Doug Wilson is fretting over the future of video games -- specifically the kind that make you look like an idiot for the sake of a good time.
As game designer at Johann Sebastian Joust
studio Die Gute Fabrik
in Copenhagen, Wilson is creatively- and financially-invested in games that make people laugh, goof off and and have fun together – experiences that encourage people to congregate around a game and interact not just through a video game, but directly with one another. (Die Gute
is also releasing Sportsfriends
, a collection of locally-played games later this year, which includes JS Joust
Since the implosion of peripheral-based music games, the decline of the Wii (well, Wii Remote, really) and a slew of subpar motion shovelware, games like this just aren't as popular as they used to be. After seeing on Twitter
that he was "bummed" about how "all the consoles are shying away from motion control and physical games," I spoke with him to dig deeper into the decline of these kinds of games, and broke down our conversation into three interlinked factors.
1. The mighty design barrier
To start off, it's best to look deeper than economic conditions. Saying that people couldn't afford expensive, hardware-based physical games only told part of the story. I talked to Wilson, a designer of motion-based games, about what some view as an economic problem, partly because I suspected the trouble with motion games' decline is more fundamental:
Designing a really good game that implements social, gesture and physical elements is really difficult.
That's not to say it's necessarily more difficult than other kinds of game design – game design is just really hard
. But Die Gute's brand of games, and motion-based games in general, have their own unique challenges. And because there's not much past success to draw from, learning good design in this field means that trial-and-error could last quite a long time.
"I do think a lot of this [market problem] is design-based," says Wilson. "Designing motion-controlled games is super hard
. And I'm saying this as someone who did it for a number of years before I really understood it. JS Joust
seems really simple, but that was the result of a lot of years of trying things that didn't work, and learning the hard way – finding out, 'Oh, this is what's fun and feasible to develop," he says.
But once Wilson started thinking about social, physical games as playground games and folk games, and less as traditional video games, he started making breakthroughs.
Breakthroughs didn't come without overcoming obstacles. Wilson said a couple of years ago he and his colleagues at the Copenhagen Game Collective fell into the "trap" of trying to make a Wii wizard game, in which players used Wii Remotes as wands to face each other and duel. He says they were missing the essense of motion game design.
"You start doing stuff like gesture recognition, using complicated machine learning methods so a computer recognizes when you wave the wand a certain way. But that's kind of a button-pressy way to think about this world – 'Did you do the gesture or not.'"
If you look back at the crummy motion control games that litter the bargain bins at GameStop, you'll notice how so many of them approached motion control with essentially the same mindset as you would a traditional controller. Big studios were pumping out Wii games trying to catch the wave, without thinking long and hard about the strengths of motion control, Wilson said.
Motion control, for the badly-designed games, revolved around a binary kind of input – either you did the "correct" gesture or you didn't. The system would miss the gesture you swear you performed correctly; the system would register the gesture you swear you didn't perform.
Designing a game that didn't rely on this kind of "button pressy" system is challenging. And when the design fails, the sales often follow. "If you're a smaller studio, the technological problem [is overwhelming]," says Wilson. Even though the actual technology of motion controls is fairly crude, "Doing good gesture controls is cutting-edge computer science research."
2. The benefit vs. price barrier
Even though design lays the basis of a successful (or unsuccessful) motion game, the design, price and benefits of a game are interlinked. These games are often expensive because that expense is built into their design.
But the argument that "motion games are too expensive" has already been proven wrong by both the Wii (which so many people paid $250 for strictly to play Wii Sports
) and other expensive packages like Rock Band
, Guitar Hero
and Dance Central
with a Kinect.
"I think the lesson there is that you can make a really good, memorable experience for people, and the ceiling is actually quite high for what people will spend," says Wilson.
We can put it this way: A consumer doesn't look at a price tag in a vacuum, but rather judges the benefits of the product (e.g. a peripheral-based game) against the price. If the benefits outweigh the price, then you're more likely to have a sale. If a developer thinks it is able to make a lot of sales in this genre, then developing and releasing these kinds of games to market is more feasible.
