Thursday, May 20, 2010

Motion sickness- Why motion control and 3D are not the future of gaming

I’m starting to get a little nervous about the future of gaming.

The fact is, business goes where the money is and, with the Wii doing so well in the motion control market and 3D taking off at the box office, it seems like more and more game developers are leaning that direction when it comes to planning future products.

I’m not a grumpy old man when it comes to my games. I may have been around since the late Atari years, but I don’t see all of this newfangled 3D and motion whosawhatsits and proceed to shake my fist at the sky, demanding the “casual noobz” get off my damn lawn.

I’m all for extra bells and whistles and, when it advances the actual product, I’ll be the first one to embrace a new technology. The problem with the direction we’re going now is that neither of these recent innovations actually achieves that goal.

Let’s start with motion controls. I picked up the Wii release day because I was eager to try out Nintendo’s magical new device and believed whole-heartedly the system would be friendly to the core audience as well as the soon-to-be-tapped-into casual crowd.

I like the Wii controller because, with the long cord dividing my hands, it allows me to play my games while propped on the couch in the most bizarre, comfortable positions imaginable, not because I can wave it around to do things onscreen. After the initial awe at swinging my hand to operate Link’s Master Sword wore off I found myself lounging on the couch, putting about as much effort into swinging the Wii-sword as I did pressing a button.

I won’t discredit the casual games, though. Bowling and smacking Rabbids on the Wii with friends and family is a blast. But once everyone goes home and I’m left to play however I feel most inclined, the Wii gets turned off in favor of a more traditional approach.

This isn’t me being “lazy,” I assure you. Swinging your arms around can only burn so many calories and, unless you’re messing around with Wii-Fit, nobody wants to stand while playing a videogame. Its fun for the occasional 30-minute romp, but that is where it ends.

What has murdered my enjoyment of the Wii is how the community of creators has responded, producing the worst batch of shovelware known to any single console. With the Wii selling like mad and parents too dethatched to be bothered with the fact the games they were purchasing for Timmy and Tammy were of an insulting quality, it became the quick fix for a company in need of a financial boost to throw together a title featuring cute animals, lackluster mini-games and far too many Zs in the title.

While I am upset with the lack of core offerings provided on the Wii, I can honestly say those few games that appeal to the “hardcore” audience received little, if any, added worth from the inclusion of motion control. Even Nintendo’s flagship Mario offerings simply tack on a couple motion-related maneuvers (usually useless and ignored by the player), opting instead to rely on the good old joystick and button for everything else.

Flash forward to now, several years too late to the party, and Sony and Microsoft have decided to try to tap into this lucrative motion-controlled, casual market, one that Nintendo already has a stranglehold on and no company in their right mind should hope to scratch in this current generation.

Sony has approached the casual vs. hardcore dilemma by putting the new Socom game at the forefront of their marketing campaign for the Move controller, but I’m willing to wager after experimenting with the controls for a while, the vast majority of gamers will simply revert to the standard scheme rather than wrestle with pointing at the screen or waving your hand around to throw a grenade.

I hate to use the word gimmick, but when a new technology simply replaces an old one in an arguably inferior manner, but captivates because it’s so “new” and “original,” that’s exactly what said new technology becomes.

While I’m sure some creative offerings will bring a few more families over to the console, I can’t help but feel this technology is simply a waste of time and valuable development dollars. Aside from a couple brilliant motion controlled games likely to come out following the launch of Move, I see most developers going right back to the Wii model of game creation. Why spend more money developing genuinely creative uses for the controller when a rushed party game waggle-wand offering will likely sell five times as much?

I’m even more baffled by Project Natal, which is simply a much more impressive version of the Playstation Eye camera. Don’t get me wrong, the technology running the thing is fantastic, but I have yet to see one thing that makes me feel like it will in any way improve or even enhance gameplay.

Without input from a variety of sources, i.e. buttons, control is taking a giant leap back with Natal. Sure, it will be neat to have the 360 automatically sign you in because it recognizes who is sitting in front of the camera, but that doesn’t exactly revolutionize gaming. And I can’t see having your avatar mirror your motions or dodge flying balls as being interesting for more than 30 minutes.

Once again, I’m sure a couple gems will fall from the sky, but I dare say we will not see anything much more impressive out of the vast majority of Natal titles than what was offered with the Eye Toy, a device hailing from the PS2 era, or the PS Eye, Sony’s latest stab at similar technology that proved about as successful, which is to say not at all.

When it comes to core games, how will you control anything beyond the absolute basics? Holding your hands up will get tiring quickly and, other than a few basic inputs, how will you replicate the precision and options two analog sticks and a slew of buttons has to offer?

Again, I’m not saying controllers are perfect as-is and we should therefore stop the search for new and improved gameplay, I’m just saying none of these motion options provide that next step forward.

So long as developers keep my core games coming, I say have a field day with this new technology, but seeing what has happened with the Wii already, I can’t help but be a little nervous that the gaming landscape might take a swift kick to the temple in the years ahead.

Or, more likely, both Natal and Move will prove too little, too late, and fizzle quicker than the Virtual Boy. My problem with that option is the fact a lot of dollars have already been sunk into both techs and, in the end, there’s no telling how big a waste these misguided strives for the future of gaming will be. I’m sure they are the future of something, just not my favorite pastime.

I have a similar perspective when it comes to 3D. Occasionally, I enjoy a 3D movie. I do not, however, wish to see this technology become the norm. My single greatest argument for this stance is the movie Avatar.

I was one of those people who didn’t really want to see the film, but thought the 3D experience might be worth the cost seeing as how it was basically built from the ground up to be the end all, be all 3D experience and James Cameron promised it was the second coming of Christ in Smurf-alien form. I left the theater feeling entertained, sure, but I also felt little was actually added to the movie by the 3D experience.

This was further proven when I picked up the movie on Blu-ray. Going in, I feared that, not being in 3D, I would not enjoy Avatar as much the second time through. Color me surprised, then, when I enjoyed it twice as much. I could see countless details I missed in the 3D version, the picture was bright and almost painfully crisp and everything simply looked a hell of a lot better than it did in 3D, even on an IMAX screen. Personally, I’d take an obnoxiously easy-on-the-eyes, crystal clear image over fake depth any day of the week.

Ignoring the annoyance of wearing glasses or feeling kind of wonky while taking part in anything 3D for more than an hour, I once again question what this technology will add to the world of gaming once the awe factor wears off. If the results are anything like Avatar, the absolute champion of 3D, my experience is that this dimensional revolution will be yet another glitzy step backwards.

I will say that offering motion control or 3D as an option is fine. It’s expensive to the developer, but if they want to eat that cost to include it, you’ll hear no complaints out of me. To force it on the market, however, would be wrong, especially as we have yet to see a single example that makes it clear said technologies are in any way advancing the industry rather than holding it up.

What it all boils down to is the consumer. The success of motion and 3D depends on whether or not gamers are willing to invest in these titles that have so far been either gimped to accommodate their shortcomings or exclusively casual. When quality and actual innovation suffer, I for one don’t see how this new tech can be the way of the future.

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