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Opinion: Going Through The Motions With Gesture Control
Opinion: Going Through The Motions With Gesture Control Exclusive
January 22, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield

January 22, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[In this editorial, originally printed in Game Developer magazine's January 2010 issue, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield looks at the increasingly crowded motion control battleground as we head into this year -- asking whether Microsoft and Sony even have a chance.]

The year 2010 is upon us. It should prove to be a time of iterative improvements, rather than major hardware shifts, and the area in which this is most apparent is peripherals.

Within this year, or so it is said, there will be three home systems with motion or gesture control—the Wii of course, the PlayStation 3 with its motion wands, and the 360’s Project Natal.

Everyone’s chasing the motion and gesture train, after the success of the Nintendo DS, the iPhone, and the Wii. But is motion really the reason these consoles are successful? Partially, sure -- but that’s not the whole story.

You Look Familiar

Motion controls have been around for a long time. Light gun games in arcades and at home are primitive motion controllers, and they’ve been around since games began. One of Ralph Baer’s first prototypes before the legendary Brown Box was a light gun that worked with a television.

Touch controls, likewise, have been around for quite a while. The Nintendo DS brought it to the masses and the iPhone hammered it home, but PDAs have had touch control for years now, and have played host to games with major industry backing to boot (remember the Tapwave Zodiac?).

I would submit that aside from outstanding games like Wii Sports or Boom Blox, much of what’s done on the Wii with motion control could be done with a normal controller if a few design issues were solved. The thought struck me as I was playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii and tilting the controller to raise the end of a platform so that Mario could access a higher area. This could easily be done with shoulder buttons.

My point is not to trivialize the Wii remote, but rather to point out that what Nintendo did when it released the DS and the Wii was not to revolutionize control. There were subtle upgrades, certainly. The DS’ two screens and the Wii’s gyroscope and accelerometer were a step beyond what had been done previously, and the iPhone’s multitouch interface hadn’t really been done before with games in mind.

But the innovations were subtle. What was really disruptive, as Nintendo might say, was the marketing.

Yes, These Are Your Mom's Video Games

Nintendo told us its systems were new and disruptive, but what they told moms, grandmothers, and grandfathers was that this device was fun for everyone. They could say that this was brand new, and just for them, and mostly be right in saying it.

Nintendo took out ads in parenting and women’s magazines and blazed a trail of accessible television marketing that placed its consoles far away from the others, which were, at least in terms of marketing, very clearly for 17-year-old boys from the early days.

Nintendo reminded people that it was the company that made Mario -- and they all remembered Mario, right? That was probably the only game the target market had ever played, besides Tetris. Nintendo knew the market it was going for and targeted it perfectly -- parents, grandparents, and most importantly, families.

Now, Sony and Microsoft are releasing motion control expansions, each with the express intention of broadening its console’s markets. But can they do it from where they are now? These companies don’t have the benefit of a completely new launch with which to brand themselves, and they have spent most of their consoles’ lifetimes marketing to the hardcore.

(Let’s face it -- Nintendo, aside from perhaps a brief stint in the 90s, never targeted the hardcore very directly, always choosing to go after the youthful and light players with the bulk of its marketing bucks.)

Sony and Microsoft most likely have to rely on that 17- to 34-year-old male to bring the console into the home. Sony may have it easier here, with its Blu-ray player, but the jury’s still out on that. Both companies must market the peripherals as something they can plug into their existing system. Microsoft is rumored to be preparing an effective relaunch of Xbox 360 console with Natal, likely responding to the predicament I’m describing.

Quite simply, my question is, no matter how nice the motion controls and cameras themselves may be, will these companies be able to rebrand themselves properly for the family set while continuing to push the blockbusters that have been their bread and butter? Right now, the Xbox 360’s best selling game is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It's far from a family game, that one, and it's a market Microsoft is not likely to abandon.

Catch Me If You Can

Sony and Microsoft have a long way to go before they can steal Nintendo’s thunder. Sure, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 have the edge in terms of game-to-hardware tie ratio, but that goes hand in hand with the hardcore market. The Wii was purchased by a lot of people who only wanted Wii Sports and maybe one other Nintendo game every year thereafter.

My concern is that Sony and Microsoft have a stigma to overcome before they can get the moms and grandmas involved in their console. They’ve both spent a lot of time promoting their machines as homes of blockbusters, and unlike in Hollywood, game blockbusters only appeal to a certain set of people.

