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As Move and Natal approach, Gamasutra speaks to developers about attempts to get the shooter genre working on Wii -- something that seems intuitive, but has turned out to be a lot trickier than expected.

Michael Thomsen, Blogger

March 30, 2010

16 Min Read

It wasn't supposed to be like this. In a private room near the Makuhari Messe convention center in 2005, Shigeru Miyamoto guided select groups of journalists through a series of demos to show off the newly-unveiled Wii Remote. One of the most impressive was a port of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes using the remote's IR capabilities to show how the Wii might dramatically reshape the first-person shooter.

The controller promised to make FPS controls more approachable and precise with an interface as simple as literally pointing to aim. The addition of gestural controls suggested a whole new layer of interactive immersion, lending automated actions a sense of weight and approximate physical motion.

But none of that actually happened. In the intervening years, few publishers have invested serious resources into developing the genre on Wii. Many Wii shooters have been ports or budget titles without much production value.

There have been a few notable success stories, and some interesting gambles, but more than four years after the Wii's release, the first-person potential remains largely untapped.

With the coming release of Microsoft's Natal and Sony's PlayStation Move, it seems unlikely that this state of affairs can afford to continue. Microsoft has yet to unveil its formal software plans for Natal, but Sony has already announced that shooters like SOCOM 4 and Resident Evil 5 will be compatible with Move.

It's inevitable that there are several more on the way, on both platforms. All three motion interfaces use different technology, but each will have to reckon with some core design challenges that many Wii developers have already encountered.

What successes have there been in the Wii shooter world? Is there still hope for a better future with the shooter, on the Wii and beyond? What obstacles remain to be overcome?

Enter the Bounding Box: The Problems of Looking and Shooting

The concept of pointing where you want to shoot seems so intuitive, but there was a confounding obstacle from the beginning. Wii shooters typically require a bounding box to separate aim control from view control, which creates an entirely new design problem that's not present on PC or dual analog shooters. Ubisoft's Red Steel, the Wii's exclusive launch shooter, wrestled with this problem. Many reviewers were unimpressed with the wide bounding box solution, which required players to drag the aiming reticule to the far end of the screen to rotate the camera.

Red Steel 2

"At the time that Red Steel 1 came out the whole concept of 'steering' with the WiiMote was in its infancy and we had precious little time for polish as the game was destined to ship at launch," Jason Vandenberghe, creative director on Red Steel 2, told me.

While moving the reticule across the screen was perfectly sensitive, the confusion between when aiming stopped and when camera rotation started created a sense of disorientation, something every Wii shooter since has had to grapple with.

"The biggest bone of contention we found with Wii FPS's is the critical moment the camera turns your viewpoint," Eric Nofsinger, chief creative officer for High Voltage Software, said. "On the flipside, you cannot really map aim and the camera 1-to-1 like mouse and keyboard; it would end up feeling a bit nauseating."

Released less than a year into the Wii's lifecycle, Retro Studios' Metroid Prime 3: Corruption introduced the idea of camera lock-on to handle the discrepancy. Players could lock the view into place by holding down the Z button at any time, making it possible to fine aim with the cursor while not affecting the view at all. When not locked in-place, the cursor worked primarily as camera control.

"Since exploration is of equivalent weight to us as shooting in the game, we had to balance the requirements of understandable player movement control with the tactical requirements of combat," Retro president and CEO Michael Kelbaugh told me.

"There was a great amount of time spent feeling out things like the dead zone size, player turn velocity, where at the edge of the view area does the player begin to turn, the ability to decouple lock-on from aiming and also how the helmet fit in with the control set (i.e. was there going to be a little separation in helmet turn lag from the player turn lag to make it feel like the head was turning inside the helmet)."

No Control Scheme to Rule Them All

EA Canada's Medal of Honor Heroes 2 was released a few months after Corruption and added the concept of customization to the design paradigm for Wii shooters. While many early Wii FPSes let players choose from a few preset control sensitivities none offered the kind of personalization of Heroes 2.

"We found that no matter what we chose as our 'default setting,' everyone who played Medal of Honor Heroes 2 in multiplayer basically had their own preference on how the controls should be tweaked," EA Canada's Matt Tomporowski wrote in a postmortem. "We realized that we weren't going to satisfy anyone if we shipped only out 'default' single player Elite with only a few customizable options."

Medal of Honor Heroes 2 opened up a several new control options for player to experiment with before settling on their own preferred settings. You could affect the width and height of the bounding box, change both vertical and horizontal aiming speed, change the basic IR sensitivity, and affect controls for specific weapons like the bazooka and sniper rifle.

High Voltage Software took customization even further with The Conduit. The game opened as many control settings as possible to the player, while also incorporating a lock-on system similar to Prime 3's.

"With The Conduit we tried to meld aiming and camera control together. We gave players the option to tweak the camera controls to allow them to feel right to the specific player," Nofsinger told me.

