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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
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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