Copenhagen Game Collective's B.U.T.T.O.N. ("Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally Ok Now")
But once again, the benefits are inextricably linked to the game's design, and as Wilson has convincingly argued, social, physical games are hard to design. If few players can justify the price of a game whose design relies on, say, seven PlayStation Moves, it won't make astronomical sales numbers. If a game's design requires a publisher to put up money for a bunch of specialized plastic controllers, the game probably won't even get to market these days.
Ultimately, all of this can hamper the viability of these games, even though every now and then, someone can strike the correct balance and come away with a hit.
Drawing from personal experience as a developer, Wilson says, "Look at JS Joust
. It's on a smaller scale [than Rock Band
], but there are people out there that went out and bought all of these move controllers, which is crazy – and great – just for this party game."
"Maybe there's a little [market] fatigue, but if someone makes something really amazing, people will get it," he says.
3. The player expectations barrier
So design issues tie into price/benefit issues, which tie into another factor pertaining to gesture-based games. Misaligned player expectations for motion control.
Wilson suspects people have been "bamboozled" by the sci-fi promises that surround motion control solutions. Instead of getting the Holodeck, they get controls that sometimes work, sometimes don't.
All three aspects are interlinked: Players end up with high expectations, and when those high hopes are repeatedly dashed by subpar games that are inherently difficult to design, it puts developers on the losing end of the benefits vs. price standoff that occurs when the average player is browsing at GameStop.
Harmonix's Dance Central
"The rhetoric goes that motion control is supposed to be like the Holodeck or virtual reality," says Wilson. "People expect it to be more immersive, because you're actually doing the actions.
"But it's never like that, because all these controllers are kind of goofy and the technology is actually pretty crude, and will continue to be crude for years," he says. "We're years away from being Hamlet on the Holodeck."
Wilson says he hears people comment, "Maybe when we finally get a better Kinect, we can actually make better games." Wilson says that reasoning points to a larger problem – maybe game developers are trying to apply the gesture technology we currently have available to the wrong kinds of video games.
"Now, I don't think this is the only approach, but a lot of the best [motion games] are really about the social experience in front of the screen," he says. "Dance Central
does this well, DDR
does this well, because it's fun to watch people dance. WarioWare Smooth Moves
is about watching people do stupid stuff. It's actually not about immersion in some virtual world.
"It's about getting people to do stupid crap with weird plastic controllers. … I don't think the industry really put in the time, research or thinking to make radical new stuff."
To Wilson, the real future of motion control may lie beyond the big three. "I think it's going to go beyond the console," he says. "Maybe it's the Nerfs of the world, maybe the Sifteo-like devices that are toy/gaming platforms that are taking the digital play outside the confines of the major console market. I don't even know if that's a good thing. It just seems like the three major companies are having this identity crisis around this stuff."
Then Wilson suggested another platform that seems to temper all three challenges of gesture-based games that rely on socializing and physicality. "Maybe everything is moving to mobiles, where you have the Fingle
s and the Spaceteam
s," he says offhand.
Perhaps he's more right than he suspects. Smartphones and tablets are where there are existing, successful gesture design practices to draw from; the price/value standoff is less of an issue; and peoples' expectations for mobile games are typically not too inflated.
Of course, there are all kinds of other issues with mobile game development that we don't need to get into here.
"I'm not giving up!" laughs Wilson, "since I am trying to release a motion-controlled game [Sportsfriends
] myself on PS3 and hopefully PS4."
Wilson wonders if the next generation of consoles will have another breakout hit to blow the doors open again on motion controlled games – another Rock Band
or Wii Sports
"You hear people say, 'Maybe gamers just don't care about motion control.' That's what the 'wisdom' on the street says, whether or not you want to believe it," says Wilson. "It seems like Wii Sports
was just an era, and now people are retreating from that. I think that's a real bummer, but I hope I'm proven wrong.
"...It's fun watching people act like idiots in front of the screen."