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Monday, May 31, 2010
How Nintendo Almost Started a Revolution
As a recent college graduate hoping to eventually be gainfully employed, I’m in the midst of my search for a career. Video games are my passion, and it has always been a dream of mine to work as a game developer, so I began applying for positions in the industry, only to discover the age-old Catch 22: “Must have experience to get job, must have job to get experience.” Time for Plan B: Find a way to get experience without a job. For that, I needed an idea.
I had often said that I was disappointed with my Wii due to the lack of any games taking advantage of the Wii's unique capabilities. Don’t believe me? According to Metacritic.com, the top 5 best-rated games at the time of writing, in order, are: Super Mario Galaxy, Twilight Princess, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Resident Evil 4, and Metroid Prime 3. Galaxy doesn’t make any real use of the Wii controller outside of some pointing capabilities (no, I don’t count “shake-the-controller-to-attack” as a technological breakthrough).Brawl is actually best-played with a Gamecube controller, and both Twilight Princess and Resident Evil 4were in fact released on the Gamecube itself! Metroid Prime 3 is just a first person shooter – perhaps with innovative controls for a console, but PC-gamers will laugh at anyone who finds a pointing device to be truly innovative.
The only ways that we’ve seen developers actually do some cool stuff with the Wiimote is through mini-games, or what I’m going to term “micro-actions”. Wii Sports, WarioWare: Smooth Moves, and Rayman Raving Rabbids are the only good games that stand out in my mind as really taking advantage of the true innovation of the Wii: motion sensing. In all of these cases, we have little micro-actions that the Wiimote senses and then projects to the screen. Pump your hands quickly. Swing your hand to hit something. Drop the remote at the right time. Fun? Sure. Huge-innovation-enabling-totally-new-types-of-gameplay-experiences-as-was-promised-to-us? Hardly.
My mission was clear: I needed to show these developers what they should be doing with Nintendo’s brilliant new hardware. Mini-actions are fine, but macro-actions - large, continuous movements over long periods of time - were the future. I had grandiose plans. I would develop a mind-blowing technology demonstration, submit it for a presentation at the next GDC, and then stun the audience with the amazing new gameplay I had created. After the presentation there would be thunderous applause, a shower of job offers falling from the ceiling like confetti, and Shigeru Miyamoto himself would come on stage and bless me.
Step one of course was to develop the technology demo.
I set out to find a good API that I could use to create the demo. After a bit of online research, I found one to my liking and began to delve into the details. I found a nice list of all of the motion data available to the programmer. It had acceleration in 3 axes, the X/Y coordinates of the IR pointer, and an estimate of the distance of the pointer from the TV. After reading this list, my jaw dropped. My dreams shattered. Miyamoto would never bless me in front of thousands of adoring game developers. Why? What’s missing from this list? Any sort of rotational acceleration! It turns out that Nintendo didn’t bother to include any gyroscopic sensors in their formerly (and now ironically) codenamed Revolution.
What does this mean? Developers have no way to track true position through 3D space. Instead, they must make assumptions about the way the player is holding the controller. Does this sound familiar? Yup: micro-actions. The motion-sensing only feels realistic and accurate when the developer can tell the player how they’re “supposed” to hold the controller. If we know that the player is holding the Wiimote like a steering wheel then we can make an assumption about the tilt of the Wiimote based on the acceleration provided by gravity. But this is a cheap hack, and doesn’t work if the assumptions are broken. For example, try playing Mario Kart holding the Wiimote like a big rig wheel and rotating it about the vertical axis. Nothing happens! The implication is that the Nintendo Wiimote is likely to never move past pointing at the screen and the use of contrived micro-actions.
Suddenly my blame shifted from the developers to Nintendo. How could you do this to us? You were on the verge of completely redefining video games, but you were too cheap to put in a couple of gyroscopes? I would happily have eaten the cost for the incredible possibilities that they would have enabled. Allow me to paint a picture.
Remember that rather absurd commercial for Red Steel with the guy hiding behind his couch to avoid enemy bullets? Perhaps it’s not quite so absurd. With gyroscopes, you could strap a second Wiimote to your chest and the Wii could calculate the position of you, and even your body orientation. You could actually be forced to dodge incoming fire in your living room! And heck, with a couple of positional clicks you could tell the Wii the exact location of your couch in real 3D space, which could then act as a barrier and provide cover for you as you fire from behind it. The possibilities are, or were, endless.
Fortunately, not all hope is lost. A little internet searching turned up a new product called Darwin from Motus Corporation that does have the proper sensors. It is aimed specifically at non-Wii hardware, and if it gains popularity (and more importantly, good games), it could drive quite a knife into the back of Nintendo’s newest child. Historically speaking though, a peripheral is not generally going to attract a large number of games that require it, but at this point I can only hope that this new device, or something like it, will give us the “Revolution” we were once promised.