21 October, 2009

State of Motion Controls

written by Blain Newport on Monday, October 19, 2009

Preface: Kris Graft wrote this piece on motion controllers that took 1700 words to say stuff that most gamers had hashed out by the end of E3 (over four months ago). It's probably supposed to be introductory level material for a broad audience. It wasn't written for me. But I didn't know that at the time, so to me it felt like the piece beat around the bush and missed important information / didn't go deep enough. So I decided to write the piece I wanted to read.

The Basics

Since E3, we've known about Sony and Microsoft's motion controllers.

Microsoft will have a camera + microphone + infrared depth sensor.

Sony will have a camera + microphone + glowing Wiimotes.


The Wii proved that novel, simple controls could help broaden the audience for gaming. Sony and Microsoft want to control the living room, so they need to appeal to that wider audience.

The Wii also proved the wider audience didn't care about bleeding edge hardware. Considering Sony lost over three billion on the PS3, and Microsoft lost over a billion on faulty hardware, both would probably prefer to extend the current generation a year or two with new controls than go through another launch.

Sticklers' Note: Yes, the PS3 helped Sony "win the war" with HD-DVD, and they are making their 3+ billion back in licensing fees. But at $10 a player and 11 cents a disc, that will take a while.

Why do I care?

You don't, yet.

If you're not into gaming, it's going to take some really impressive software / marketing to even put these on your radar. The Wii is already the system you're probably most interested in, and with the price drop to $199, it's the cheapest. This is even worse if you already own a Wii. Nothing's been shown that's worth buying a second system for.

Sony and Microsoft are going to be three and a half years late and are charging more. If their software and marketing aren't phenomenal, I don't think adding motion control to NetFlix / Blu-Ray / Facebook will be enough to take ground from the Wii.

If you are into gaming, you're going to buy these. As much as gamers like to deride motion controls, gaming hasn't changed much in a very long time. Hunger for novelty is probably enough to sell hardware, as long as there are decent games involved, but both solutions have additional cards to play.

For Natal, I suspect that will be face tracking. (If you don't have time to watch the video / are at work, it allows for 3D perspective shifts like Johnny Lee's old videos and adds head gesture controls.) As any gamer knows, more controls mean more tactical options. Microsoft knows how competitive gamers are and will use that to sell them Natal in mass quantities.

Sony's wands have their own advantages. For one thing, they become the path of least resistance for developers who have to design for gamepads and Wii controls already. Now Sony gets both versions while Natal support becomes the "if we have time" requirement. Additionally, the wands give the player pointing devices which they can use without taking their hands off the controller, good for shooting. Shooting with thumbsticks will never feel as good as pointing and pulling a trigger. And when gamers gets their first taste of dual wielding with independent aim, I think the sense of power and control they'll get will be hard to give up.

But these are minor advantages. The big win will be if it turns out it's possible to pull off solid face tracking with the PlayStation Eye. If it works close to as well as Natal's face tracking, Sony's solution will thoroughly outclass Microsoft's.

Sticklers' Note: Yes, PC gamers have had access to basic face tracking functionality in the form of TrackIR for eight years now and it never made much headway in the market. But only flight and military sims supported it, it was expensive, you had to wear silly glasses, and PC gaming was already ceding primacy to consoles by that point. With Microsoft (and possibly Sony) trying to make it mainstream, it will get in front of millions more people, giving developers a reason to put it in more games.

Wait. What?

Shut up about your core gamer fantasies! I thought you said this tech was supposed to be for the casual audience?


But you said it will only sell to core gamers.


That makes no sense.

You are not wrong. These new motion control offerings are going to do well, but not in the market segment Microsoft and Sony specifically developed them to capture.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong. After all, I'm just some gamer. I've marked my Google calendar to revisit this subject in one year, so we can see if I know better than the biggest players in the industry.


Wired's Game|Life blog article claims to have gotten the PS3 losing over three billion info from Forbes.

I don't remember where I first heard about Microsoft expecting to pay over a billion by extending the Red Ring of Death warranty, but I was reading Kotaku back then, so this article seems as good a source as any.

The Blu-Ray licensing fee info came from this CNet article. It's worth noting that I only cited the price for players and BD-ROMs. Recorders and writable media cost more to license. But since it's a joint license with Phillips and Panasonic, I don't expect Sony gets all the money anyway.

MTV Multiplayer turned me on to Torben Sko's work.

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