Marginal Motion

| Dec 22, 2011

It’s been a few years now, but I’m starting to wonder, “What exactly is the stand that the audience has on motion-based gaming?”

Motion controls really came into their own with the debut of the Wii, and since then, there’s been a rapid, monstrous rise in its popularity that just as quickly seems to have dwindled away. The Wii itself is not a fixture of the living room, and is not constantly being used as the primary form of entertainment. Most of the people that bought a Wii during the height of Wii-mania now let it either collect dust, or bring it out on occasions when guests arrive.

The rest use it whenever a big Nintendo exclusive—such as Skyward Sword—finally drop and remind people of why Nintendo is one of the best developers on the planet. But aside from the one dedicated motion control system, there are the latecomers in the form of Kinect and Move. Both of them debuted in later years—the Kinect to much fanfare, thanks in large part to Harmonix’s Dance Central—and now that they’ve had time to percolate amongst gamers, what are we left with?

It seems like “mainstream” gaming, which I’m going to define as using a traditional controller interface, is still the dominant platform. Motion control systems are still there, and occasionally they make genuinely interesting titles—Child of Eden comes to mind as one example—but for the most part, they seem to have taken the same route as the rhythm genre, of being marginalized in the typical household gaming ecosystem, brought out for parties and other social occasions. In recent years, it’s only been the Miyamoto touch in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword that has really nailed integrating motion controls into a hardcore game in a meaningful way that enhances the experience rather than merely adds some inconvenient novelty to it. Other genres that have embraced motion controls are, unsurprisingly, on rails shooters, and more party/casual fare that doesn’t require higher, more tactical levels of skill.

Motion control games, it seems, are a still smaller, more diversionary subset of the medium.

I think one of the primary culprits for this is pacing. Most games that require motion ask for a LOT of motion from gamers. This means that people can tire themselves out fairly quickly, and when something begins to feel more like work or exercise than fun, it’s not long before the choice is made to turn the game off and walk away. Other less direct offenders are the requirement for open space (a problem in more urbanized areas with prominent condo/apartment lifestyles) which usually involved having to move coffee tables out the way and then back into place after each session, and finally, probably the most damning of all, the lack of variety.

On rails shooters, and party games are where most of motion control gaming has seen the most success. For the hardcore gamer, the limitations of a rail shooter hearkens back to the reason why this same segment of the audience left the confines of arcades as deeper gaming experiences made their way to PCs and consoles. The party games, while gratifying in groups, particularly with either children or alcohol (though hopefully not both) consist of quick bites of gaming that move from one activity to the next. This also doesn’t lend itself well to the kind of more demanding experiences that a veteran audience expects.

There have been other attempts of course, such as Suda 51’s No More Heroes, or the cautious implementation of motion control into games such as Killzone 3. But for the moment, Link’s latest adventure is the only one that could be called an unmitigated success critically and commercially. Both players and critics alike have praised the tough decision to make Wii Motion+ a mandatory requirement for the game. Although this forces the dedicated Zelda fan to go out and purchase the additional equipment if they have a Wii, but not the latest accessory, the enhancement to movement accuracy is so well implemented that many can now not imagine using motion controls in future Zelda titles.

What does this say about motion based gaming? Is the legendary Miyamoto the only one in the entire industry capable of creating a game where motion controls are not just tolerable, but desirable? Are body movements such as those required by Kinect simply too abstract, or at a sufficient remove from the input/output loop that people can’t regularly use such an interface for more in depth gaming? Is Sony’s solution of reading a soft rubber light on a black wand too little too late?

While the Wii, now in its twilight years, has an unqualified must-own motion control title for a non-casual crowd, neither Sony nor Microsoft still have anything similar to offer to gamers. Both of them have a sizeable collection of casual games, with Dance Central being the flagship game for Kinect, and Sports Champions occupying a similar niche for Move. Sony is attempting to bridge the gap with their recent reveal of Sorcery, a title that had lain dormant since its E3 2010 reveal. Not surprisingly, it’s an action-adventure title which shares some common elements with the latest Zelda game. Microsoft is taking a much bolder move with the announcement that the exclusive mech combat franchise Steel Battalion, which originally required its own massive simulated mech console controller, will now be a Kinect title. It remains to be seen whether either of these two attempts to bring a deeper, more integrated motion experience to gaming will be as successful as Miyamoto’s own well considered product, but at least it shows that both companies are trying.

And they need to try. If Sony and Microsoft are serious about maximizing the investment of this current console generation, they will need something else to keep players engaged as the hardware approaches the ceiling for performance. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has already proven that a tried and true formula can still bring something new to the table if motion controls are implemented well. Now the real challenge comes in trying to do this without merely imitating what Nintendo has accomplished.