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Opinion: The Motion Controller War - A Next-Gen Console War By Any Other Name...
Opinion: The Motion Controller War - A Next-Gen Console War By Any Other Name... Exclusive
October 16, 2009 | By Kris Graft

October 16, 2009 | By Kris Graft
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    20 comments
More: Console/PC, Columns, Exclusive



[Microsoft and Sony are readying their answers to the Wii in Project Natal and the "wand." With this midstream change in strategy, are we essentially about to enter a new console generation? Gamasutra's Kris Graft investigates...]

We are on the verge of console wars phase 2.0. I'm referring specifically to how the big three console makers -- Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo -- are preparing for a three-console motion-sensing controller war. And strangely enough, all three solutions are completely legit. Who could have predicted that five years ago?

Of course, it was Nintendo that fired the shot heard 'round the world. Remember when Nintendo unveiled the "Revolution" back in 2005? Coming off of the missteps the company took with the N64 and GameCube, it was common opinion that the company had officially lost its mind -- psychosis was seemingly confirmed when Nintendo named it "Wii."

But over 50 million Wiis sold later, Nintendo's proclamation that it would create disruptive technology didn't seem like empty words, but a real concept engineered and marketed pretty brilliantly. Now, Microsoft and Sony are readying to launch their answer to the mass market question that Nintendo addressed three years ago with the Wii.

With Microsoft's Project Natal 3D camera/multi-array microphone and Sony's motion control wand/camera solution, industry watchers expect new input devices to help extend the life of the current console generation well beyond the typical five-year lifecycle. High-definition consoles are dropping in price, and once Project Natal and Sony's motion controller arrive, we could essentially have three "Wiis" on the market.

Are Sony and Microsoft wise to implement such a major strategy shift at this point in time? And why are they even trying such a paradigm shift? The answers depend on a few important unknowns -- but let's go through what Nintendo's competitors bring to the table, before passing judgment.

Microsoft's Project Natal

Microsoft is investing a lot of time, money, and resources into Project Natal. The company has said that it plans on essentially re-launching the Xbox 360 when Project Natal is ready to hit market, as if to say, "Forget what you knew, this is what we're about now." Microsoft is really going for a fundamental change of strategy in terms of marketing and game development as it aggressively targets a wide scope of gamers and non-gamers.

Two major unknown factors for Project Natal's success are launch games that are easy, fun, and show off the new hardware to positive effect (Wii Sports put into practice just how important this is), and the specifics of the device's marketing strategy (Will games be packed in? Is there going to be a revised Xbox 360 to launch alongside Natal?).

If either of these aspects are poorly executed, it'll be exceedingly difficult to overcome the public mindset that the Wii is the motion controlled gaming machine for the masses. Not only that, but Microsoft will also have to convince potential customers that they need a 3D camera for their Xbox 360, and talking the average Walmart shopper into that proposition is a tough task.

A third major unknown factor is price, which is still up in the air. A Variety quote from Microsoft Entertainment and Devices Division honcho Robbie Bach made me a bit nervous: "Relative to Natal, we’ll see how the pricing cost works out. But people should except that it will go through the usual price curve."

When you start talking about "price curves" for add-ons, I have to wonder just how much this thing is going to cost? The quote could mean nothing at all -- all electronics follow some kind of price curve. But again, when you're up against Nintendo, whose Wii and its motion-sensing controllers have appeared in everything from Tropic Thunder to nursing homes, you've got a pretty big wall to climb, so you better price this controller for the masses at a mass market price.

(Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter recently told IndustryGamers that he believes Project Natal will cost just $50, and Sony's wand to be no more than $100.)

That said, the fact that both the Wii and Project Natal are capable of sensing motion is pretty much where the similarities end, as far as the two technologies go. Project Natal works really, really well for certain types of games, especially thanks to the depth sensing capabilities of the infrared camera in Natal, and major publishers who've signed on at this state are convinced that Microsoft can make something happen.

Sony's Motion Controller

Sony has said that it plans on releasing its motion controller sometime in the spring of next year. We still know relatively little about it -- like Project Natal, we don't even have an official name for the device. At this point, Sony doesn't appear to be planning an all-out re-defining of its console, but Sony Computer Entertainment chief Kaz Hirai has said that he intends the motion controller to be a "second standard controller" for PS3.