This will be a very interesting year, with battles fought between Sony and Microsoft for dominance of the hardcore set, and between all parties for the “emerging market” set. As that demographic increasingly turns to social network games and the iPhone, it will be a battle that's hard won.

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Nick Kinsman
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Just for mention, some other factors I think could have some impact on the markets ...

For starters, compare the interfaces of all 3 consoles: The Wii has channels to preview each facet of the console, and a point and press access that's no problem to pick up on. The 360, while a far cry better now than it was with the blade system, could still leave older first-time console owners bewildered. The PS3 icons abound, but it's still not nearly as intuitive on the first go. Both of these systems basic menus could take you back to the days of those wacky VCRs and their eternally blinking "12:00" clocks. :p

Another consideration is the hardware failure rates. Hopefully we're past this now, but admittedly it's likely to still crop up. It's just another thing that could leave people with very bitter tastes in their mouths, in turn leaving lasting poor impressions of the respective companies.

The Wii is easy. It was designed easy. It fits its demographic perfectly and that's fine. Simply adding motion controls ... I don't see it giving the other consoles much leverage at all. Remember, the remote IS the Wii's controller. Can we say the same about Natal and the wands? I'm sure time will tell ...

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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Good points in the article and the comment above.

"The thought struck me as I was playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii and tilting the controller to raise the end of a platform so that Mario could access a higher area. This could easily be done with shoulder buttons."

Clearly us experienced gamers would find the shoulder buttons easier but not necessarily the new ones. I remember when I was young, my friend who played mario on the NES would wildly tilt the controller as he played. I probably did it to some extent too but didn't notice! It's a natural tendency that we repress because it looks silly and didn't affect the game. I remember reading something about someone at Nintendo noticing this and wanting to incorporate it into the game, hence the Wii remote.

There is a larger trend too that has been missed here. Console makers copying Nintendo's input ideas is nothing new. Nintendo came up with virtually every controller innovation you can think of: D-pad, shoulder buttons (SNES), diamond-shaped button arrangement (SNES), analogue stick (N64), sticky-out prongs to hold make it easier to hold (N64), analogue button (GC), wireless (Wavebird) and now motion on Wii. The 360 controller feels great but the only new thing is clicking on the analogue sticks, which actually feels fiddly and so always gets assigned to the rarest actions.

In fact, when you look at it this way, motion control is not a dramatic or shocking. It is just a natural progression of Nintendo's design philosophy. People are right to point out that the Wii's broad appeal has less to do with motion controls and more to do with the way it has been designed and marketed from the ground up.

Marco Devarez
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Nicely put Nick

But are Sony and MS really trying to take that demographic away? i really dont think so, to me is a more defensive strategy than an offensive one...

and both Natal and Arc will get lots of re-worked/re-imagined Wii ports.

Somewhat off-topic but you know where i think Natal could be great? the physical rehabilitation/physical training space.

Tom Newman
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Good insight with this article!

It is true that there are certain demographics that 360 and PS3 do not appeal to, but is that even important? You can't try and please everyone all of the time without losing some of your core base.

I am a hardcore gamer, gaming since the 1970's with the 2600 and owing all major consoles and handheld systems today. I am also an important demographic. I do not know anyone I would consider a gaming peer that likes motion control. I personally think motion control is a steb back from the traditional wireless controller as it forces you to exert more physical energy than necessary. Any grade school science book will tell you that the nature of technology is to make things easier for humans. If I can hold a 14 button/2 joystick controller in my lap and don't have to move anything but my thumbs - thats what I call technological advancement in game control. Asking me to stand up and jump around, waving my arms to control a game not only feels silly, but if I wanted real excercise, nothing is stopping me from going to a real bowling alley or shooting real basketballs in my own driveway, 3 steps away from my tv. I see all these developers and publishers scramble to impliment motion control in their games, and I feel in 90% of the cases it is completely unnecessary to anyone other than their own marketing department trying to compete with the Wii.

The best example I can site is the 3rd Metroid Prime game for Wii. I played this for 20minutes before my arm got tired. My 11 year old nephew liked it, but the workout it requires to play just influenced me to pop something in my 360 instead, and I am far from alone.

I don't have to remind anyone on this board that videogames have become a huge industry attracting a diverse amount of consumers. There is a place and a market for games for soap-opera watching housewives and moms, just don't try and squeeze my beloved passtime into that mess. Let them play Wii.

