Motion Controls and Why I’m Not Convinced I Want To Use Them

A common element of the Big Three’s E3 press conferences this year has been motion controls. It’s been long-rumoured that Microsoft was developing a response to the Wii’s control mechanism, and that Sony would be making an investment a bit more daring than the SIXAXIS controls. With Nintendo’s Wii MotionPlus (announced at last year’s E3, and coming out next week), Microsoft’s Natal and Sony’s EyeToy wands, the console manufacturers are all now committed to providing some form of motion control.

I’m not convinced I want to use any of them.

Nintendo

But first, a quick rundown of my thoughts on each of the solutions offered. I’ll start with Nintendo and the Wii MotionPlus add-on. Flash back to E3 2008 when the Big N unveiled the 4cm, $20 wart that promised to make the Wii remote… more better. My initial thought was, and still is, that this is what the Wii has purported to offer gamers since day one. Instead, the Wii has become known for its “waggle” controls – reacting to movement, if not capturing it for true analysis. The MotionPlus add-on rectifies the remote’s shortcomings, though you can bet it’ll be a hard sale. Good thing Nintendo is wisely bundling it with Wii Sports Resort, among other games that use it.

So there’s a sense of entitlement involved, as the Wii already claimed to have motion controls. Why should the consumer pay for “better” controls? Yes, I am well aware of the technical reasoning and the new ability to distinguish linear movements, but do all consumers think that way (or care)? Setting that aside however, the MotionPlus is actually the cheapest solution of the three offerings, assuming Microsoft and Sony aren’t letting their products go for less than twenty dollars. Nintendo’s is also the first to market, hitting North America in just under a week. Pity the software line-up is nothing to write home about. Two of the three 3rd-party titles at launch are (wait for it)… tennis. Again. Not doing much to alleviate the feeling that you already bought this once.

Microsoft

Microsoft was holding out on committing to motion controls and had, up until yesterday, remained completely uninvolved in the whole thing. That’s not to say they weren’t watching carefully. Nintendo was obviously on to something with the accessibility of the Wii though, and so Microsoft developed Project Natal (pronounced like in Natalie, not like in prenatal). If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the promo video they showed yesterday.

I like the simplicity of the Natal solution: one camera, no controllers. That’s an appealing interface in my mind, though perhaps not for traditional gaming. I really don’t think holding my hands in the air to grasp a pretend-steering-wheel is going to add to my experience; indeed I can only see it detracting from the immersion. And it looks extremely tiring. Did anybody ever play Totemball? It had an achievement for playing the game for 20 minutes straight. If that’s worthy of an achievement, I’m not interested in playing.

I was particularly interested in the skateboarding demo, but that’s probably just personal experience talking. It does thicken the plot for Tony Hawk’s RIDE though (obsolete before it launches?).

Overall though, I’m simply not convinced. The whole video reminded me of other “visionary” Microsoft videos. Great production values and intriguing mock-ups, but you have to take it all with a grain of salt because it’s not an honest-to-goodness product you can buy yet.

Future Vision Montage
Future Vision Montage

I’d be more inclined to write the whole thing off right now except it turns out that Johnny Lee is involved. I’ll leave it at that, but if you haven’t seen his other projects, you should definitely check them out.

Sony

Sony dipped its toe in the water back with the launch of the Playstation 3 by including SIXAXIS controls, which was probably the smallest thing they could have done to allow themselves to tout “motion controls” for the system. Few games have used the accelerometer with any great success, which suggests that you can’t simply shoehorn motion controls into traditional games. Today, however, Sony followed up on their rumoured wand technology by demoing some prototypes of their EyeToy + wand solution (which could really use a name). It was just a technical demo, though they are targeting a launch in Spring 2010.

I’m mixed about the wand solution. Sony had working units on-stage, with some inspiring software (again, just demos). The technology seems sound in terms of functionality, but the implementation is cumbersome right now. After all, the Wii needs one remote. Natal needs one camera. Sony’s solution uses a camera and two remotes. Impressive motion-sensing accuracy and creative software, but overall the whole thing looks like it needs a lot more time in the oven.

The Problem with Motion Controls

So the technology is getting faster and more accurate, and the software is slowly becoming more compelling – but I’m still not convinced I want to use any of them. The problems, as I see them, stem from the idea of gaming providing a different reality for the gamer yet motion sensing pulls things back to the player’s reality.

The first is that accurate sensing of the player’s motions means that the player needs to accurate in his or her motions. The lesser problem here is that games can require the player to be proficient in skills they simply don’t have. How many players are truly good baseball players/swordsmen/etc? If you are terrible at hitting a ball in real life, the game will detect this with punishing accuracy. This is something EA has already spoken about, and the solution is generally to lower the requirements on the player by adding in-game assistance or simply faking part of the simulation.

The bigger problem is that even if you are fantastic at hitting a ball out of the air, it’s difficult to do so with only visual feedback. The speed of the motion tracking has improved greatly, so delay in motions may not be factor anymore. And controllers are now (reportedly) sensing 1:1 motion, so the player should be able to perform an action and have the game accurately detect it in real-time. However, the motion made by the player is only what they believe to be required based on the image on-screen. Depth is an illusion on a television screen – it’s up to the player’s brain to translate the perceived position of a virtual racket to the position of his/her own hand in order to hit the perceived position of the virtual ball. That’s tough to do, skilled or not. Sony’s E3 demo showcased this nicely when the demonstrator couldn’t hit the tennis ball with anything smaller than a stop sign.

But all of this takes a backseat to what I feel is the Achilles heel of motion controls: reconciling the real-world and game realities. If you give a player 1:1 motion controls, you need to remove all limitations on that motion for the in-game avatar. If the player is wielding a sword, it had better be able to cut through everything with no resistance. If not, the situation arises where the player has made a swing in real-life, but the sword has struck a wall in the game. Now the the player’s hand is in a different position than the sword in the game and it’s up to either the player or the game, or both, to resolve this discrepancy. It’s not convincing and it’s certainly not immersive.

The solution until now seems to be to give the player free reign. The tennis ball provides no resistance on the racket – the player can swing right through. Swords? Just make it a lightsabre and it’ll go through everything. There’s no easy way to solve this problem, so developers are opting to make it a non-issue. It’s an acceptable approach for preserving the fun and playability of games, but it’s a serious barrier to making motion controls truly convincing.

Oh and nevermind the fact that if ever one of these motion solution skips a beat, all illusion is broken. Ever wind up a golf swing only to have the game interpret that you were taking the shot? Ugh.

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About Ben Kane
I'm a game developer with a heart of gold.

One Response to Motion Controls and Why I’m Not Convinced I Want To Use Them

  1. Edward says:

    Hey man you are really smart. Thanks for explaining the limitations inherent in these motion control devices and their applications for gaming.

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