Already, Sony has said certain games, such as LittleBigPlanet, will get software updates that will add motion controller capabilities, something that Project Natal will likely not offer, due to the difficulty of making such changes, Microsoft has said. Also, Capcom said that it will release a version of Resident Evil 5 that will support Sony's wand controller.

Sony is walking a careful line, trying to offer a solution to make games more accessible, while not alienating PlayStation's large base of core gamers. The company has been clear about the inclusion of the hardcore PlayStation gamer in its "magic wand" plans. It's a focused and rather safe strategy that will potentially turn the PS3 into a high-def Wii with additional camera-related effects possible - although the games will need both a PlayStation Eye camera and the motion controller, making its setup more complex than some of the other solutions.

Like Microsoft, pricing, marketing, and software will be crucial components for Sony's motion controller to be successful. Are we going to see a PS3 motion control console bundle? Will games be packed in with the device? What kind of third-party games will we see? It looks like Microsoft and Sony both announced this hardware relatively early compared to game development, in order to start the hype early.

Now What?

Nintendo Wii's sales numbers are declining, and now there's the concern that the company might not be able to hit its Wii unit sales target for this fiscal year. Sony and Microsoft looked to the Wii at the height of the hype and have developed their direct answers to the Wii, but with Wii unit sales in decline here in the U.S. and Japan, should Microsoft and Sony worry that people are now "over" motion control?

Nah. People aren't over motion control any more than they are over traditional controllers. They're all just input devices, and what matters is implementation. The landscape of the games industry is littered with peripherals that failed because they didn't have good software to go with them, or because they were too pricey, and many of those failures were nowhere near as capable and flexible as Project Natal and Sony's motion controller appear to be. And both of the companies seem to be extremely committed to these new devices.

Nintendo has no real reason to change its strategy to counteract competitors' moves. It's still the hardware sales leader, outselling Xbox 360 and PS3 regularly (although the PS3 outsold the Wii in Japan in September thanks to Sony's price cuts). Nintendo has already taken a crucial step in keeping the Wii competitive by lowering its price $50 to $199.

If all goes well, Microsoft and Sony will initiate more growth in the industry, and bring new gamers into the fold with lower-priced consoles and more accessible input methods. All three console makers offer different motion control-based strategies, and don't necessarily overlap in what they will ultimately offer consumers.

But the impact that Sony's and Microsoft's controller have on the industry might be limited because the fact remains that they are both afterthought add-ons. They're supplemental controllers that were not at the core of the company's console strategy from the get-go. This contrasts against the Wii remote, which is a central part of the Wii console experience. If Sony and Microsoft really want their controllers to set some kind of standard, they're going to have make like Nintendo and take some real risks that will have them rise to heaven or sink to hell, as Hiroshi Yamauchi might put it.

We'll probably see some fantastic interactive experiences coming from both the Sony motion controller and Project Natal. But just how necessary is it to introduce these new control methods mid-cycle? Why are Sony and Microsoft doing it?

Analyst Doug Creutz with Cowen and Company recently told us that he thought Project Natal is "a technological solution in search of a problem." Although Creutz in particular found Sony's solution more practical, the same argument could be said about both Sony and Microsoft's new devices.

So the question is "why now?" Microsoft says it's introducing Natal to "break down barriers" of gaming. Sony says the motion controller is meant to "add to the PS3's interactive capabilities." This is certainly the most proactive that we've seen Microsoft and Sony at this point in a console cycle. But after these motion controller launches, is it really the same console cycle?

The answer is that for Sony and Microsoft, motion controllers are their next-gen consoles. And it's a damn sight easier than launching Xbox 720 or PS4. They can debut these peripherals without needing to engineer completely new boxes for consumers, potentially bundle them over time, and they have a much better chance at getting exclusive games, thanks to the specificity of the hardware (something that's happened a lot for the Wii). Thus, both hardware manufacturers and publishers like EA see these controllers sparking new interest in Xbox 360 and PS3, which will delay the next dreaded console transition for another few years.

Are these new devices expensive to develop and support? Sure. But it's still cheaper than launching a whole new system, and that's why Natal vs. PS3 Motion Controller vs. Wii MotionPlus (another incremental hardware upgrade we haven't mentioned!) is really the next-gen console war by another name. Now it's just a matter of sitting back and watching the arms flail from the comfort of my couch. My limbs are getting tired just thinking about it.