Jonathan Gilmore
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Well written article. I think it will be a success for Nintendo and Microsoft if they can get the non gamers in the houseld to use their machines. Meaning that Sony and MS are doing quite well with the 17 to 34 year old males that have been buying games and consoles prior to the 360 and PS3, but not so well with anyone else. If Natal or the Sony wand cause other members of the 17-34 year old's household to play the machine, it will lead to more purchases of software and what's more it will make the console more friendly for sister/wife/mother/dad to buy the other media that both Sony and Microsoft are pushing, like movie and TV rentals.

I don't think anyone believes that everyone who bought a Wii is now going to buy a 360 or PS3 to use the motion controls. Most of the Wii owners either are actually gamers themselves and already own one of the other two systems, or they are old ladies and are put off by the very idea of dealing with the additional complexity of the PS3 and 360.

Jamie Mann
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@Prash: not wanting to be too picky, but Sega's analog pad for the Saturn was released neck and neck with the N64's controller, though the Atari 5200 beat them both to it by a decade! I've also seen infra-red wireless controllers for the Sega Megadrive/Genesis, which again predated the Wavebird by more than a little.

The key point is that Nintendo is effectively the Apple of the gaming world: they do a good job of taking technology and adapting it for the mass market. They've also done a good job of targetting the "casual" demographic which the rest of the games industry had pretty much ignored or forgotten about.

Actually, I'd argue that the Wii hasn't been successful in and of itself: it's the novelty factor of its peripherals. The Wiimote, the balance board, even Mario Kart's steering wheel: these are what have driven the big sellers (Wii Sports, Wii Play, Wii Fit, Mario Kart)

This actually implies that Sony and Microsoft have a chance to catch up with their motion-control schemes. However, apart from the fact that the Wii is already firmly entrenched, they both have a bigger problem: their titles will need to cater to the existing "hardcore" market and the casual market, which is a very difficult trick to pull off - not least because hardcore gamers tend to expect a higher level of precision/abstraction in the control mechanism than casual gamers do - as per the example in the article, tilting a wiimote is a slow and imprecise mechanism as compared to a simple button press (and the age-old FPS argument about joypads vs mouse control also holds true).

Gary Beason
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@Nick: I've thought for a long time that the Wii interface is almost Apple-like in its simplicity. The 360 NXE is still so Microsoft clunky. My wife is in high tech and works with interfaces all the time, yet, when she tries to watch a movie on the 360, she always grumbles and has problems finding the right place to go. I cannot imagine some of the casual demographic taking to it at all.

The problem is that Microsoft and even Sony to some extent are missing that the Wii's appeal isn't a feature set. The problem with being technophiles and appealing to 18-30 males is that MS thinks in terms of features and specs. As Brandon mentions, the Wii has appeals beyond the hardware--it's a history and an image, too. I also don't think the value of Wii Sports can be underestimated--a free game that was fun, that had variety and that was easy to play.

The Wii has that nice simple, white, and calm interface. The 360 interface is cumbersome and loud. (It's subtle, but I also think the background music in the Wii interface is a great design.)

@Tom: I've a longtime gamer myself, and I love motion controls in general. I've thought for a while that games needed to reduce the control complexity for a while. But I think you're missing a key point--the Wii's IR and motion controls can be a) far more intuitive than buttons and b) more immersive. When well done, the Wii controls are great. In some games, like strategy games and FPS, I find the IR controls far superior to a standard controller.

Tom Newman
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Wii's interface is simpler and more stramlined for the non-gamer - I'll admit that 100%. My main concern is that publishers will strong arm developers to impliment this feature into games where it would be unnecessary and unwanted.

Joshua Sterns
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Don't forget the rumble pack from the N64. Dam thing made the controller heavy.

To this day I have made funny faces/movements while playing. I've gotten better, but sometime I just can't help bobbing my head back forth as I sprint in MW2. I also tend to lean into turns while driving a Warhog.

Last random thought. I hope Sony or Microsoft finds away to capture the hardcore market with what could easily be called a new genre of games. We haven't seen half the tip for this iceberg--that is hopefully global warming resistant.

Russell Carroll
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I am also hoping MS goes with a different approach than "we're casual too" and comes up with a new genres of games. That would be truly fantastic!

I don't see the angle on going after the same market as Nintendo. Especially after the continual statements by 3rd parties who have shown that they do not know how to consistently make money on that market, and who have all stated recently the need to focus on the hardcore 360/PS3 markets.

That being the case, the focus by MS/Sony on trying to get the broader audience seems curious at the least and is likely a poor judgment call/bad business decision.

