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7 min read
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Interactivity mishmash

Much is being said about the 2009 E3's new controllers announced, but too few is being said about how this will evolve and what users and the industry wants. In this article, I want to spice up this hot subject.

These are days in which people are happy (and why not confident) about the future, because of the new challengers Sony and MS brought to fight against Wii. I think everyone here knows about project Natal and the prototype controller from Sony (I don’t know if their controller already has a name), which will make it easier to explain.

I remember when I first saw the news talking about Nintendo’s Wii. It promised a revolution (as the old name of the console used to be), by letting players “really” interact with the game: instead of simply pressing buttons to “assign orders”, now you can make a movement, and your character would do the same, mimicking you. But now we know that, in fact, the story went in a different way.

The system was poor on offering what Nintendo promised, again feeling to the masses as a “lie”: more promises than real thing. How many people out there bought a Wii and now the console is just laying out accumulating dust and some web? I say it by myself: a got a Wii just after its release, but in a matter of a couple of months, I was not playing it anymore. Now I got a PS3, and there’s one more reason to have my Wii “forgotten”.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that Nintendo’s console is a bad one, nor saying that Nintendo “lie” at all. I’m saying that the console is far below the expectation after some time playing it, in part because of the control’s limitations (as Nintendo agreed by releasing the WiiMotion Plus device) – even considering that, as Nintendo said, they planned the controller this way from the beginning, but it was too expensive to product at the time.

It’s quick to see that, in fact, the characters don’t do all the movements we do – and worse, I can’t even control them! (As on Wii Sports game, which is the first contact people have with the system). Of course this make anyone feel frustrated, and to me it’s interesting to see Nintendo, with all their expertise, do this ingenuous mistake.

But much more than that I think the greatest problem behind Wii (and I think that most of you will agree) lies in the games itself – and that’s not (totally) Nintendo’s fault, as some people use to say ‘round there with that “they only focus on 1st party games” stuff. I think Nintendo created a new game genre (a “Wii games” one) in which even they don’t use to create great games for, but that’s a subject to my next post here. 

As this post’s name says, I’m here to talk about an interactivity mishmash that I think is happening out there, and put this on discussion. For me, it was obvious that, as always on any market, as the first one shows a new idea, a torrent of inspired ideas (or even copies) would rise – and I don’t think that’s bad at all, at least while they’re just inspired ideas.

The impression I got about all the E3’s announcements is that Project Natal will be the next revolution, and now everyone is waiting to see what they will have to offer when launching the device to the masses. Or even if this impression is not correct, I understood people feeling that one of these techs would be that wave. It’s possible that this happens, but I sincerely can’t believe that none of these techs will really mean much more than what Wii brought to us, and I will explain why I say this. 

One of the greatest complains about Wii is the fact that the console demands too much physical space to be played; this may not feel as something really problematic, but that’s something that takes off too much of the whole “ideal” experience of the console. I say this even considering that, in fact, people doesn’t need to exercise all the body to play – but that’s the premise to make the Wii a good console, and it’s dangerous because with just part of the experience available people will be more inclined to feel that “something is missing”, and this lead them even more to feel betrayed. Moreover, not everybody has physical space enough to maintain this “magic” completely evolving while playing – and to me, Project Natal and Sony's goes in the same direction.

We may consider that the games that will be compatible with those devices will vary on style, ranging from large-space consuming (as Wii Sports) to smaller-space consuming (Wii Play, to some extent); the racing game example of Project Natal shows that. The MS system has the opportunity to handle this (because it’s not released yet) and give us a better experience, but how will their system appropriately understand what we want with our moves? How will this differentiate when I want to pass my hand over my belt, and when I want to hold my sword?

I know it seems as an “infantile” way of thought, but I ask this because all of this will have serious influence not in the controller at all, but in the games that will be compatible with. Wii control is not bad, but its limitations (“sealed” by Nintendo’s own games) limited what can be done with the console’s games. I think that the same, in a lower level, will repeat at MS’s initiative. If even the system creator can’t push the ideas farther, how can the others do so? It’s not impossible, but much more difficult, especially to the more traditional game companies.

The best solution, as far as we have information to think about today, is Sony’s – simply because they took the great camera idea (which they work with for a several years) and some sort of “joystick” to work together, and this make room to them to put buttons to receive specific commands and inputs from players. But even this idea I think will not survive to the long-term testing as well, because this will show itself limited just like the others – maybe less than MS Natal, but will.

They will need to handle the space-consumption of the controller with care, but more than that, they will have to find a way to combine it with the extreme hardcore kind of games (and players) PS3 has. If Sony tries to make some kind of “Wii games” genre I think they will fail great, because it will split their audience much more than it already is today. It’s a trenched way to follow, and I think will be interesting to see what they will bring to us in the meantime.

What makes a great game is not to be limitless or eye-candy, but to hide away its own limitations in both aspects – I take GTA and Pro Evolution series to illustrate that, or even Super Mario Bros and MGS. I think that maybe in 3 or 5 years we may see some sort of control that will more efficiently mask its own limitations, and feel “limitless” enough to take our attention – and I think this will happen only in the next generation of consoles, because it will need a completely new way of thinking games that doesn’t seem to fit with the actual one.

If the Wii principle is hard enough to the industry to work with, what to say about a step forward. When discussing this, Chris Crawford’s words echoes on my mind: “you may never consider what might happen if the gamma correction tool were used in conjunction with the Korean language translator, but some of your users certainly will”. Nintendo, Sony and MS may ignore these things I explained here, but be sure the people that will invest their money buying their products to live the promised “magic moments” will not.

As I said before, more on the “new way of making games” will be discussed in my next post.

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