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Comments


Samuel Fiunte Matarredona
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interesting read, so far we didn't see a lot of the possibilities of the motion sensor, and has been out for 3 months now; even with another wii sports title it's a strange strategy to release an important add on withouth a good line up of titles behind it, hopefully natal and sony's will not commit the same mistake...but all these add ons things remember me a lot to the BIG mistakes that SEGA did in its past, someone remember the Mega CD and the 32X?

Seth Strong
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32-legitimacy-eXit more like it. Nintendo would have done it too. Twice with the Super NES add on that ended up as the Playstation and as the N64 disk drive. Am I right? It's all about the implementation. If it's good, it's good and people pay a lot for plastic guitars to prove it. But you're right that this might be a chance for Microsoft and Sony to each make their own Virtual Boy reminding the savvy customer that Nintendo did it first.

Roberto Alfonso
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"They're supplemental controllers that were not at the core of the company's console strategy from the get-go. This contrasts against the Wii remote, which is a central part of the Wii console experience."



That is the key. Sony's attempt may go the way EyeToy went, and while Natal looks futuristic, people would not use it to select a game just to pick the controller later: they would just use the controller for that.

Adam Flutie
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"we could essentially have three "Wiis" on the market"



No. Only Microsoft has hinted at packaging their motion control in with the hardware. That means 2 "Wiis" on the market and one with a already dead peripheral that isn't worth programming for. And still, the X360 still won't have a reasonable install base for some time for the device. I think it is already over and we will only have one "Wii" until the next iteration of consoles. Unless they can find a 'system seller' to sell this tech that everyone must own...



"should Microsoft and Sony worry that people are now "over" motion control?"



I think you had this right, then rebuffed yourself. I actually think 'motion control' is on a decline. The Wii got a lot of hype from the wii sports, get up and move marketing... but I still think its biggest draw and selling point wasn't motion control, but that is completely off topic

Maurício Gomes
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If motion controllers were all that usefull and people really loved them, they would be wildly popular now, since I remember seeing a retail joystick with gyroscope that was a sort of "floating joystick" in a picture of 1960.



WHAT? 1960?



Yes! There was a controller alike the Wii-remote in 1960.

Also in the 80s we had those gun controllers...



Also to complete, I think that Natal is just a cool stuff to show, but I would hate use it, to me it is not intuitive at all, and seemly it will have serious problems with interference (what happen if you are fat? think? lack an arm? extremely black person? extremely white person? using bright clothes? using no closhes? using dark clothes? a cat jumps on your head? the room is too dark? the room is too bright? there are a mirror behind you in the room?)



The PS3 wand in my view is the best strategy, it is just a aditional controller, not the focus, and being NOT the focus is its strength (we will not see the invasion of crappy games with crazy control schemes... like the spam of DS games that you control the character with the pen, sometimes being rather crappy the control SCRIBBLENAUTS I AM LOOKING TO YOU). Also the idea behind PS3 wand (use the eyetoy to track coloured balls) is really old and proven, not hard at all to develop (there are even open-source projects that do the same using yellow kitchen gloves and webcams...)

Josh Green
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I'd be careful about attributing Wii hardware sales decline to a decline in public interest for the system. Despite stock market gains and other positively-trending factors in the economy, unemployment worldwide is still extremely high. Given that consumer spending is reduced and consumer saving is increasing, it would be logical to conclude that Wii's lower numbers is attributed to consumer inability/unwillingness to spend disposable income on pricey entertainment products.

Benjamin Solheim
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It could also be that everyone who wants a WII has bought one by now, they did sell 50 million of them.

Bo Banducci
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Helder made a good point when he noted that the PS3 Wand's strength is that it is only a supplement, not a replacement for the controller. Motion devices can make certain activities very fun, but they should not try to do what controllers do better. When a developer uses motion controls where it's not optimal, they release a crappy game. In the same vein, I think Natal could provide a truly unique game experience, but it will be quite a design challenge to make motion control easier to use than sticks and buttons in an FPS, Fighter, Action-game etc. Sadly, this is where the nature of business comes to play. If Microsoft said, "Natal is going to allow us to experiment with some very interesting gameplay concepts, but for the most part we'll still be developing awesome controller-based games" no one but the hardcore and game designers would buy into it. Everyone has to hype their new peripheral literally as a "revolution" in order to get people to buy it. Sony appears to be the most straight-forward by not marketing the Wand as life-changing, but they won't attract new demographics this way.



