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Wii Remote: Nintendo's Generational Lock-in
by Matt Matthews on 08/06/10 10:30:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Normally I write about numbers, data, and facts with a few opinions on what the short-term future may hold. What I want to say today isn't like that at all. It's a pair of anecdotal data points that have me wondering about the longer term future of consoles, and in particular controllers for those systems.

We have two main consoles in our home -- a Sony PlayStation 3 and a Nintendo Wii. I spend my time mostly on the PS3, but my elder son (age 7) plays both systems about equally. His current favorite games (no particular order) are Animal Crossing (for the GameCube, played on the Wii), Super Mario Galaxy, LEGO Batman (PS3 version), LittleBigPlanet, and Joe Danger. My son has completed -- on his own -- most of SMG, Batman, and LittleBigPlanet.

During the winter of 2009 one of his friends -- approximately the same age -- came over to visit and I observed while my son showed him how to play LEGO Batman. Within 10 minutes the other boy became frustrated with the game, in particular the controls, and simply put down the controller while my son continued to try to play. Later the same kid was completely engrossed by Mario Kart Wii, and won several races while playing against my son.

Just this past week another friend, also about the same age, came over and my son tried to introduce him to LittleBigPlanet. Again, the controller presented serious problems for the visitor. Navigating the pop-up menu, decorating his character, and simultaneously jumping while grabbing a surface proved to be very challenging. While he never put down the controller, he was visibly annoyed at what I believe he saw as the game's abstruse interface.

Each of these other children has only a Wii for a videogame system at home. They mostly own Wii Sports, Wii Play, Mario Kart, and perhaps a few other titles. I'm fairly confident that, prior to visiting our home, they'd never spent much time at all with what I'd call a traditional console controller.

Which leaves me wondering, seriously, whether these kids will have any inclination to play games on future consoles unless the interfaces are as intuitive as one finds in the standard first-party Wii games. An entire generation of children, raised on these games and these controllers, could very well turn away from the complex controllers that I -- and now my son -- find natural enough today.

I don't know for sure, but I suspect this is part of the drive behind Kinect and Move. Without sufficient entry-level control systems and games with intuitive interfaces, millions of children will find other ways to spend their gaming money.

It also seems likely to me that Nintendo will be forced to keep the Wii remote, or some extension of it, available in the next generation system it will make.

In previous generations we've seen exclusive software franchises courted as a means of locking consumers into a particular platform. This is, after all, what Final Fantasy VII and Grand Theft Auto 3 did for the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, respectively. (Admittedly, the Xbox eventually got GTA games, but for a while the PS2 was the only console option.)

For the next generation, I believe controls will determine the choice of many consumers, at least initially, and the Wii remote seems likely the leading contender.

Nothing is assured, however, and just to make it clear that the experiences I've described need not be indicative of where today's kids will end up, there is a small postscript to one of the stories above. When my son and his friend finished up LittleBigPlanet and headed for the dinner table, the friend exclaimed unprompted "That was fun!"

Given his frustration with controlling the sackboy and the PlayStation controller more generally, his conclusion was completely unexpected. The Wii remote was certainly a revelation, and it seems to have brought many new children and adults into gaming. But if it is a gateway to games, it could be that engaging games will still be attractive to kids even if the controllers required are complicated to learn.

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Brad Borne
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Has far more to do with the software than the hardware. With games like LittleBigPlanet, the more the developer lets the player do, the more the player will need to do, and I never found much of LBP to actually be fun, so I can't blame the kid. It's just another floaty, ambiguous game that lacks a lot of tactile feedback. We all grew up on games that were flippin' hard, but there was never any question as to what the player had to do get better. Failing at a game is no where near as frustrating as not knowing why you just failed at a game.

Doesn't matter if it's a Wiimote or not, Nintendo's just one of those few companies that knows that the player must understand what they're doing the very second they pick up the controller.

Besides, every console of the next generation is almost guaranteed to have some sort of motion controller at the start, even if it's optional. Because that's what all the companies think is responsible for Nintendo's success, when it's really the image they made for themselves, and the software backing up that image that's just a tad more polished and responsive than anything else you're going to find out there.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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When there is a fancy new method for doing something, most people over a certain age will complain about it, and most people below a certain age will simply master it. Our brains have become wired to push buttons on controllers. But young kids' brains are becoming wired for wii remote gestures, and they probably find them much more reliable than reviewers complaining about waggle.

