Monday, March 15, 2010

Motion Sickness, or, Controlling Interest

I had the most horrible dream Saturday night.

It is years in the future. I am in the upstairs press room in an old movie theater, typing up a movie review on a thin black laptop. It used to be the projection booth, but digital movie projection has gotten so small that the new projection booth is a closet in the press room with a rack full of servers . There are a few folding chairs and tables, a low ceiling, a great wireless internet connection, and a projectionist who is babysitting the press, the data rack, and a couple of security monitors. The projectionist answers a knock on the door, and greets someone presumably familiar to him and tells him to go to theater seven. After he shuts the door again, he tells me that it was the EA sales rep and the newest Madden football game has been released for press events. I'm supposed to go down to theater seven and play against one of the sports writers from my media group's website. Not only are we going to have the game projected onto the screen, but the new game comes with a new controller. When I get down to theater seven, I am relieved that no one is wearing 3-D glasses. The EA rep greets me and hands me a pair of clear polycarbonate glasses, and I get worried again.

"Don't worry. They're just safety glasses."

Why the crap do I need safety glasses to get my butt handed to me on a football video game?

"In case you're wondering, here's why you need safety glasses. Legal said if there are flying objects, you gotta wear 'em." He tosses me a foam football, which feels like it's got a controller embedded inside the foam.

The game isn't too bad, but I end up sticking to a running game after a few plays because pass plays require me to be able to throw the controller at the correct speed and direction. If I don't throw a perfect spiral, I get a wobbly football on the screen. Lucky for me, the sportswriter is having just as hard a time.

This is not the part where I tell you that the future is now, although most of the things in my dream were possible technologically. This is only a possible outcome in a world where game design sometimes gets driven by the marketing department.

This is what I fear - when virtual reality is embedded into video games so far that they become too much actual work. Don't get me wrong - the right kind of feedback is helpful. A force feedback steering wheel is a lot more helpful to drive with than the plastic Wii wheel, where you're just driving with the tilt sensor. I just don't want to get knocked out of my chair if I have to nudge the car next to me. I don't want my ability to make free throws in real life to impair my ability to make free throws in the next NBA Jam, NBA Street, or whatever it is that they might call it in the future.

I guess the thing that set me off on this rant is that there is a new Sony motion controller available for the PS3 called the Move. Since it uses the PlayStation Eye camera, it does a better job of locating the controller in space than the Wii does. It has a big lighted sphere on the end of the controller that alters its color to maintain contrast from its surroundings. It also has the advantage of recharging the same way that the PS3 controllers do, via a USB cable. But, I don't know if this was something that Sony needed to do, and it's not like that this has replaced the standard controller in any way. I fear that the Move has a real risk of becoming another marginalized product along with the DJ Hero turntable controller and the Tony Hawk Ride virtual skateboard. Not only is it an optional accessory, but it itself has its own optional accessory called the sub-controller that looks surprisingly like the Nunchuck for the Wiimote and serves a similar, if not identical, purpose. And, unlike the DJ Hero controller or the Ride skateboard, $100 bucks only gets you an Eye, a controller and a demo disk. (Sub-controller is extra.) At least DJ Hero and Ride are supposed to be full-game experiences at that price point.

Microsoft has gone one more step past Sony - with their Natal system, they're allowing an infrared camera to watch the player's movements and forgo a traditional controller entirely. If you are at the correct distance from the camera, it is able to determine independent position of each of your fingers. You could be typing in the air like Officer John Anderton of the Precrime division before you know it. (Philip K. Dick? "Minority Report"? Some crazy-pants couch-jumper played him in the movie version?)

I appreciate that Sony and Microsoft are trying to capture some of what has made the Wii a big success, but this will be an uphill battle for them. Right now, they are both presumably getting software lined up that will take advantage of the new controllers. Neither of them has been able to make much of a dent in the casual gaming demographic so far, even with the XBox 360 being as cheap as the Wii. Even if one of their software titles turns out to be better than sliced bread or hotcakes or whatever it is that will announce the second wave of new casual gaming that's not on Facebook, it still isn't going to gain ground against the Wii this generation. Once you add all the costs of the new motion controllers to a console bundle, it's not at the Wii's price point any more. I also don't think that too many families that have a XBox360 or a PS3 already are using it as their main, family friendly, game night console. I'd hazard a guess that the Wii leads in that regard, followed with the PS2!

So, in case I haven't said it enough - Move and Natal are capable tech, but run a very real risk of being another overpriced peripheral with little software to take advantage of it. If you want waggle, that's what your Wii is for.

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