Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Are we our limbs, or our hands?

The answer to this may seem self-evident, yet that anything is being written also makes it evident that the reality is, as ever, something of a strange mess to sift through as far as this writer's concerned.

The Kinect
While motion controls are heavily derided in the "core" gaming community, they are generally enjoyed by the "peripheral" gaming community, or to rephrase that, everyone who doesn't go out of their way for titles that are, to most, somewhat niche in nature. Indie titles, 4X strategy games, probably many RPG games, and games of that nature. That being said, even those in the peripheral category didn't exactly flock to the Kinect, despite possibly having leapt to the Wii. Ignoring cost, and ignoring the absence of core titles as a factor, why might this have been?

Well, the Kinect is extremely ahead of the game, it doesn't seem like anyone would disagree with that, but the Kinect also has some unique expectations for its users. It doesn't expect you to be fit, by any means, however, it does expect you to have space, a 360 or Xbox One, and probably decent lighting to get solid motion capture down for some games. Two of those problems are easily resolvable, lighting and the console itself, despite its pricing, are much easier to acquire than restructuring your home to give you space for an additional control peripheral.

That being the case, there's another hurdle. It expects you to be patient with its quirks. That's a huge problem because, let's face it, people expect technology not to expect anything of the them besides knowing how to plug it in and activate it and press buttons or keys, everything else should just work. Admittedly, that's not an unreasonable stance to hold, where technology that's been well established is concerned, but it is when it's a very new technology that's trying to find its bearings.

Yet that doesn't stop people from being unreasonable. So we let these newfangled devices gather dust and return to what we know...

The Wii and the PlayStation Move
If there's one thing we like to think we know how to use, it's our hands. That's why the Wii was so popular, alongside a multitude of other factors, and had the Playstation Move arrived sooner, with a more accessible console pricewise, may have been met with matching success. With all this being the case, there's little doubt that the Wii has been the most successful move into the motion control space, perhaps only because it was bold enough to strike the market before anyone else, with an inexpensive product and apparently a good marketing campaign to back it, forcing the competition to play catch up.

So what is it about the Wii that has everyone hearing more stories about it than anything else? It's certainly not all Nintendo, and even with the minor bruise of users accidentally tossing Wiimotes at their televisions, it continued to sell very well. It's hard to pin down, but it's very likely to do with the inclusion of a decently designed demonstration game with the product, Wii Sports, that not only acted to demonstrate but was able to stand on its own as a fun, enjoyable experience for those unfamiliar with gaming. It wasn't something terribly strange and unusual like the mushroom and turtle filled Mario, or tense and gritty filled with men dying and orange-eyed men shooting at you like Killzone. It was something everyone knew in some way, either through watching or having played themselves, and gave them something tangible to emulate the motions with without having to overexert themselves, unless they found themselves very excited and into the experience.

Wii Sports was, possibly without ever intending to be, a perfect trojan horse of gaming into otherwise non-gaming people's lives by simply giving them an easy to relate to foothold to take their first steps into a strange and fun world. Throw in the fact that it supported local multiplayer, imbuing it with another subtle key to viral word of mouth marketing, and you can throw in the towel if you're trying to compete. It's game over man, these guys have it in the bag, and those that have bought into it? It doesn't matter to them if Nintendo doesn't manage to replicate this occurrence, as long as their console doesn't deteriorate and malfunction on them.

These circumstances, alongside the poor price point and difficulty of development on the PlayStation 3, compounded by the absence of an entry point game with the PlayStation Move, were almost certainly the major stumbling blocks that prevented the breakout success of Sony's attempt at entering into the motion control market. Not only were they late to the party, but in the American market at least, gamers that had a console were largely in the back pockets of Nintendo and Microsoft, to the point that it wasn't too unheard of for them to have both with the exception of the PlayStation 3.

What about now, where does it all stand?
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on who you ask, it doesn't stand at all. It's all moving quickly away from motion controls, as if the whole affair was a big mistake and a failure, with Nintendo having moved on to the Wii U and its Gamepad but retaining Wiimote and Nunchuk support, Microsoft removing the Kinect 2 from Xbox Ones to cut its price, instead selling it separately, and while Sony continues to support its PlayStation Move with the PlayStation 4 and a new PlayStation Camera to replace its old PlayStation Eye, it has otherwise shown no major support for the peripheral.

For many observers, it may seem like it was nothing more than a fleeting fad, and they probably aren't too off. The gaming industry is known for its fads, such as the brief rhythm game craze games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band stirred up, only to promptly fade away for most to forget. In this way, we're neither our limbs nor our hands, if anything, we're only our eyes and ears, and it's a matter of finding what really appeals to those. As such, we now have the virtual reality craze coming to the forefront of gaming, but whether it will take off or not remains to be seen, and even if it does, according to companies that have been working intensely on it, such as Valve and Oculus VR, it will remain largely a sedentary affair.

This is partly due to one of the aforementioned issues that the Kinect presented, space and hitting or running into things, but mostly due to a mixture of wires and the risks of motion sickness. Albeit the latter has been greatly reduced with improvements to the Oculus Rift, wires remain and will probably remain, a problem for these headsets. Unless they're of another sort that utilizes smartphones as the screen or are wired up to a backpack, but those are both less popular and in some ways, even less convenient than the frontrunners, the Oculus Rift and Sony's Project Morpheus.

With all this being said, it looks like we're back in the seat, twiddling our fingers about, having learned nearly nothing from motion controls, and are sticking our head in the cyber sand of VR. Why, though, are we here, after the incredible successes of Nintendo and, even after having had to drag themselves anywhere close, the mild success of the Kinect? Provided that this is already a long post, this question will be followed up in a subsequent post.

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