High Voltage exceeded what EA Canada had done with Medal of Honor, offering control over the bounding box size, turn speed, player movement speed, horizontal and vertical sensitivity, IR sensitivity, an option to change the UI by dragging and dropping icons, gestural control sensitivity, and the chance to reconfigure every single button used in the game.

The Conduit

While the customization earned praise form reviewers and fans, The Conduit didn't spark a shooter renaissance on Wii. After early sales proved flat, and nowhere near the same volume as that of other touted shooters on 360 and PS3, there was reason to re-examine some basic assumptions.

When Ubisoft Paris moved on to Red Steel 2, the developers spent a lot of time refining the aiming system in addition to opening the game up to control customization. "The whole 'under the hood' system for aiming and turning as been completely re-examined, re-implemented, playtested, tuned, replaytested, and polished ad infinitum," Vandenberghe said.

"What we learned is you're best off using two bounding boxes -- one on the outside that sets where the turning speed reaches its top speed and one on the inside that sets where the dead zone ends and turning begins."

Likewise, there are a number of ways in which these general concepts can be used to create different control experiences. Like with any other input device, it's dangerous to think there's a technical boilerplate that all shooters should follow to best use the technology.

"There are several mathematical methods to express how the player's turning speed changes as he moves the pointer towards the end of the screen," Vandenberghe said. "Straight geometric increase works, but so does a logarithmic approach. Each system feels a little bit different."

New Ways to Play, New Ways to Design

If mastering the technical possibilities of the Wii controller proved unexpectedly difficult, there remains an even more challenging problem. Will it be enough to have simply changed the control mechanism of the FPS while leaving the larger design paradigm untouched?

Bungie significantly altered the idea of a console shooter in Halo, compensating for the less precise dual analog controls with large open arenas in which tactical movement and circle-strafing counted as much as quick aim. This called for an all-new approach to AI to make combat in these large spaces as dramatic as the confined corridor crawling of GoldenEye, Marathon, and System Shock. Does the use of gesture and direct aim necessitate a similar kind of design shift, imagining new ways to use space and A.I.?

"We started with a really good default turn/aim value and just made sure the AI felt right with those settings," Nofsinger said. "We didn't feel the need to scale back the AI to compensate for any lack of precision."

For Destineer, the added capacity of the Wii remote made it possible to recreate the general structure of a PC game with the forthcoming Marines: Modern Urban Combat. "The game we made is based on a PC-based training system, so the controls and design were initially set up for the accuracy of a mouse," Reuben Thompson, producer for Destineer, told me.

"Once we implemented it into the game we realized that we could have it be close, it not the same, as any PC game with mouse control."

On the other end of the spectrum, Red Steel was an ambitious design that attempted to fuse shooter and melee combat into a cohesive environment. For the sequel, Ubisoft Paris wanted to push further into that still largely uninhabited territory.

"Red Steel 2 is much more a brawler than a shooter," Vandenberghe said. This created several different design challenges that required specific A.I. solutions to keep the game entertaining.

"Our enemy spawn rate and the sheer number of enemies turns out to be a lot less important than how many enemies can attack you at once," Vandenberghe explained. "We used two distinct 'permissions' systems -- one for melee guys and one for shooting guys. Shooting guys are generally freer to attack you as long as they have a good line-of-sight, but melee guys are more constrained."

Another major challenge in adding melee to a first person shooter design is one of changing perspective. With shooters, it's easier for players to keep the action generally in front of them, but with a close-range melee system orienting a player and enemy positions can be challenging. Implementing A.I. restrictions was the easiest way to keep the constantly shifting perspective form becoming frustrating.

"Off-screen enemies use a different attack pattern than onscreen enemies, one that uses our off-screen attack system, where you get an alert before they attack and can block and/or counterattack," Vandenberghe said. "We have a dynamic spawning system, sort of like Left 4 Dead, that picks the enemy's 'best' spawn point based on the player's view cone. On the whole, the approach to design needed to be completely re-evaluated to adjust for the shift to close- and medium-range combat."

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

For Prime 3, Retro added motion controls to the more methodical play style, jumping on the chance to make players feel like they were in Samus' space suit. It was also something that Retro used significant time and talent to address.

"One of our most skilled engineers, Mark Haigh-Hutchinson, who also built our incredible camera system from the ground up, spearheaded our motion control development in coordination with our director at the time," Kelbaugh explained.

"With our new control system it seemed natural that not only should the player need to actually interact with objects in the world, but that he should see the immediate interaction from his point of view."

The result of this work was a number of small but effective interactive flourishes that helped make basic environmental movement feel more interactive. You could guide Samus's fingers to input numeric codes on door panels, pull big levers to fire engines, twist batteries into sockets to restore energy, use the IR to weld broken circuits, whip the Nunchuk forward to throw your grapple lasso, then twist it by tilting the Wii remote to change its orientation.

