When the Wii first came out, everyone was going crazy over motion controls. The very idea of being able to control a video game with your own movement brought fantastical ideas of virtual reality back into our minds. Game after game of Wii Sports Tennis was played, and for a while motion controls were the next big thing in gaming. But time passed and mounds of poorly made shovelware came out that reduced the Wii's promise of motion control to an inaccurate waggle fest.
Just when we were all about to become sick of motion controls all together, the Xbox Kinect and PS Move came out, which both proved that motion controls can evolve. We were all astounded at the tech demos both of these motion control devices gave us, and we enjoyed a few shining examples of true innovation like Child of Eden and Dance Central. However, the Kinect and Move also have their fair shares of poorly implemented motion-controlled shovelware, and as popular as motion-controlled games are, they certainly don't outsell traditionally controlled blockbuster titles like Call of Duty.
So are motion controls the next big gaming innovation or just another failed gimmick?
Innovation – A Brand New Way to Play
Motion controls exist because we have a desire to become immersed in the games we play. We don't want to be the puppet master that controls the hero; we want to be that hero. We want to swing a sword with our own two hands and leap over pits of fire. It's all part of the natural escapist fantasy that comes with being a gamer.
The holy grail of motion control is true virtual reality gameplay, and we are getting closer to that every day. Just try playing any racing game with the Kinect. The simple abilities to press a non-existent pedal and turn a non-existent steering wheel not only feel good, but are pretty accurate as well. This brings us back to our childhood days of pretending we were racecar drivers while sitting in cardboard boxes, except now we get to see our fantasies play out on a screen rather than inside our heads.
Motion controls also hold untapped potential for genres that are more at home on the PC than the console. Well-made Wii shooters like The Conduit feel far closer to a mouse-and-keyboard control style than dual analog sticks ever will. In fact, motion control systems that use a pointer interface like the Wii or the Move are essentially giving you a mouse that you move around in virtual space. With a little bit of thought, this motion-controlled mouse can be implemented in ways that easily allow us to play RTSes and other PC-only genres on our consoles.
In addition, motion controls are intuitive. The Wii introduced a whole new community of people to gaming, and gaming has never been bigger because of it. You can find the Wii in bars, clubs, museums, and even hospitals. While it would seem to be nearly impossible to get your grandpa to touch a PS3 control pad, he'll gladly give Wii golf a shot. Motion controls are the gateway drug that opens up gaming to a bigger world, and the gaming community is better off for it.
Any problems we have with motion controls arise only because we don't yet know how to fully utilize them yet. The Kinect is powerful enough to allow surgeons to perform microsurgery with it, so it's certainly not a limitation of the hardware.
Every gaming innovation goes through these development pains. Some early NES games used up on the D-pad to jump. Old first-person shooters used the arrow keys to aim rather than the mouse. Every game innovation has to have its fair share of failures before it becomes accepted as a staple of game development. Motion control will be no different. Sure, we now have tons of poorly made waggle shovelware, but in ten years we will all be wandering around virtual worlds in the middle of our living rooms. I guarantee it.
Gimmick – An Idea Before Its Time
Motion controls will always have limitations. Why? Because as cool as virtual reality sounds, it doesn't work the same way that real reality does. Sure, chasing after your ninja rival in a roof-jumping sequence sounds fun in a virtual world—in theory. But how do you make this work when you only have about six feet of living room space to move around in? You'll never be able to run as fast or jump as high as you would in the real world while playing video games, because you aren't outside. You are in front of a TV or a monitor and you have to stay there to be able to control the game. No amount of platforming, mountain climbing, sword fighting, or plain old running can accurately be expressed through motion controls.
Then there is the problem with tactile feedback. Let's say that Grand Theft Auto suddenly becomes Kinect enabled, allowing you to bust up gang members' heads with a virtual reality baseball bat. In real life, when you hit something with a baseball bat you feel the impact. If you smack a wall with it, the bat stops cold. However, if you are playing a video game, you are actually just swinging your hands in mid-air. So if you swing a baseball bat at a wall, the bat will stop but your hands will just keep on going. When all is said and done, your hands in the game will become de-synched with your hands in real life, and there's currently no good way to handle this.
This is why you never actually see well-done motion-controlled sword fighting games, even though sword fighting is one of the big advertising points for any motion control system. If your opponent blocks your sword, your character will stop but your hands will just keep swinging. How do you resolve this? In real life, your sword would hit your opponent's and you could immediately bring it back to block your opponent's retaliating strike, but in the game world you've left yourself open simply because you have no way of telling whether or not your slash succeeded until the game has visually told you. It's a fundamental problem with virtual reality that we will always experience until we either jack directly into someone's brain or rig up some sort of force feedback harness.
Then there's the accuracy problem. The reason motion controls haven't been adopted for mainstream gaming is that mainstream gaming requires twitch reflexes. A couple milliseconds of delay can spell the difference between a game win or an embarrassing headshot death. With buttons it's easy to tell when you are getting your character to do something. Button pressed in = punch thrown. It's really as simple as that. With motion controls, it's all about how your movements are interpreted. What if you punch or kick slightly different than the developers' focus group? Your character will just stay motionless like a sitting duck while demons gnaw at his entrails. This wouldn't be anywhere near as big of a problem if you could simply push a button to stab your enemy to death.
Now for the biggest problem with motion controls: They don't actually add to the immersion of video games. Yes, it's true that it would be really cool to swing your own sword in a virtual reality world, but there's a fundamental problem with that. Ryu Hayabusa is a trained swordsman. He knows how to slash his enemies to bits in crazy, stylistic ways. You, however, are not a trained swordsman. You only know how to helplessly flail at your enemies like an annoyed senior citizen swatting a fly with a rolled up newspaper. If Ryu Hayabusa accurately followed your movements, he would look like a spaz randomly waggling his sword about. (Unless you actually are a trained assassin, in which case why are you playing a video game about one?)
Like it or not, we as gamers are not swordsmen, space marines, or wizards. We are gamers. That's what we know how to do: game. The closer you get to the real experience, the less you actually end up wanting to do it. Way more people play Rock Band with the traditional colored-buttons controller than they do with the "pro" controller that simulates actual guitar play. Also, games wouldn't be a whole lot of fun if you had to physically re-enact them all the time. Watching a rooftop chase is fun, but if you had to actually run and jump your way through it, you would be too out of breath to enjoy it fully.
No matter how good our technology gets, motion controls very rarely make a better game. Games live and die on their controls, stories, and rules. Motion controls don't improve on stories or rules, and far too often they actively harm a game's controls. Buttons work, period. Sure, your five-year-old cousin might do well enough by waving their hands around in front of the TV, but I'd rather press A to swing my sword any day.
Angelo M. D'Argenio
Date: March 26, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central. This week's is also purely a work of fiction*