I (Don’t) Like To Move It

Yesterday at the Game Developer Conference, Sony finally announced the name and some more details about their new motion controller. The controller (and sub-controller) are now known as the Playstation Move. I’m not going to go into details about how the thing works, or what games were just announced to support it, but I’ll be happy to direct you to places that have that type of information.

What I wanted to do is use this announcement as a jump-off point for my current perceptions of motion control. Back in 2006, I was all aboard the motion control train. With Nintendo – my favourite game company – backing this technology, there was nothing that could go wrong, right? Wrong.

I bought my Wii on launch-day and had a blast with it. For the next few weeks that winter, every party with family and friends was a Wii party. While motion controls did bring something new to the table, Nintendo’s initial stab at motion controls brought with it a number of problems.

For anyone that has played a Wii, you’ve figured out by now that the Wii remote doesn’t translate your movements 1:1 into the game. Rather, it reads a gesture you make and then plays out the action on screen if you’ve done the gesture properly. What happens in most Wii games is that you end up not truly simulating the motions you try to do. Instead, the remote doesn’t read your motions correctly and does something you don’t want it to do, or you end up doing “short-cut motions” that work just as well as the full motion, which kills any immersion the game was supposed to provide. Flicking your wrist to throw a bowling ball works just as well as a full-body throw.

The lack of buttons, poor game translations from regular controls to “Wii” controls, games going crazy when the remote isn’t pointed at the screen and a sudden shift in focus towards casual games made a lot of what the Wii was supposed to be about not that fun for me. I have tried the motion plus attachment, but having to constantly reset the controller to work properly is a pain. Within a few months of buying the Wii, I caved and bought my first non-Nintendo system since the Atari 2600 because I wanted to play games that controlled with buttons, d-pads and analog sticks. I still love me some Wii Bowling and Boom Blox, but most of my gaming time is now motion controller free.

Regardless of how I feel, the Wii has basically won this console cycle, leaving Sony and Microsoft floundering to try and capitalize on the success of motion control. Sony has taken a very “me-too” approach with the design of their Move controllers, and Microsoft is going way out in left field with the controller-free Project Natal. While they both claim to have better solutions to motion control, I have my doubts. Watching the Playstation Move in the video below only further fueled my doubts, as the person in the video punches wildly in the air and the game does nothing to respond to his movements.

I’m not even going to get into the myriad of other challenges Sony and Microsoft have specifically in trying to launch these products into the marketplace. I just want to talk about how these control mechanisms work and what it’ll take for me to fully buy into them as a main form of input. I’ll break it down into three key points:

1) Accuracy

In my 20+ years of gaming, I’ve never had problems inputting a command with a button press. The game only has to decipher whether or not the button is pressed down or not. With motion control, there are so many more variables involved, and therefore, a higher percentage of error. It’s so frustrating to play games like any Wii boxing game and see your physical energy go to waste when you throw a real-life hay-maker and see that my character is standing still.

The Playstation Move looks to be better than the Wii remote, but still appears to suffer from some accuracy quirks. With the Natal, we have no idea how accurate that setup will be when it hits living rooms around the world. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I will always prefer pressing a button to doing a gesture if the gesture isn’t accurate enough.

2) Purpose

Very early on in the Wii’s life-cycle, a lot of third-party developers thought they could cash-in on the Wii hype train by shoehorning motion controls into traditional games. Time and time again, we’ve seen this strategy fail miserably. Often times in the case of motion controls, developers simply substitute a button press with a gesture, which usually doesn’t feel good, doesn’t accurately reflect the action on the screen and takes you out of the action more than brings you in.

Motion control games need to have a clear purpose for being in the game or don’t bother. Developers need to create experiences that work with the strengths and weaknesses of the interface in mind and not force the player to flail their arms to substitute a button press. Throwing a baseball at a stack of blocks in Boom Blox feels awesome. Having to draw a star on the screen to activate slow-motion in Trauma Center feels awful and makes no sense.

3) It has to feel right

While this particular point applies to all motion controllers (even you, Tony Hawk: Ride skateboard), I’m most concerned about the Natal on this one. Microsoft has hyped this up as the most natural gaming experience ever, but I don’t see what’s natural about flailing your limbs around to hit balls that are projected at you or driving a car by pretending to hold onto a steering wheel and pretending to hit pedals with your feet that aren’t there. The big promise of motion control is the ability to give players a more realistic and immersive experience. Poor motion control implementation just feels even more awkward and out of place than any button press would.

While I am currently not much of a fan of the current implementation of motion controls in today’s consoles, I’m reluctant to write them off completely. I know that motion controls are here to stay and will improve with time. By the time these things work as planned, maybe I’ll warm up to them more. I’m still not sure if I’ll ever be ready to let go of sitting on the couch and pushing buttons, but we’ll talk about that when motion controllers finally come of age.

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