Precise gesture controls proved to be more difficult to implement given the limitations of the accelerometers in the Wii remote, but they make possible an entirely new way of interacting with the game world. Exploring these theoretical possibilities remains as much a creative challenge as it does a technical one. While many have grappled with the technological challenges of designing for the accelerometers, the experimentation with creative design issues has been left mostly untouched.

Next Stop, the Other Side

With the Wii, developers have to deal with three major creative obstacles: new game design elements are required to stand apart, the controller's still evolving technical issues require prototyping and experimentation, and many of the most basic game systems have to be rejiggered for the Wii remote. There is great creative opportunity for first person games on Wii, but it also comes at a significant cost of experimenting in the unknown without any established models to crib from.

If the hurdles to bringing one of the industry's biggest and most celebrated genres to this generation's most successful console have been discouraging so far, there's reason to believe they won't remain so. Later this year, all three home consoles will have motion control solutions available. As the shooter space becomes more and more competitive, with different franchises cannibalizing one another's achievements, it's conceivable that unique motion-based immersion will become more of a focus for brands looking to stand apart.

Many in the industry have treated the Wii as a platform with a mainstream audience that would be largely indifferent to the kinds of core experiences on the PlayStation 3 and 360. Games like MadWorld, House of the Dead Overkill, and Dead Space Extraction are brought up as proof that the Wii cannot reach core gamers.

On the other hand, it's easily forgotten that Red Steel sold more than a million units during the launch window, while ports like Call of Duty 3, Call of Duty: World at War, and Resident Evil 4 all sold more than a million units over their lifetime.

Shooters do work on Wii, and games for core players can succeed. Likewise, while The Conduit didn't bring in the masses at retail, it remains one of the most-played online games for Wii month after month.

"Are Wii gamers that different than 'regular' gamers?" Vandenberghe asked. "What matters to us is what they want. Specifically, do they want the fantasy of sword fighting? Have you ever wanted to be a badass swordsman?"

One of the great shortfalls of Wii design is thinking the Wii audience is lesser in some respect, a pack of casual non-gamers. "The Wii audience isn't a group that wants to be catered to or treated differently," Nofsinger said.

"When it comes to The Grinder we don't want to think of the Wii as a lesser system. There will be a fine line to walk and I don't think we can treat all three audiences wholly different."

Four years ago, the idea of sports games was defined by licensed tie-ins like Madden NFL, FIFA, and the 2K series, each played by an entrenched and loyal fanbase. Wii has helped to transform the genre to include games like Wii Sports Resort, Wii Fit, and EA Sports Active, titles that would have been inconceivable without motion control.

Core gamers may scoff at the comparison of Madden to Wii Sports Resort, as they demonstrate fundamentally different approaches to game design. Yet, both are interactive representations of competitive sport, and only the latter has shown extraordinary growth in the market.

As the releases of Move and Natal draw closer, it seems that there is an inevitable reckoning on the horizon. The challenges of designing shooters on Wii won't simply be overcome by adding more sensitive technology.

After a brief demo of SOCOM 4 with Move, ShackNews' Garnett Lee came away with similar complaints to those that have plagued Wii shooters for years. "The problem remains, though, of it being hard to hold the controller freely in space in front of me and make the many fine movements needed to play a shooter," Lee wrote. "I've even resorted to resting my forearm on my leg to give it a stable base when playing similar games on the Wii. It's only a partial solution but one that no amount of tech will potentially solve."

Motion controls aren't the exclusive future of the industry, but it is a terrifically persuasive way to convince someone to buy another disc for the living room console. These kinds of big ticket experiences can excite wide audiences with spectacle, immersion, and the promise of experiencing something in a way they've never experienced before. Looking back on the most successful shooters of this generation, it's clear that many benefitted from years of iteration, experimentation, and sequels before striking the winning formula.

It took eight years to go from Call of Duty to Modern Warfare 2. BioShock was born from the experiences of System Shock, Deus Ex, and Thief. Halo 3 benefited from the refinements and experiments of the first two games as well as Bungie's Marathon roots. Half-Life 2: Episode 2 was a product of Valve's decade-long focus on data mining, play-testing, and optimizing.

With Wii shooters, that legacy of development, experimentation, and iteration has only just begun. The design lessons to be learned are conceptual as much as they are technical.

The era of motion controls is about to enter its next phase. Are you ready for it? You may be through with the Wii Remote, but the Wii Remote is not through with you.

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About the Author(s)

Michael Thomsen


Michael is a freelance writer based in New York. He has covered video games for the ABC World News Webcast and the Q Show on CBC Radio. He has written for Nerve, the Brooklyn Paper, the New York Daily News, and IGN where he is a regular contributor and author of the Contrarian Corner series. You can follow Michael at his blog www.manoamondo.com.

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