There is probably a good example of this every few years. Email and text messaging are recent ones.

Evan Sparks
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the wii remote has it's own set of challenges, not the least of which being accessories. Nunchuk, classic controller, gun shells or tennis racquets, vitality sensors... to me it seems overly complicated for what is touted as bringing simplicity back to gaming.

then we have the gestural problem- each game presents it's own set of gestures often distinct from other games, which require learning in order to proceed with the game. I don't believe it's intuitive to a child the difference between steering in Mario Kart and steering in Excite Truck. Shooting an arrow in one game may involve pointing at the screen and pressing a button, in another it's holding the remote vertically and pulling back the nunchuk. Ultimately I don't think gestural control is any less complex than fine mechanical control, and it's simply a case of preferring that which we are most use too. In the long-run they serve different gameplay purposes, and the best games - and controllers - will recognise that.

Gary Voth
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Intersting... I think this observation has merit, at least for those younger kids growing up on only the motion controller. However, it's seriously the opposite in our home (and among our sons' circle of friends). Playtime on the Xbox 360 dwarfs that on the Wii. I can't even remember when our sons (current ages 7 and 12) asked for a new Wii game. When they have played the Wii for more than a casual sesssion of Wii Sports, it's usually a Gamecube game such as StarFox or Metroid Prime in which they use a traditional controller.

Jake May
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It's also worth bearing in mind the evolution that controllers went through from the early Atari consoles, NES and SNES up to PS2/Xbox/Game Cube, from very simple, minimal button layouts that were quick and easy to get to grips with, to multi-input devices swathed in buttons.

For those that grew up with the console generations the increase in complexity and functionality between each generation was marginal and for the most part logical, but for those trying to jump on the gaming bandwagon the learning curve at each step became increasingly baffling. With the Wii and DS, Nintendo effectively hit the reset button, focusing once more on one-to-one, intuitive controls and finally opening up gaming to an audience that had either never played games or had fallen out of the loop and was finding it tough to get back in.

Often the question that follows from this is framed diametrically: will history repeat itself, with controllers again becoming increasingly complex with each platform generation, or has the wind changed direction, with a drive to eliminate - or at least minimise - physical control devices altogether, as Microsoft are attempting with Kinect.

This, I feel, sets up a false dichotomy - If anything, the current console cycle is showing us that the market can quite happily support a plethora of input devices, from Rock Band, DJ Hero and Wii Fit that are designed for specific products, to motion controls and traditional dual stick controllers, generic devices for a range of games.

To return to the issue raised by the post, the point is not whether the entry-level interface for new gamers will be motion controls or button inputs, but whether developers can successfully make the best use of the available input technologies to make their products as accessible and intuitive to experience as possible without compromising gameplay.

Fortunately the options available to acheive that goal are constantly improving; for example, although technologies such as head-tracking, facial-expression and voice recognition are still far from perfect, they offer new opportunities to rehabilitate controls that have traditionally sat awkwardly on controllers. Likewise, as gesture recognition advances more controls may find a suitable home there. However, for other inputs buttons and analogue sticks will always be most practical as they provide a level of feedback and fidelity that can't be captured with motion recognition alone.

David Wesley
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First, I completely agree with Jake. Moreover, as long as engineers and developers can continue to create intuitive interfaces, they will continue to attract new gamers.

Will these kids "have any inclination to play games on future consoles"? In the end, the Wii will help to promote traditional console gaming more than hinder it. For one, Nintendo has introduced more families to gaming who might otherwise have remained non-gamers ("a gateway to games"). As these children get older, many will want to try out different gaming experiences, including traditional consoles and PC games.

Our research has found that brand loyalty is extremely low for video game hardware. Instead, it is centered on genres (RPGs, Shooters, etc.) and franchises (Zelda, Mario Bros., etc.), which is why exclusivity is so important for console makers. Still, gamers are always on the lookout for new experiences, and that will lead them inevitably to purchase a wider range of hardware and software.

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Ian Uniacke
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I agree totally with Christian. I had a summer where basically all I was playing was the wii. When I went back to the traditional controls they felt clunky...even though I grew up playing with these kind of controllers.

I think there is a bit of both at play. Inherantly I think the wii's controller is more cleanly designed (imo) but also it's a bit a case of what you're used to.