Anatomy of a Generation Part 2 – Control Freaks.

Yup, time is not on my side these days but I am making some for part two of my look back at this generation – and this time, I’m interested in the controllers, or rather, the emphasis on new control methods.

As funny as it is to remember, this generation has hardly been the first to explore the lush landscape of new ways of interacting and controlling games – in the 16-bit era, we had attempts to make chairs that were controllers, gloves that were controllers and even streaming games via satellite to customers in Japan – an odd glimpse into the future in the early to mid 90s, but you expect that from Japan. Then we went onwards to have different controller designs, as well as dance mats and Eyetoys and various other oddities like pool cues and golf clubs.

But this generation sought to consolidate these various ideas and simplify, and of course, we have to start with the winner of this generation, Nintendo – a company that wanted to expand its core audience beyond just gamers. This meant a controller that was tactile, simple and inexpensive. The result was the Wii Remote – a strange, remote-shaped block of plastic that took the market by storm. With nothing more than infra-red technology that had been used for years by light-gun shooters, and a small tinny speaker in the unit, the Wii Remote could be a bowling ball, a tennis racquet, a golf club, a sword – the limits were the human imagination.

It wasn’t all good news, as Nintendo found that the tracking system and motion sensitivity of their original design was only “okay”. This led some time later to Motion Plus. To make matters worse, the internet gleefully demonstrated that the wrist-strap that tethers the motion-control wand to your hand was of shoddy quality, and images and videos of wands breaking lamps, TVs and windows became commonplace. Arguably, this is probably nothing more than human error (you don’t need to throw it about people!) but it was still enough of a PR disaster to make Nintendo address it, and give the Wii Remote a new, chunky rubber grip cover. Because everything is better when covered in rubber, right? Right?!

Of course, it was not just the Wii Remote – Nintendo demonstrated its dominance of the casual and lifestyle sector with the Wii Fit, a pressure-sensitive balance board you could do many things with and on. At a time when people were more vain and conceited, and yet less willing to go to a gym, this was a stroke of genius that many don’t give Nintendo enough credit for. Was it amazing? No. Does it work? Maybe. Did it give the impression of a healthier lifestyle that people could buy into? Hell yes!

Whilst Nintendo was busy with this and the failed finger-monitor “Vitality Sensor” that never saw the light of day, Sony were doing what they do best – taking an idea from Nintendo and making it a lot more expensive. After a good couple of years of mocking Nintendo and their controller, saying it was a gimmick and unnecessary, Sony invariably took the plunge with the PS Move – basically, a Wii Remote with more tech inside and a massive great colour-changing bulb sensor at the end.

The PS Move was, to give it credit, a very sound evolution of the concept. By using light rather than infra-red, in some cases it was more reliable and sensitive. Except in bright rooms, which would include MOST living rooms (mine is in a perpetual state of dusk). This was clearly a bit of an issue, and one the PS Move never really recovered from. Whilst it was more meaty, the list of games that used it was tiny – and dwindled rapidly over time. Couple this with a high cost, and the fact most games that did use it made it optional, rather than necessary, and it was a commercial and critical disaster. With no killer software other than ports of some Wii games to take advantage of it, the PS Move was like many Sony ideas of late – throwing money at a problem that doesn’t exist.

Microsoft, on the other hand, were going to make a radical departure from this though and created the Kinect – a sensor bar with a camera, that could allow truly hands-free gaming. With voice recognition, it seemed like the next stage in controlling games – one where controllers were not necessary.

Of course, the Kinect had problems as well as highlights. Whilst it was indeed a sound piece of kit, the over-promising of the device was questionable. Whilst it was good for some game genres, others have failed to make an impact on it. It’s great to talk to your machine and get it to do things – or you know, you could just tap a couple of buttons to get to it via a menu. And of course, the cost – a Kinect at the start cost just as much as a base X-Box Arcade unit, which for an optional controller is amazingly expensive.

And yet, for some time, it managed to sell in vast quantities, as people again bought into the lifestyle. It was the natural and sensible evolution for dance games like Dance Central and Let’s Dance, because it did not require holding a controller whilst you waved your arms about like you were being hit by ten thousand volts of electricity. And yes, there were great experimental games, like safaris and theme park simulations that spoke to the imagination. This made the Kinect, on the surface, seem like an unstoppable force in the market.

And yet, eventually sales did indeed slow down, as they always do. From that point on, it was about games – core games for arguably the largest market with the X-Box 360. It was here where the Kinect came undone somewhat. For all the attempts to make serious games for the machine, none have really delivered on their promises, which is a pity. The Kinect was summarily dismissed by the majority of “core gamers” as a gimmick, an expensive luxury that wasn’t necessary. And they were of course right.

However, don’t think that because the Kinect slowed down, that it was a failure, because what transpired was pretty impressive. People took the unit, and decided to make their own experimental software for it, make their own attempts at using this piece of equipment. The Kinect became a playground for bedroom programmers and experimentalists, as something that may not have been essential but was worth dicking about with and enjoying.

Of course, Mass Effect 3 is going to have one last shot at making the Kinect relevant. And the next X-Box, from what we know, will have Kinect built-in, so Microsoft clearly think it has more life in it. And it may yet prove to be correct.

The issue with Kinect and PS Move is that these devices were, of course, entirely optional. The Wii was built on and around the Wii Remote, and that was fundamental to why it worked – because, arguably, there was no other choice for games on the machine. The PS Move and Kinect became expensive optional extras for consumers to buy into, with varying degrees of success on each different layer.

With the Kinect to be built into the next X-Box, and the Wii Remote and the Wii-U touchscreen to both be usable by Nintendo and the Wii-U in the box, the next move is up to Sony, to see if they will stick with the PS Move into a new generation. But still, whilst these controllers have all been fun, we have to sit back and realise they haven’t actually changed how we play games yet – they’ve just changed how we interact, and whilst each device has its success stories, each has a catalogue of errors and failures to boot. None of them have been universal controllers. None of them have actually done what they set out to do and revolutionise gaming – they’ve just made some genres more expensive than others.

And on the subject of genres, next time – games. Oh the joy. Oh the fun. Oh god I’m going to have to talk about Gears of War…

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