes and Microsoft decides that perhaps Kinect isn’t such an integral part of the Xbox One experience after all, it looks like it was perhaps a temporary revolution. Motion control changed the face of gaming, but is it over now? Is this the end?

It’s an interesting fact about motion control games that although the devices themselves have sold like crazy, breaking records in several countries in the Wii and Kinect’s case, only a tiny proportion of the games have done the same. On the Wii, Wii Sports and Just Dance were gigantic mega-hits, but other motion games like Red Steel and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories sunk without trace. Of its 20 best-selling games, only one — Just Dance — was developed by somebody other than Nintendo.

On Kinect, the bundled Sports and Adventures games were the success stories, but every other Kinect-exclusive game absolutely tanked, from Child of Eden to Fable: The Journey. Dance Central sold 2.5 million copies, but its two sequels got nowhere near that. As for Move, it evidently sold 15 million units, but only 35 Move-exclusive games were ever released, and 23 of those were published by Sony. I dread to think what games like Sorcery actually sold.

For years we had a strange situation where motion control devices were massively successful, but absolutely nobody was making games that took advantage of them. The drop-off for motion-centric games on the Wii started just a few years after it was released; before long, the only games being released for the system were Nintendo’s own. The Wii MotionPlus add-on, meanwhile, only caused more problems for developers: only a teensy number of Wii owners were MotionPlus owners, and any game made to take advantage of it would be selling to a small percentage of an audience that had already proven that it was not particularly interested.

Why did this happen? Did all those millions people who bought the Kinect and the Wii not realise that there were other games available besides those that were bundled? Did they have their fun with Wii Sports and Kinect Adventures and decide that was enough, thanks? Or did they not actually enjoy playing motion games enough to buy another one?

I think the basic answer is that developers found themselves in a double bind that meant interesting motion control games just didn’t get made. Motion control might have vastly expanded the gaming audience at one point, but it also arguably split it down the middle into casual and non-casual players. Developers who made ambitious motion-control games found themselves with nobody to sell to. Non-casual players pretty much hated motion control (they still do – just look at the reaction to yesterday’s Kinect news) and weren’t interested in buying games that used it, whereas casual players weren’t aware of or necessarily interested more complex games than the bundled ones.

Motion devices are also notoriously difficult to develop for, as was obvious both from the general quality of them and from speaking to developers over the years. Nobody, with the possible exception of Nintendo, has ever really had the opportunity to get the best out of it. Third-party developers did not have the access to the tools and internal research that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo could provide to their teams, even when great efforts were made to help out. After more than five years, there is still no universal language for motion control, no consensus as to how it should be approached. Studios like Harmonix, which have worked with Kinect for years and have learned how to get good results out of it, would lament the loss of motion control. Almost no other developer would.

In the beginning, motion control was successful because it was easy to use and understand. But touch is easy to use and understand, too – even easier. Now it’s iPads and smartphones that are opening the eyes of the non-gaming world to the possibilities of video games. Not expensive cameras and motion wands.

Back in 2010, just after the PlayStation Move and Kinect had been released, I spoke to a load of developers about how motion control had (and hadn’t) changed the games industry. One of them, a lead developer on Red Steel, put it bluntly. “As long as the players have the option to not buy the motion control device with their console, the market will never be large enough to support triple-A development.” he said. “There are two things that have to happen — firstly, [motion] games have to go multiplatform. The second thing is that in the next hardware generation, it’s necessary that motion control is included standard in the box. Until those two factors are possible, we’re not going to break out of the casual niche.”

Now that Microsoft has de-coupled the Xbox One and Kinect, it seems that will never be a future that developers of motion-control games can count on.

This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.


  • tl;dr Kinect will be useless since it’s no longer standard.

    That’s the jist of the article, yeah?

    Personally, I enjoyed my PS3 Move. I have Time Crisis and DEADSTORM PIRATES, only the most awesome of arcade games! Also Sony weren’t afraid to release wacky things, so playing Kung Fu Rider or whatever it is called is amazing. My friends and I spent 2 hrs at Harvey Norman when Move came out playing parkour-meets-skateboarding-meets-freestyle-tricking-meets-kung-fu-whilst-riding-an-office-chair-down-hills. Shit was so cash.