I don't dismiss motion or any other type of extra-control, I'm just saying I haven't seen it implemented all that well. There is no denying it's potential - Wii Boxing with a controller would be dull, but with motion it is an incredible experience (before you get bored of it). As of now though, motion-control is mostly just an oversold gimmick, and the fact that the controller-using Super Smash Bros Brawl is probably the funnest game on the Wii is Exhibit A.



And Joshua's point needed to be said. Couldn't the decline in Wii sales just be part of a global economic trend unconnected to the system's appeal?

A W
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I think Microsoft and Sony need to start talking massive developer support, and start getting workable demos up using their devices to show that they are really serious about supporting motion controllers. It seems to me that much of the industry is still anemic to the idea, and just having Capcom come out and start talking about patching an old game to use your wand doesn't make for great news. No software means dead on arrival, no bundle means no support for concept by hardware maker. PS3 and Xbox 360 have price problems and adding more hardware on to a piece of hardware that is still quite expensive is going to need some clever marketing involved to sell it to the public.

Maurício Gomes
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I know what can sell wands like water: A Star Wars game with Lightsaber :P That mimicks the demo that Sony showed on E3 (a NOT MOVING character, hacking people around... yes, don't make the character walk please! If you really want add that sort of mobility, put him on rails...)

Joseph Vasquez II
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Seems to me like if Nintendo wants to rebury the competition, all they'd have to do next year is release a camera for the Wii, preferably alongside a nice set of DSi style camera games. If that happens it will be very difficult to convince some 25+ million Wii owners who don't own a 360 to go pay $300+ for one with Natal when they can just pay $50 or less for a Wii camera add-on. Knowing Nintendo they might even package the thing for free with a game. And a pulse reader.

shawna olwen
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Hard to judge how the economic downturn affected the numbers vs. the theory's of saturation or complacently with the current wii. Interesting comment Joseph... I guess just the tic-tac-toe of having first mover position, but they will also have to release a beefier implementation than just arcade and mario's.



I do think that the type of games developed have just glossed the surface of what is possible with that type of controller, and what is lacking is the tech and/or kahuna's to immerse it into a typical AAA shooter or action title ( no offense mario, and i di think there is a place for arcade style games:-). For this to happen the all players must be on the same method of control, or at least the motion based products should provide some sort of advantage to the user. (psst - this will propagate the market with or without the camera or wand bundled). What would help this? A commitment for more developer support and a super strong commitment from the makers that the motion controllers are a big key in their plans, I believe these two things would be first steps in the right direction.



Why do I think that motion controllers are going to be a natural for the control of games. just think about the loop that the current model has, you have screen ->eye ->controller/twitch -> Screen (repeat to infinity). With the motion controlled camera based methods, you have screen ->eye ->natural motion -> Screen. Once integrated I think it will feel more natural and the gamer will be actuating the game rather than reacting to it. For example I cried the day that the sys-admin walked into my cube and replaced my Alias 6 with Maya 1.0... why? because I was extremely familiar with the menus and motions, which made me extremely productive, I had greased those brain paths, and now I had to learn new ones. - FB

Alex Prach
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The Wii-mote was initially designed for the Gamecube, now considering that the Wii is basically a Gamecube with a slightly more powerful processor. But considering the number of failures that Nintendo/Sega have had with add-on peripherals (e.g. sega-cd, keyboard, fishing rod adapter). For marketing reasons and to direct third party developers towards non-standard gaming they had to get rid of the usual game-pad as the "main" method of control. Nintendo does this with every iteration of their console game pads, first it was the d-pad, then the analog stick then the stylus, and then the motion control. If they did not make these controls the focus of the new system then games developed for them would be developed for a proportion of the existing owners. Whereas it is preferable for Nintendo and third party developers to develop for "all" or most of the owners of a device.

If Nintendo offered the Wii-mote with a CPU upgrade for the Gamecube, would it be such a success it is today, I doubt that, in the same way that the Wii-fit boards will have a limited number of games developed for them. If I were Sony or MS I would hold off development for these new controls until their next generation, or do what Nintendo did, and provide a slight upgrade to their existing systems and make the new controls the focus of the system. This would reduce the amount of work existing developers have with existing hardware, provide simple backward compatibility and also make the focus of these systems on the new controls rather than all these extra graphic number crunching processors.

