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Point and Shoot: Lessons In Wii FPS Control

March 30, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

It wasn't supposed to be like this. In a private room near the Makuhari Messe convention center in 2005, Shigeru Miyamoto guided select groups of journalists through a series of demos to show off the newly-unveiled Wii Remote. One of the most impressive was a port of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes using the remote's IR capabilities to show how the Wii might dramatically reshape the first-person shooter.

The controller promised to make FPS controls more approachable and precise with an interface as simple as literally pointing to aim. The addition of gestural controls suggested a whole new layer of interactive immersion, lending automated actions a sense of weight and approximate physical motion.

But none of that actually happened. In the intervening years, few publishers have invested serious resources into developing the genre on Wii. Many Wii shooters have been ports or budget titles without much production value.

There have been a few notable success stories, and some interesting gambles, but more than four years after the Wii's release, the first-person potential remains largely untapped.

With the coming release of Microsoft's Natal and Sony's PlayStation Move, it seems unlikely that this state of affairs can afford to continue. Microsoft has yet to unveil its formal software plans for Natal, but Sony has already announced that shooters like SOCOM 4 and Resident Evil 5 will be compatible with Move.

It's inevitable that there are several more on the way, on both platforms. All three motion interfaces use different technology, but each will have to reckon with some core design challenges that many Wii developers have already encountered.

What successes have there been in the Wii shooter world? Is there still hope for a better future with the shooter, on the Wii and beyond? What obstacles remain to be overcome?

Enter the Bounding Box: The Problems of Looking and Shooting

The concept of pointing where you want to shoot seems so intuitive, but there was a confounding obstacle from the beginning. Wii shooters typically require a bounding box to separate aim control from view control, which creates an entirely new design problem that's not present on PC or dual analog shooters. Ubisoft's Red Steel, the Wii's exclusive launch shooter, wrestled with this problem. Many reviewers were unimpressed with the wide bounding box solution, which required players to drag the aiming reticule to the far end of the screen to rotate the camera.

Red Steel 2

"At the time that Red Steel 1 came out the whole concept of 'steering' with the WiiMote was in its infancy and we had precious little time for polish as the game was destined to ship at launch," Jason Vandenberghe, creative director on Red Steel 2, told me.

While moving the reticule across the screen was perfectly sensitive, the confusion between when aiming stopped and when camera rotation started created a sense of disorientation, something every Wii shooter since has had to grapple with.

"The biggest bone of contention we found with Wii FPS's is the critical moment the camera turns your viewpoint," Eric Nofsinger, chief creative officer for High Voltage Software, said. "On the flipside, you cannot really map aim and the camera 1-to-1 like mouse and keyboard; it would end up feeling a bit nauseating."

Released less than a year into the Wii's lifecycle, Retro Studios' Metroid Prime 3: Corruption introduced the idea of camera lock-on to handle the discrepancy. Players could lock the view into place by holding down the Z button at any time, making it possible to fine aim with the cursor while not affecting the view at all. When not locked in-place, the cursor worked primarily as camera control.

"Since exploration is of equivalent weight to us as shooting in the game, we had to balance the requirements of understandable player movement control with the tactical requirements of combat," Retro president and CEO Michael Kelbaugh told me.

"There was a great amount of time spent feeling out things like the dead zone size, player turn velocity, where at the edge of the view area does the player begin to turn, the ability to decouple lock-on from aiming and also how the helmet fit in with the control set (i.e. was there going to be a little separation in helmet turn lag from the player turn lag to make it feel like the head was turning inside the helmet)."

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Prash Nelson-Smythe
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"I've even resorted to resting my forearm on my leg to give it a stable base when playing similar games on the Wii. It's only a partial solution but one that no amount of tech will potentially solve."

This is the only way that I have ever used the Wii pointer. If you sit down, rest your arm down and make sure your sensor above the TV and not below it, you can get a lot of precision with small, relaxed wrist movements. I can't imagine trying to stick my arm out at the screen for long periods. This is why I am confused by the PS Move ad where there is a guy playing a first person shooter, standing and awkwardly hunched in front of his screen holding his arms high with one pointing at the screen. Who the hell would do that??

Would it be better to use a bounding circle/oval than a bounding box?

Using a mouse gives you absolute control over your viewpoint and your aim. By this I mean that moving it left by distance x will always move your view/aim left by angle y. This allows for a lot of precision and speed. It also lets you turn left indefinitely by lifting the mouse to place it somewhere else without registering movement. Using an analogue stick to control your view/aim gives you relative control. You are not giving a position as input, you're giving a speed of direction of change, hence an added layer of abstraction and reduced control speed/accuracy. The Wii pointer gives something between these extremes: absolute control of aim but relative control of view and so it comes somewhere between the two in terms of precision and view agility.

To be honest, when it comes to first person shooters console designers should have just made a controller with a trackball. They're about 2/3 as good as a mouse but 10 times better than an analogue stick. They are accessible and easy to use with your thumb and provide very precise and twitchable aiming. However, I can imagine they would have been put off by the fact that the ball needs to be taken out and cleaned occasionally. I am still hopeful of seeing a trackball on a console controller in future. They are sometimes used for extra accessibility for disabled or young people so maybe they could be used for accessible controls in general.

I played Metroid Prime 3 and I liked the controls but I still felt the turning was too slow. I am tempted to buy the Conduit just to see if this problem can be fixed by sensitivity customisation alone (though I doubt it). I can see it for just 8...