Following others, as my marketing professors would say, is not a good path. You need to innovate to be truly successful. Natal + a different approach than Wii could provide that innovation. However, as much as I love and adore my Wii, motion controls are only awesome for a limited number of game types (sidenote: The pointer and speaker in the Wiimote controller don't ever seem to be mentioned, but are both important changes to the controller, perhaps even more useful ones when it comes to gameplay than motion controls). It's difficult to use motion controls in the average game as they work better when replicating an action that is enjoyable (firing a gun isn't really...but swinging a tennis racket is).

Anyway, I agree with Joshua on this and am looking forward to what MS shows at GDC (and more likely E3).

Konstantin Yavichev
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I think Sony has advantage here over MS because if they have Wii styled games, next time some mom goes to pick up blue ray player she might stop and think about getting a system that can do blue ray and do Wii-styled games... plus a system that can stream Netflix and do basic web browsing. Sony does have a real chance here to attract casual gamers and non-gamers since PS3 is an entertainment system.

And I think PS3 interface is cleaner than the one on 360.

Konstantin Yavichev
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Also, I agree with Tom about wanting to sit down and just move my thumbs to play. I used to be a PC gamer and always said mouse is way better than any console controller. But these days I spend 8+ hours at work in front of a PC, few hours at the gym and/or few hours doing chores or whatever. At the end of the day I don't want to jump in front of a TV, I just want to relax and play games.

Amir Sharar
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Great article.

I agree with the interface "issue" on the 360, brought up by some of the comments here. Though I think it can be easily solved if the console booted up to the main Xbox menu where you can play your game, access your Gamercard, Music, Video, etc., rather than boot up to the "Spotlight" menu.

Sony has recently hit their marketing stride when they hit the $299 price. "It only does everything" is a great slogan and they've really keyed in to the identity of the console. Adding in these motion controls into the marketing mix is going to be a challenging task because you don't want to confuse or muddle the message. The same applies to MS as well.

As the article states, they've spent a lot of time and money marketing these machines to the hardcore...I wonder if some of the hardcore will be confused as a result, and view these motion controls as a permanent shift rather than a complementary control scheme. Rebranding the 360, for example, could have negative consequences. It may be more suitable to show off Natal technology as a complementary technology that will introduce a new wave of games, rather than a "new way to play games" as the hardcore may misinterpret that last statement.

Nick Kinsman
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@Tom - I pretty much agree with those fears. I don't mind these technologies coming out at all - I mind when they get needlessly shoehorned into a project for no reason (or marketing appeal). I found it kind of funny when you mentioned Metroid Prime 3 though, as that's been one of my few GOOD experiences with my Wii. I've never played a game that felt more natural in its controls.

I enjoy peripheral games - I have played Rock Band almost every week since launch and was really interested in following Tony Hawk's Ride, but these are games that can cater to that feeling. I can remember playing a virtual police game at an arcade once, where your movements were tracked by 5 separate cameras ... 5 minutes in and I was flustered, and I wasn't in bad shape. It needs to be considered that this kind of thing is a possibility, but I expect it to frequently be overlooked too.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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"Don't forget the rumble pack from the N64"

I knew I missed one!


"Sega's analog pad for the Saturn was released neck and neck with the N64's controller, though the Atari 5200 beat them both to it by a decade! I've also seen infra-red wireless controllers for the Sega Megadrive/Genesis, which again predated the Wavebird by more than a little."

Thanks for the correction.

"I'd argue that the Wii hasn't been successful in and of itself: it's the novelty factor of its peripherals."

I think it can be really hard to see what value other people find in things. In a sense all games are novelty in that at least some of the audience are playing for novelty value. People often refer to the hardcore as having a great passion for the higher art of gaming but I cannot generally see this when I hear someone yelping racist obscenities at me on Xbox live. There is a tendency to project your own values onto others you see as being in the same group. For example, Modern Warfare 2, serious critics and gamasutra commenters: "The single player campaign is a master class in story-telling". Most of the buyers: "Err, I have no plans to waste levelling time on single-player". Back to the point: If the controllers feel like novelty to you, it can be hard to see that others get genuine value out of them beyond a level of novelty that is quite standard in gaming anyway. It probably shouldn't be assumed so quickly. It's a case for some genuine market research. Personally, I think consumers are generally too fickle to spent not inconsiderable amounts of money on something they see as a novelty.

Gunstar Hero
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From a business standpoint, its not a matter of WHO invented WHAT in video gaming.

For the PS3 & 360 new motion controls its all about BUSINESS-that's why we are here in Gamsutra the Art & Buisiness of Gaming.

Its a corporate business decission (above all else) to not repeat the disaster that happened to Nintendo N64 & Gamecube's history. For any business to compete/survive it needs to keep up and adapt with the times.

