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To Have and to Hold

28/07/2009 Family Family Gamer Article
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To Have and to Hold Article

To Have and to Hold

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Controllers have evolved over the years to suite the audience and the games or each era. Today, we have Nintendo honing the precision of their device while Microsoft is waxing lyrical of their anti-controller. Will the future of the video game controller an evolution of what has been, or a radical departure? While the Natal controller is exciting and genuinely revolutionary, MotionPlus is going to be a tough act to beat.

Microsoft recently unveiled their stereoscopic camera movement detector, codenamed Natal. This combines with technology that understands the human frame to understand the movements people are making. This means you can play games by just moving your body. The game simply detects your bodily movements, and in such high fidelity that you can play sports, draw pictures and drive cars accurately and consistently.

The buzz in the industry is reminiscent of the Wii's announcement- there is revolution in the air. The combination of the science fiction idea together with technology that demonstrateably works (not to mention comprehensive development support) are enough to signal a potential new day for how families play games.

Nintendo asks players to pay the price of picking up the controller.

The simple image of siblings and parents stood in front of the screen unencumbered, gesturing through menus before literally jumping around and motioning while they play their game is as compelling as it is simple - and Microsoft know it. But more than this they know that this death of the controller removes the barrier for new players. And new players are a big target market for them to be able to create an ongoing profitable games business.

This is the trick that Nintendo have consistently delivered upon - profit. Theirs has been built around a very different controller ethos though. Unlike Microsoft's revolution, the Wii represents more of an evolution (ironic for those that remember its original name).

Rather than removing the controller they have done their best to simplify it. Styled as an unobtrusive TV remote control, the device easily nestles amongst the other control wands in the living room. It evolves the usual multi-buttoned, dual-sticked controllers into a simple sleek single-handed unit.

But this isn't a device about dumbing down the experience. At the same time it evolves the controls to add more precision and nuance that has been previously seen in the living room. The pointing provides a mouse-like analogue direction control without being bound to a desk. The accelerometers detect the player's gross movements and create a whole new grammar of interaction that is still being mined. And now, MotionPlus extends this precision by providing orientation control so the game knows which way the Wii-mote is facing.

Nintendo asks players to pay the price of picking up the controller. But once they have it in their hand they are connected to the game in precise, nuanced and direct ways.

Microsoft on the other hand is looking to remove that barrier completely. They do away with the need to hold anything to play a game. This is compelling and technology impressive however; history has proven that people are often attached to the things they touch. It wasn't long ago that the internet was supposed to signal the death of the book, or email the death of the cell phone. But people are tactile and like the things we carry around in our pockets.

Microsoft has more to prove, and need their own Wii-sports

In fact having nothing to touch can make some experiences more intimidating than having buttons. Have you used a photo booth that detects when you are seated and automatically takes you picture, it's both spooky and confusing. No touch means no feedback and no rumble - something that has become very important in video games the last five years.

But then there are some very simple interactions that work wonderfully without touch - automatic sliding doors and cars that unlock when the key is in proximity. This is the technology that we don't even notice is there, it simply does its job while we get on with life. If Natal can achieve this level of unobtrusive simplicity it can't fail to succeed.

Nintendo have already proven their motion controls work in the market, and MotionPlus just builds on this. Microsoft has more to prove, and need their own Wii-sports, the one simple game that demonstrates how simple, easy and intuitive their technology is. They need to do this before showing complex interactions like Lionhead's Milo character. It's still true in gaming that the success of any hardware is dependent on the software it runs.

Written by Andy Robertson

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Andy Robertson writes the Family Gamer column.

"Videogame reviews for the whole family, not just the kids. I dig out videogame experiences to intrigue and interest grownups and children. This is post-hardcore gaming where accessibility, emotion and storytelling are as important as realism, explosions and bravado."

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