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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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