Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Battle of the Motion Controllers

When thinking about where to go with my next blog post, it seemed that a logical follow-up to the previous post would be to look at what Wii MotionPlus has done and make some SWAGs (scientific wild-ass guesses) about where Kinect/Natal and Playstation Move (henceforth PSMove, since I'm lazy, and I'm betting we'll see that become an official name before too long since other gamers are lazy too) will take motion-based gaming.

So, first question: has Wii MotionPlus, the gyroscope add-on for the Wiimote, delivered on what I had hoped? The short answer is no. It has brought new levels of precision and motion control to some games (Wii Sports Resort had some very cool games in it, and golf is actually playable now!), but 3D motion tracking, on the macro scale, isn't happening yet. I'm not sure if this is a technological problem (perhaps a Gimbal Lock is cropping up from the accelerometers?) or just a lack of developer creativity. The design of the PSMove suggests that it is the former.

For those who haven't seen the PSMove, it's almost very literally a Wii controller with a big ball on the end of it.

So, what's the purpose of the big ball? I'll refer you to the Wiki page on the PSMove for more details, but it's actually an extremely clever idea. The short version is that the perfect sphere is a known size to the camera, and with an accurate enough image and some quick processing you can determine a fairly specific distance from the camera very easily. It's basically the opposite process of what allowed Ballz 3D to create a very convincing 3D visual effect without doing any actual 3D geometry calculations...

...and is identical to the technology that camera-based motion capture studios use (albeit usually with more balls and cameras). So, it has all of the sensors of the Wii MotionPlus, and adds an accurate distance calculator. While I still have to wonder whether or not this can be done without the ball, clearly this adds the macro-level motion I was looking for. More importantly though, it puts that type of motion into the minds of developers, so I'm actually very enthusiastic about the potential of the PSMove. It will likely have to break the stigma of being a Wii ripoff, and we'll need to see games that target the more hardcore PS3 audience (WiiSports won't cut it on the PS3), but if it has the games behind it this could be very impressive.

On the Xbox 360 side, we have Kinect (formerly Project Natal), which is a system that uses only a few cameras, and no physical controller. No accelerometers or gyroscopes here, just two cameras (for stereoscopic imaging) and a bunch of image processing to pick out humanoids moving in a scene.
Now, as an (embarrassed to admit it) EyeToy owner, I have some initial reservations because, let's face it, the EyeToy sucked. Still, let's try to ignore any initial feeling of EyeToy-induced nausea and make the assumption that technology and software has improved enough that this thing can actually provide very good tracking of humans with only the images. Under that assumption, what can we expect from the controller?

Even with near-perfect tracking, I still find the Kinect to be lacking in features and control. Yes, it provides lots of freedom and options for free-form, full-body capture. But at the same time, there is zero physical feedback (the Wiimote provides weight, vibration, and off-screen sounds), no buttons/joysticks, and constant opportunity for annoying friends/family to jump into view and confuse the camera. The only input you can provide is your skeletal position, and voice. While this is great for dancing games, I've yet to see any demos (yes, even the Star Wars light saber demo) that really convinced me of its potential.

Another interesting point in all of these cases is that traditionally speaking (since 1990 at least) we see a roughly five year life cycle on consoles, but these relatively major peripherals are being released nearly 4 (or 5 for the 360) years into the life of these consoles. Will the lifecycles be extended thanks to these peripherals, or are these just experiments that will help guide design choices for the next generation?

Either way, since we as an industry love giving scores and grades to things, I'll give the obligatory ratings based on my opinions of the future potential of each of these peripherals.

Wii MotionPlus: The Wii managed to have a double first to market, both with the original controller and the MotionPlus adapter. However, first to market rarely means top dog in the video game world, and so far, despite commercial success, we've seen very little truly disruptive gameplay innovation from the controller. That said, the audience is more casual and has already embraced the technology (and doesn't have to shell out $100+ to get a new peripheral), so adoption of the tech should continue smoothly, even if it doesn't innovate much farther. Future potential: B-

Playstation Move: The biggest hurdle that the PSMove will hit is getting people to buy the new peripheral. We've seen success with expensive peripherals with Rock Band, and if PSMove can have a killer app to go with it I have no doubt that people will stand in line to gobble them up. The technology is the most sound and well understood and offers the best combination of great motion controls and traditional button/joystick controls. This might get me to buy a PS3. At the same time, there's no question that it's a Mii-too product, and without a killer app or two at launch the PSMove has the biggest potential to face plant in a way that only Nintendo has been able to with past peripherals. Future potential: B+ / F (depending on launch software)

Kinect: The 360 will have a number of difficulties getting the Kinect into homes. It seems likely to be the most expensive of the three peripherals, is on the oldest system (meaning it might get lower support before long), has to fight the stigma of previous disappointing camera systems, and seems targeted at younger, more casual gamers than the traditional 360 demographic. It could have a few very nifty tech demos and minigames, but potential for really deep, innovative games to grow from it seems dim. I remain a firm skeptic and sincerely doubt that I'll be getting one, despite already owning a 360. Future potential: C-