July 2, 2022

Technological Novelties v Progress

Or; nee-ner-nee-ner-neee-ner!

The recent additions and games for the PS Move, Kinect and Wii have left me thinking. Perhaps moreso than usual.

I’ve said before (many times) that this generation was always going to be longer than the five year cycle we’ve become accustomed to in the past – and that for the most part, we should enjoy the distractions along the way and not get too hung up on the problems they introduce.

The Wii Remote, the PS Move controller, the Kinect and even 3D Movies and tech are not progress – they are technological novelties that are being thrown up to cover up the slowing down of progress. They are not the future.

The reason I say this is because 3D isn’t viewable by a reported 13% of the population. Now, in many cases in gaming you could say, “ooh, that’s too bad but most games don’t cover more than a quarter of the market anyway”.

And of course, you’d be right.

But 13% of the population cannot see 3D images – that’s a very LARGE margin for error and whilst Sony, Panasonic and Bush try to engineer their way around the issue, throwing billions of dollars in an attempt to create a 3D that is viewable by all, the reality remains that they’re grounding themselves in technology that we’ve had around for the last five decades, and are trying to adapt it, rather than look for a new system that provides a solution to the problem.

They are, in effect, trying to find a cheap and temporary compromise.

Compromise is one of those things that we all do, but progress isn’t built on compromise. The point of progress is to overcome hurdles and say no to compromise – that we can, and we will, and it will be awesome. Compromise is the enemy of progress – it’s the “It’ll do” phenomenon, and it actually gets you nowhere in the long run.

And yet we see it. Games were shoehorned into the Wii control scheme, with no regard to whether they’d actually work. One of the flaws of the Wii was that a proper controller was always an extra – never bundled with the machine, so to ensure entry games tried to compromise on several fronts to make them work with the Wii remote. Sometimes, this worked fine – Capcom nailed it with Resident Evil 4 Wii Edition. Metroid Prime 3 also worked, but again, it was a game that was a natural fit with the control scheme. Most games, sadly, didn’t fit. And for a while, everyone tried to engineer their way out of the problem, to try and find ways of making it work.

Until, eventually, they stopped trying. The cost of engineering out of the issue was far greater than any return, and so the Wii became the home of shovelware and bad ports, trying to work within the confines of a limiting infrastructure and a control scheme that was too hit-or-miss to be of any long-term benefit.

The Kinect has also started to see this with Fable: The Journey. Rather than tell us what it will have, Lionhead Studios and Peter Molyneux have instead told us what they want it to be, and what they have had to remove – and they’ve removed a lot. They’ve removed exploration, narrative, the dark Monty Python-esque humour and now, it seems, they’re removing most of the combat – limiting it to auto-target magic spells. And it appears even the Kinect, for all its supposed advancements on motion capture and tracking, sees fit for the new Star Wars game to have a controller to make it easier to control.

And it doesn’t stop there. The PS Move, for all the money Sony put into it, has a very limited range of titles compatible with it – because they refuse, like so many, to engineer their way out of the hole that they dug for themselves. The appeal is limited, and it works for a very small fraction of games, so there is no reason to push this technology. It exists purely as a nod to Nintendo that they were onto something – but no-one is quite sure how to get around its limitations. And so, they don’t even try.

So, if this is compromise, is there ANY hope for the future?

Well, yes. And – ironically for the company that started this – it’s Nintendo who appear to have lit the way.

Humans seem to love physical interface. Even in our wildest imaginations, we limit ourselves to touchscreen panels and posh keyboards, only occasionally dabbling into the idea of telepathic interface for a scary sci-fi plot. This isn’t because there won’t be alternatives in the future (The Holodeck from Star Trek is perhaps the pinnacle of controller-free gaming), but because we as a species like having a tactile, responsive interface. We push something, something happens. We’re taught to enjoy this from the moment we are given a toy, we move a dolls limbs or move a car and pose it, or push it around, and our imaginations and minds are opened.

We continue to enjoy this throughout our lives.¬†Movement tracking isn’t tactile enough – and, for all the promises, the Kinect isn’t tactile enough. If you need an external controller to make the most from a game, it has failed as a device, and sadly, failed badly.

So the Wii U “Tablet” is what I see as a real push to the future – with a large touchscreen panel in the middle of an otherwise traditional controller. Sure, it may be a little expensive, and it may take some getting used to, but the promise with it is profound. Pause menus will be obliterated, taking away the restraint of having to break up the action to do something as simple as change ammo. It will reinvent interfaces, and the UI for most games, freeing up the screen for more important things. The screen can be used as a radar, it can be used to track and move and zoom in. And it will all have an effect, we’ll be able to touch it and interact and it will be a more tactile, more responsive device.

At least, that is my hope. It will remove a hurdle we’ve had for decades – having to stop games to go into a menu. If someone sends you a message, you won’t need to shut your game down. Inventories can be managed on the fly. UIs can be scaled down to the controller so the screen has more room to render scenery, or just show off more of the landscape.

And there are likely many more interesting prospects for it. It feels oddly hilarious that for the company who kind of mastered and indeed, got away with the idea of distracting us from the slowing down of progress should be the ones who stumble upon a new means of progress themselves – of ridding ourselves of cumbersome mechanics and necessities and freeing up the screen. Or even playing the game whilst the TV is watching a movie, or the footie – that may save more than a handful of relationships!

But whilst this is what I hope to be progress, it will be marred by the fact that technology isn’t yet capable of moving the graphical fidelity onward. And we’re now back to compromise – and what could be the biggest danger the Wii U will face. That despite this brilliant idea – the console won’t be next-gen. It’s just this-gen with something that is probably going to be more useful when we do, eventually, hit that next-gen – and have more available power and memory to capitalise on this kind of technology.

My fear is that this time, rather than a novelty parading as progress – it will be progress paraded around as a novelty. “Look at this idea!” But with none of the ideas, drive or common sense to see just how much it could change things in the industry. It could end up as any other device – a strange idea that no-one really knows how to capitalise on, because they’re more than happy with how they’ve been doing things for the last three decades or more.

And that is so depressing I think I may go and cry…


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