Learn From The Mistakes, Build For The Future – A Tangent.


Fail to succeed, and succeed to fail…

Does anyone remember how the Wii Remote would change gaming forever? How about Kinect? Or Sony’s ill-fated attempt at “3D Gaming”?

Look, with Sony jumping on the VR bandwagon this week with “Project Morpheus”, in response to the general buzz over the Oculus Rift, and with Microsoft also reportedly working on its own variant of VR tech, you’d be forgiven for thinking that VR was somehow a new technology. Sorry boys and girls, but it ain’t. Actually, it hit its stride in the 90’s, with gameshows on television getting involved with the whole VR thing and making a h-u-g-e deal over creating a new brand of “digital sport” (man, did they ever arrive early…), but invariably VR at the time was expensive, unwieldy and generally out of the reach of most consumers. The Rift – and Morpheus – are retreading an already well-worn path in the hopes that by exploring this once-forgotten road one more time that they’ll find a gold seam that someone forgot to mine the first time around – once they stepped over the decaying remains of Nintendo’s ill-fated Virtual Boy, of course.

Now, there’s NOTHING wrong with this. Look at 3DTV – the whole buzz is all but dead now. Sony were pushing a PlayStation-branded 3DTV at one stage; technologically advanced, but it was a 26-inch screen that cost something in the region of $600, and that was just too expensive. Not to mention making games in 3D is also prohibitively expensive AND requires extra manpower – a lesson that Nintendo has since learned with the Nintendo 3DS, after all, and developers making the case to have the option to not go down the 3D route if they can help it. Just like the movies; the main demonstrations of the 3D technology tend to come from those with the investment power to actually show it off, whereas much of the other content is either touched up after production, or simply doesn’t bother.

Nintendo is clearly the company to go to when you want to talk about fads in gaming; however, I will concede here that sometimes, it does take another company in order to demonstrate how something can be used properly.

It’s easy to forget that Nintendo have been dabbling with “the Internet” since the Super Nintendo; they used a satellite-based delivery system (the SatellaView) to launch some interesting titles in Japan such as the lost BS The Legend of Zelda; a sort of lost-chapters thing based on the first Zelda title. Nintendo also dabbled with the Nintendo 64DD, which also did some Internet-based stuff. And yes, the Gamecube, the Game Boy Color and the Game Boy Advance all had extra attachments and games that tried to use the Internet. It wasn’t until Microsoft began the Live platform in 2002, perfected by the time of the XBox 360 release in 2006, that we began to see the fruits of a serious digital platform being a part of the main fare. And even then, a lot of this was based on Microsoft’s involvement with the ill-fated Dreamcast, which actually also came with a modem built into the machine. It took other companies to take the stuff Nintendo had tried – and do it better.

However, on the flipside, we’ve seen plenty of examples of the opposite being true; Nintendo’s Wii Remote was a brilliant idea, but a product that never quite overcame its inherent limitations. This is what birthed the Kinect – a dead horse for gaming that Microsoft is still trying to beat one last gasp out of  – and the PS Move, one of Sony’s silliest decisions last generation (and when you consider how many silly decisions they made, that this ranks so highly tells you how silly it is!). Nintendo got there first with a low-tech solution that worked, and was cheap. As others piled in to get their share, they over-engineered solutions to a problem that simply did not exist with the Wii Remote.

This is how the future is built; on learning from the mistakes of the past, and ensuring you don’t end up doing the same damned thing. It’s why Sony is doing so well with the PlayStation 4, after all. They had a lot of lessons to learn from with the PlayStation 3. And some may argue it’s why the Wii U and XBox One are struggling; the successes of their previous machines have blinded them into trying to fix problems that simply didn’t exist in the first place.

Compromise is the enemy of progress; this much is true. However, there has to be a reason for doing something differently. Nintendo tried another subversion of the gaming market with the Wii U; a market, ironically, it was already the dominant force of, and therefore it could only ever subvert itself in the grand scheme of things. However, Nintendo has also made a lot of progress in one particular area; indie gaming. Where both Sony and Microsoft have failed, Nintendo has quietly succeeded, with closing in on 200 confirmed indie projects now headed to the Wii U. In a sense, all it’s other failings have somewhat detracted from the one thing it’s doing really well right now; becoming a platform where more and more independent developers want to be seen. Nintendo’s success in this arena shows up the failings of something like the Ouya; a platform that was built for this very purpose, but has largely been forgotten about now.

Nine hundred words in, here’s the crunch line; success very often follows failure. You have to fail sometimes. Failing is GOOD. Failing tells you something went wrong, and a cursory glance at the failure will often tell you what has to be changed in order for that failure to become a success. And when you succeed, well… failure is always one step away.

