Thursday, June 17, 2010

Console Post: Motion Control

I've been thinking about motion control for weeks (cue laughter), and I think I finally have an understanding that I can share with you.

What's been bothering me are the lack of titles that seem to fully use the concept of motion control in a way that isn't superficial. Kinect's launch lineup, as well as Move's, has many of the same kinds of games that were greeted with derision on the Wii.

I was particularly disappointed with Kinect, because it's been touted ad nauseum as "revolutionary." Well, I guess it is revolutionary, because there's no controller to hold, but the games are largely a heaping helping of "same old shit."

Today, I think I figured it out. That doesn't mean you don't already understand what I'm about to write, but I didn't understand it until now.

Motion detection as a method of videogame input is brilliant, but it's also constrained. Ideally, it's best suited for limited radius movement. However, and this is important, it's also best suited to translate that limited radius movement into limited radius movement on-screen.

What the farb am I talking about?

For throwing a frisbee, motion detection is terrific, because the character just rotates. Golf? Perfect, because the character is rotating. Anything where the character doesn't have to move forwards or backwards (beyond very short distances) works just fine.

Think about it, though. In games where the character needs to run, or needs to walk long distances, how is that done? It's not done with motion detection, with rare exceptions, because even if you can detect someone running in place, or walking in place (Hey! Is that man walking against the wind?), it would be boring as hell for the person actually running or walking.

That's why the Wii controller has a nunchuck with an analog stick, generally--for walking and turning characters through a game world.

Now think about Kinect. That isn't available, because there's no mixing of control methods. It's ALL motion detection. So when Microsoft tells developers to "think outside the box," that's a little misleading. What they're really saying is "Think outside that box. Think inside this one." There's still a box, and in many ways, it's more limiting.

So how exactly are we going to use Kinect in a role-playing game, for example? Damned if I know, beyond the likelihood of needing to map some kind of gesture to forward movement. A gesture that must be so simple that it can be performed with 100% reliability. A gesture so simple and easy that we won't want to stab ourselves after doing it a thousand times. A gesture that can also be performed in conjunction with every other gesture needed in the game, because it must be seamless.

See the tightrope here?

I could easily see someone needing to memorize 10-15 distinct gestures to get through one level of an FPS, unless the game is so dumbed down that it's basically on rails. Who's going to be willing to do that? Not many of us, that's for sure. So the kinds of games we see on Kinect are going to be constrained. It will be grreat for mini-game collections, yoga classes, mime certification, and kitty petting simulators. But games where the character moves through a complex gameworld and interacts with that world in complex ways is going to be almost impossible.

So like I said, it is outside the box, but it's right into another box.

The Wiimote and nunchuck contains two levels of control: the traditional, button-based method, and the second, motion-sensing method. Motion-sensing can make a game more immersive, but having the button-based fallback is very handy to paper over weaknesses in motion-sensing as a method of controlling in-game movement and actions. Sure, you can call it a kludge, if you like, but it's also quite versatile.

There are a ton of crap mini-game collections for the Wii, but there are also some rich, complex worlds to explore, because the nunchuk allows for that kind of interaction, and buttons on both the Wiimote and nunchuk help simplify some of the most repetitive actions.

That kind of versatility doesn't exist with Kinect. The precision of motion detection is quite brilliant; unfortunately, the precision gained doesn't seem to be nearly as important as the versatility that's been lost.

I occasionally hope I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong this time.

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