    • The big nugget of wisdom I took from the article is that motion control needs to be a standard thing across multiple platforms, otherwise no third party really stands a chance, and without third parties, neither does the tech.

  • I think maybe the success of motion controls may have indirectly led to the resurgence of VR like Oculus and Morpheus. They both work off the same principle (being more interactive with a game) and if you look at how people have been combining VR and Kinect in particular, it certainly seems that the technology has the potential to revolutionise. Maybe the motion controls fad that followed on from the Guitair Hero fad was something that might have been an idea better suited for the future, kind of like the original Virtual Boy.

  • The problem with motion control in its current state, i.e. plugged into a console in your home living room, is that it’s limited in what you can do. You still rely on a controller for movement in game or your stuck on rails like Star Wars Kinect. Both styles immediately bring you out of the illusion that you’re that bit closer to actually being in the game. As ‘advanced’ as the technology is, it’s still fairly restrictive for gaming needs and as you’ve said, no-one’s really made a game that uses it fully asides from dancing games.

    That said, does the games industry need to head to being more immersive? If VR headsets actually do take off this time unlike failing in the 80s then there might be a call for motion controls, but I think that gaming will still be destined to be best played on a screen in your living room, at least until someone creates an affordable holodeck. Basically, action-adventure games, RPGs, sports games (asides from stuff like tennis, baseball, golf etc which do lend themselves well to motion control in its current form), simply put they involve too much running around and the freedom you get in those games is too extensive to be tied to motion controls without, as said above, also using traditional controls as well which just gets add extra steps to what you’re playing

  • I seem to be the only person not interested in VR or motion control…. I play games to be a lazy shit and expect to look that way while indulging.

  • I agree with most of the sentiments in the comments above.
    For me it has to be one of two extremes:
    1. Sit and play a game with a controller or mouse and keyboard.
    2. (hasn’t happened yet but this is what I hope for) Virtuix Omni and a VR headset with a separate motion controller for your hands and calibrate the Omni so if you want to run in the game, you have to run in real life. The idea of joining a server of any first person game (particularly DayZ or TF2) where the server is for VR users who have the same Omni calibration sounds awesome. You get your gaming and your exercise in one. I was chatting to my friend about it and his response was, “I can’t drink whisky and game at the same time if I do that, no thanks.”

    One or the other appeals to me. Not waving my hands around and jumping up and down to play some shitty carnival game. If I want to play golf or tennis, I’ll go and do it outside. I think the Wii and other simple motion control systems are great for the elderly or young kids but for adults who want a game with some actual substance, forget it.

  • The premise behind the argument is flawed. The assertion that AAA is needed because it has a history of leading the charge on risk-taking creativity is laughable to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the industry. You don’t get creativity by putting a AAA game studio’s hundreds of staff to a problem, without any direction other than, ‘be creative’. When you put AAA to a task, you get successful, refined iterations on known, existing mechanics. It’s too expensive to do anything else.

    If anyone was EVER going to do anything ground-breaking with motion control that no-one’s thought of, they would have already. Or they will eventually, but on their own time in a garage somewhere.

    And they’ll do it because it’s cool, not because they have the gaurantee of a huge install/customer base. And if it’s cool, it’ll blow up and sell the units – because people will buy the hardware to play something cool. The wii itself is the example in this case.

    You think pokemon only got so huge because every kid in the world had a gameboy? No. Pokemon SELLS gameboys. The whiners complaining about not being able to count on kinect in every house are just making excuses. The entire assertion is ass-about-backwards. You don’t set down all the prime conditions for creativity and wait for it to happen. Creative spark happens on its own, and makes itself indispensable.

    Edit: Prediction: If anyone ever comes up with a core use for motion-control gaming that appeals to core gamers enough to actually make having a kinect in every xbox actually worth something more than a cheap gimmick or its current role as purely a UI-controller, it won’t be a AAA studio who does it. It’ll be an indie, coming up with novel platforming mechanics like in Braid (which every indie will iterate on/permutate to death). Or it’ll be a student group, like the guys behind Portal (and maybe they’ll get snapped up by a developer on presenting their idea, so that the game gets polish like Valve did with Portal). Or it’ll be a developer’s pet side-project to do in their down-time, like Blood Dragon, because it’s ‘just a joke’…. which goes on to sell millions and blow up the tail of the related property.

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