What could have happened if the N64 used CD-ROM or the Gamecube used DVD? Maybe its just the Japanese code of honor or something ...... but it failed against the competition.

The American XBOX succeeded because Microsoft was quick to keep up with the Jones and now it has dethroned former console king Sony the inventor of its DVD. And now that Nintendo learned to adapt it made it easier for the Wii.

"Adapting" ,"Copying", "Improvising" or "If you can't beat them join them" generally is a good business move.

Also lets not forget that the sales of the hackable, modifiable Wii can also be attributed to the fact that its driven by millions of pirated software all around the world. Wasn't this also true of the hardware sales story of the NES, SNES, Genesis, PS1, PS2, Xbox, 360, Gameboy,DS, PSP etc.

At this point in time its a no brainer to adapt motion control to the main stream of games for PS3/360 for it to compete. Not because its the trend/fad.

In a business stand point I agree with Brandon that the success of the Wii bolis down to MARKETING.

How many people are suckered in to buy a Wii hoping it will make them fit? Aren't fitness equipment big business in America. To target the kids has always been Nintendo's agenda and Sony/M$ these kids elder brothers. But actually its the parents who have more buying capacity to buy the kids' Wii.

Look at Sony/M$ line up of first party games for this market- just Little Big Planet. A game that doesn't even look & play kid friendly. Going big on motion control just states the fact that Sony/M$ regrets overlooking this market.

Sony/M$ copying Nintendo or Nintendo as the inventor/innovator depends on your knowledge of history or lack thereof. For the record many peripherals or gimmicks introduced first on a console didn't drive its sales.

Nintendo is foremost a gaming company . Sony is foremost a consumer electronics company. Microsoft is foremost a software developer company. By these basics you can already tell its streghts and weaknesses.

Sony's PS2 has had its own success with "Motion Controls" with millions of Eye Toys long before the Wii.

But was it mass marketed like the Wiimote or Wii Fit Pad? - Hell No.

But if you are in the business of video gaming ang you see demnad and a profitable market wouldn't it be wise to make business of it?

Risky Business? Hell yes! Miyamoto said they knew the risks the Wii had from the start but it was a calculated risk having all business options considered. Same with Sony/M$. However this time they have the power to play on the cheap-ass level of the Wii. Sony has been toying the motion sensing technology of its camera for almost a decade and its time they use it. The Wii's success only pushed it to be perfected and be introduced to the market as we see it today. And theoretically it goes with "It Only Does Everything" campaign.

Its what each company will make consumers believe that will affect sales. Yes hardware and software are important too but eventually Marketing the whole thing , wether effective or not, will play a very important role in their success or failure.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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Gunstar, I agree with some of what you say. Here is where I don't:

"At this point in time its a no brainer to adapt motion control to the main stream of games for PS3/360 for it to compete."

Firstly, motion control games ARE the more mainstream games now. Secondly, while it makes sense to incorporate motion controls it would make more sense if MS and Sony were releasing their versions of it NOW, not in the fairly distant future. Natal's release date is November 2010 *at the earliest* and this is coming from a company with a rich history in not following through on its bold announcements.

"In a business stand point I agree with Brandon that the success of the Wii boils down to MARKETING."

I think Nintendo's marketing has been very successful, but it's not fair to suggest their entire success is due to marketing. Word of mouth is more powerful than marketing, and there is no reason to think the Wii is not sustaining its sales by word of mouth. It's hard to measure, since typical Wii users talk in "real life" rather than on the internet. Suggesting that the Wii is popular because of just marketing suggests that people are suckered into buying it but are then disappointed with the experience (else they would have recommended it). I have only seen people apply this argument because they were personally disappointed, but they are experienced gamers so it isn't surprising.

Also, Microsoft are ALL about marketing. They're almost more of a marketing/PR company than a software company and they bought their way into the console market.

"How many people are suckered in to buy a Wii hoping it will make them fit?"

It's a bit of an assumption that they are all buying it to become fit. Are they really replacing other exercise with Wii Fit? If they didn't have Wii Fit would they be doing exercise anyway? I think at least some of the appeal of Wii Fit is that it's a game with a context that is relevant to people and that they can understand. It's not fair to assume that everyone who doesn't like hardcore games is stupid. Smart non-gamers play Wii Fit. They are not deluding themselves, merely entertaining themselves.

Gunstar Hero
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and like the massive PS2 hardware sales of early 2000 Wii hardware sales are moved by extensive piracy