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.