E Zachary Knight
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I really enjoyed this analysis of Wii FPS gaming. I think that the Wii is quite capable of handling such controls and I am glad to see the work that companies are putting into it.

I am also glad to see such a refreshing conclusion made in the article. Too many companies just give up and forget that we need pioneers in new areas of game design. The Wii's motion controls are a new frontier that needs pioneers to convert it into a viable source of game creativity. We have some really great pioneers for Platform, puzzle, fighting, sports and adventure games. The Wii has the making of great FPS pioneers. What is left are RTS and RPG pioneers. Square is doing more of the same with their Chrystal Chronicles games and I have only seen one WiiWare RTS. But even that was nothing like RTS games found on the PC.

Xander Markham
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The Wii is a wonderful system for FPS', as proven by the likes of Metroid and Red Steel 2, as well as the successful port of Modern Warfare. I've never had any difficulty using the pointer to aim: in fact, I find it infinitely more tactile and agreeable than dual analogues, which I went back to on a friend's console quite recently and found almost unusable in comparison. Naturally if you don't have a particularly steady hand, it presents a problem. However, I think that a degree of auto-aim (as is present in the outstanding Red Steel 2) is an effective solution.

The problem with selling traditional genres like FPS' on the Wii is more a case that there has yet to be a release that is both given a sense of prominence or importance by its publisher, and has the requisite level of polish to garner positive write-ups (I'm looking at you, Conduit - thankfully, details of the sequel are sounding more promising). It doesn't take a degree in psychology to know that people like to participate in big events: non-traditional gamers are obviously not completely opposed to the medium (else they wouldn't have bought a Wii in the first place), but since they'd be venturing into unknown waters, you have to both pique their curiosity and make it feel as though the experience is one they will be able to share (hence the big event marketing) so they don't feel alone.

As I said in a recent blog, motion controls present a great opportunity to break down the logic barriers that have traditionally prevented non-gamers from giving the medium a try, because it creates a link between game and control that they can understand. On the occasions when I play Wii games at home, I get interest from all sorts of unexpected people in games that marketing departments would scoff at: my mother actually wanted to have a go at Modern Warfare Reflex Edition because she thought it looked like fun (the button inputs presented problems, but she got the hang of aiming and moving well enough). I'm not saying that all mothers everywhere will start buying shooters in droves if given the opportunity, but it goes to show that non-gamers are not 'casual' or 'hardcore', just willing to try new things if they are appealing and not too difficult to understand. Red Steel 2 is an outstanding game to get non-gamers playing, as its two key play mechanics are mirrored in the actions of the motion controls: point to shoot, swipe to, erm, swipe. The problem is that since Ubisoft are releasing the game with the bare minimum of marketing, very few people who don't read gaming sites know it exists and those that do are liable to see the publisher's lack of confidence as a sign that it is a niche product. A shame, as VandenBerghe and his team did an absolutely stellar job on the title.

I might also point out that very few blockbuster games actually get released on the Wii and it's those titles that will bring traditional gamers over. MadWorld, House of the Dead, Okami, The Conduit, Dead Space Extraction... all titles with limited markets to begin with, design compromised by lack of budget or an ill-directed desire to appeal to the perceived tastes of a Wii audience that doesn't actually exist. As the article states, the big name games (Resident Evil, Call of Duty) do perfectly strong business on the console, despite its hardware compromises.

Motion controls in all their forms are in their infancy and we shouldn't expect miracles straight away. That lesson at least should have been learnt from the Wii's launch, when disappointment turned anticipation into hostility. However, when implemented well there are few genres they haven't shown signs of being able to enhance in some fashion, either through literal motions or IR-based pointer mechanics. Once publishers and developers sit down to think through both how motion control can really enhance a game as well as bridge the gap between the perceived audience divide, I think it offers a very exciting future for gaming indeed.

Elliot Green
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In real life, shooting a gun well is more involved than just pointing it and pushing the trigger.

The rifle usually needs to be rested down on a sand bag or a bi-pod. Breathing needs to be controlled, since breathing can alter the aim. Also, there needs to be a smooth pull of the trigger. And a gun held from the waist will never be accurate for more than several feet.

Several games such as Sniper Elite have simulated realistically the accurate shooting of a gun.

Xander Markham
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Well you can do all those things with IR aiming if you want to. Let's just hope that few developers ever come to expect us to.

EDIT: I just discovered that Sniper Elite is actually being ported to the Wii.

Tony Dormanesh
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No mention of Real Heroes: Firefighter. :(

Not that it revolutionized Wii FPS controls. But it does incorporate the Wiimote gestures probably better than any other Wii FPS. (Using the Axe to break stuff, Halligan tool to pry open doors, aiming the hose, etc.)

Also, spraying the hose is a good fit for the pointer based control method because it's not based off head shots or ultra accuracy... More like painting or just covering an area.

Bill has a good point too, The Conduit got hit on graphics and graphics was one of it's selling points. Real Heroes took it even harder, trying to have a real fire system that spreads on it's own, physics objects bouncing around, hose water particles and NPCs running around... All on the Wii.

With all that happening on Wii, the graphics couldn't be "next gen". And while some reviewers seemed to be able to forgive that because it's a fun game, some reviewers never got passed the graphics not being on par with 360 or Ps3.

RH:F also seemed to be the right fit for the Wii... a non-violent FPS.. no zombies, no nazi's, no blood.