Good ideas come up all the time, but it is already very difficult to promote this idea to consumers let alone developers when the idea is not in the spot-light but actually is just another "add-on", which only a limited "subset" of the existing audience currently use. A recent example of this you could say is the "Eyetoy" which is or is not a simplified version of "Natal". But either way it wasn't the hit success it could have been as Sony could not promote it fully, as the other PS adverts were more hardcore gamepad variety which diluted the Eyetoy adverts. Rockband and Guitar Hero kind of make you think the opposite could work, but they had the killer app which was karaoke with instruments, and karaoke/air guitar is already popular, so unless they find the "killer app" it is likely to fail to reach its peak.

Dmytry Lavrov
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shawna olwen:



Yes, the possibilities for camera as game controller are truly endless.... in a shooter you may zoom in when you close one eye, or dodge shots by moving your head; a puzzle game may be playable in 3 dimensions if you can move objects with your hands. Just like eyesight is the most important of human senses, a camera could become the most important input device for a computer.

shawna olwen
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Dmytry Lavrov:



I think you point about eyesight being your primary sense, with eye tracking tech you could establish the blind spots of your opponents. Besides interaction with your surrounding environment, you could also have pop up displays, a la star trek, Dmy this would be a way cool interface for your Polynomial game. - FB

Chan Chun Phang
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Alternatively though, I'm really waiting for abstract motion controls. So far, I think everyone has basically gone the wrong way with motion controls, trying to emulate/simulate reality directly.



Take for example: Letting your movements controls the flow of music. And not in an orchestra-conductor form, but closer to that of a DJ; Instead of switchboards, you have full freedom of movement.



Take for example: A "platformer" where you reach out to grab platforms for movement. Then readjust the formula for freeform flight (using the analogy because it's hard to describe otherwise).



We've barely touched the full capabilities of motion controls, so I wouldn't write it off just yet.

John Woods
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Wow, that actually makes pretty good sense to me dude! Well done!



RT

www.anonymous.ua.tc

Kenneth Mitchner
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Nothing new is happening that hasn't happened with previous gaming generations.. Though the previous generation with DVD driven games introduced the full motion video to the video game market, we also saw the introduction of DDR and Guitar Hero, both great examples of controller accessories.. But if we go back to the beginning, Nintendo and Sega both had light guns, and Nintendo came out with arcade style joysticks, the "power pad" which was basically the first DDR pad.. and not to mention the power glove which was basically the first motion controller. After that we started seeing all sorts of things like realistic F16 flight controls and steering wheels as racing games became popular. I even remember something for the PC that was basically an exact duplicate of the Wii remote back in the late 90s (I wonder what happened to their patent?) marketed towards FPS players with a light gun for your right hand and a analog stick for your left. Sure we are getting much better making these technologies work more smoothly and be more fun.. Im all for that, but I just can't bring myself to believe that they are being an innovative as other people seem to think.



Typing "Comparison of console controllers" in wikipedia and click through some of them, You'll be suprised to find things that you thought were new ideas that have been introduced before and failed.. sure they are going to work better today.. but everything is old news.

David Wesley
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Your comment: "Remember when Nintendo unveiled the "Revolution" back in 2005? Coming off of the missteps the company took with the N64 and GameCube, it was common opinion that the company had officially lost its mind."



My memory was different. I recall long lineups to try the Wii remote when Revolution was first unveiled at E3 2005 and business analysts were extremely positive about Nintendo's new console. I don't recall anyone in the industry saying that Nintendo had "lost its mind," although some core gamers may have thought it. However, as we all now know, core gamers weren't the market Nintendo was after.





RE: "Analyst Doug Creutz with Cowen and Company recently told us that he thought Project Natal is a technological solution in search of a problem."



I think the problems are clear enough and Microsoft knows them. The company does not just want a share of the core gamer market, it wants to dominate the living room. The Netflix partnership is a perfect example of Microsoft's efforts to reach beyond gaming. However, the controller remains a significant barrier to many people and Natal will go much further than the Wii remote in addressing the complexity that has turned so many people off of game consoles.

Kris Graft
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David: I think your first point is a fair comment. Certainly there were different reactions to the Wii Remote from different groups. Among core gamers anyway, Nintendo may have been seen like some kind of mad scientist or eccentric inventor at that point in time, and coming off of the decisions that held back the N64 and GameCube, there was a good dose of skepticism mixed in with the excitement regarding whether or not Nintendo could pull it off.


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