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?
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)."