The VR Tech, so far, hasn’t allayed concerns that it’s learned from past mistakes. For example; why do I want to spend £300 on a VR headset when I can get (and did get) a decent 32-inch Smart TV for way less than that? It will play games. And I can watch TV on it. And movies. And it’s got all the Internet stuff in it for me to use as well. We’ve seen a heady focus on what it can do for games; but like many things, it’s narrow look at one particular aspect won’t see it very far. Weight and form are also concerns. Also, don’t get me started on the Omnidirectional Treadmill thing. Some of us don’t have the use of our legs. And at the prices being touted, I think my brain is in good nick too – it’s saying “Nope.gif.png.jpg.tiff.everything”.

Does this mean it won’t make a buttload of money? How about we ask Nintendo if it has any regrets about the Wii – a console that on hardware alone made the company more than a billion dollars in profits, and sold over 100 million units, and shifted tens of millions of copies of things like Wii Sports Resort and Mario Kart Wii making further billions of dollars of profits. My guess is – Nintendo has no regrets on that front. Was it the future? No, seems not. It was a bit of a fad, and that’s fine, because Nintendo rode that fad for all it was worth and made a crapton of money in the process. That said, Nintendo wasn’t fixing a problem – it was trying something new with already-existing hardware. It worked. And had Nintendo – or any other company – taken the time to learn the lessons of what went wrong with the Wii Remote and actually work towards a genuine improvement, actually I’d think it was onto a winner (Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition has forever and ever ruined Resident Evil. I CAN’T GO BACK YOU CAN’T MAKE ME GO BACK!). Nintendo charted new ground; it made mistakes, as did Sony and Microsoft. But those lessons are there to be learned from, not wilfully discarded in the pursuit of “the next thing” – especially when the next thing is the same thing we did almost twenty years ago!

There’s no question that the Oculus Rift and the Sony Morpheus will make them money; it’s silly not to expect that, considering the amount of people who are already getting super-excited over the next exciting installment of corporate spoon-feeding. But at the end of the generation, will we all have VR devices? Or, as I suspect, will those VR devices be gathering dust somewhere in the back of your cupboard, because we’ll all be playing games with our mates around the TV? The television is the enemy of VR, because it already does so much right. Do we really need an expensive, specialised tool to get “fully immersed” in a game world? I’d argue the likes of Dark Souls already do that just fine without the VR tech, thanks.

Many of the issues people tout as being “solved” with VR hardware are, in my opinion at least, software design flaws. And I don’t believe that the Rift, or Morpheus, will do anything to correct them because the hardware can’t correct them – it’s not a hardware fault that your game can’t generate an atmosphere unless you rob me of all my other senses! My greatest problem with the Kinect, aside the usual gripes, is that in the quest for simplification, it actually added far too much complexity. No-one needs or wants to learn a new set of commands, or hand gestures, in order to do something that can be done with a couple button presses or the flick of an analogue stick. Intuitive controls are intuitive, and we know them off by heart. I’d level the same criticism so far at the concept of New VR. Are we really focused on improving things and making it better for everyone? Or are we simply once more getting into a technological arms-race that will end in a massive pile-up a few years down the road?

When we look around, are we really fixing what was broken, or just once again caught up in the hype and furore around a marketing campaign that has us hoodwinked into believing that it has pulled off something new? I’m not so sure yet – it’s way too early to tell. If the new VR really can improve and deliver a brand new future (of sensory deprivation – hello, dystopia!), then awesome. Big congratulations. Learning from the past, taking what was good and fixing what was broken, has worked and bravo.

But are our TV’s and monitors really that broken? I’m not so sure.

However, I applaud the trying. And I’ll applaud the successes and, to a large extent, I’ll also applaud the failures too. Because it’s what they do WRONG which will set the tone for whomever comes next to improve on it. Or they may even try fixing it themselves. Or lessons will be learned for the next variation of the hardware. Success and failure are intrinsically linked; you can’t have one without the other. Fail, and you have a lesson to learn from on your way to success. Succeed? Well, now everyone is waiting for you to fail – and will delight in your downfall, because there’s nothing more pleasurable to the human psyche like a bit of schadenfreude (and bless you Germany for a word only you could have come up with!).

It’s all cyclical. We’ll revisit 3D ten or twenty years down the road as someone tries to reinvent it. If VR falls down, no doubt the same thing will happen. Same with motion controls. You can’t have one without the other.

So let’s just take both success and failure as two faces of the same coin. We’ll be revisiting all these failed ideas of the last few years in the future anyway.

Whether we want to or not.

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