Motion-based gaming - a breath of fresh air or a plague to be stopped?
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Is the market of motion-based gaming sitting still..?
Stationary skateboards and balance boards. Touch screens and 3D graphics. Guitar Hero, DJ Hero, Dance Central. Wii Remotes, PlayStation Moves and a plethora of other assorted waggle-sticks. It seems like it's impossible to turn around these days without bumping into some sort of peripheral being shoved in our faces designed to “enhance” gaming. In fact, with the rise of mobile gaming and the phenomenal popularity of the Wii and its contenders' shoddy rip-offs, it looks like the age of sitting down with a good-old-fashioned controller will soon be a thing of the past. But will this usher in a new golden era of gaming, or will we be left in a few short years wondering where all of the good games went?
I'm not adverse to a little player interaction beyond twiddling a few thumb-sticks and tapping a few keys. Sometimes, you just want to get up on your feet and kick some ass personally, without acting vicariously through a controller or keyboard. And if that's your deal, there are games that offer exactly what you're looking for. I don't think anybody can look back to the Nineties and honestly claim that games like House of the Dead and Time Crisis weren't oodles of fun. And in retrospect, that's almost where it all began: using a light-gun to shoot and a foot-pedal to duck behind conveniently-placed cover. It was limited, linear and hilariously cheesy, and by no means the greatest gaming experience ever, but nevertheless it brought something new, innovative and interesting to the table. And it was an absolute blast.
In the beginning...
For a while, it was good - even when, circa 2004, some crafty developer in Nintendo's R&D department realised that there was a recipe for success hidden behind the kind of games that got players ducking, weaving and flailing about like electrocution victims, and figured “Hey, wait a minute...why don't we make all of our games like this?”.
To be fair, they were on to something. Nobody claims that the Wii is a powerhouse of graphical or processing capabilities, but then it doesn't need to be: Nintendo figured out that the recipe for fun isn't figuring out how many meticulously-crafted bullets it takes to fell a palm tree in the most sophisticated physics engine ever; it's getting together with some friends, popping in some Mario Kart of Super Smash Bros, and having your innocuous little caricatures beat the ever-loving crap out of each other. The stakes might have been upped accidentally by including the very real possibility of buddy-induced real world injury, but it's still one hell of a good time. And you don't even have to have friends around to enjoy it: I just got done playing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword a week or two ago and I can safely say that it ranks somewhere within my top 20 games of all time.
There's nothing quite like chopping a giant scorpion to itty bitty bits with a magic sword that shoots mystical sky-god beams, but it's something else entirely when it feels like it's really you doing the hack-'n'-slashing. Before you know it you're on your feet slashing, parrying and knocking over furniture, and you're absolutely hooked. It is every bit the essence of a game done right.
"But for the everything-else, the games that don't quite fit into any of the previously-mentioned niches, there just doesn't seem to be anything left. It feels, quite frankly, that innovation has died"
In the right hands, motion-controlled gaming can be a great thing. Nintendo managed to take the sheer fun of motion controls beyond the DDR machine down at the local arcade, and put it in living rooms worldwide. But elsewhere in the games industry, jealous forces were at work coveting the little white moneymaking box that had taken the medium by storm; that wanted their own piece of the pie. When Microsoft and Sony announced the Kinect for Xbox 360 and the PlayStation Move, respectively, there was no pretence that this was anything other than an attempt to try and muscle in on the corner of the market than Nintendo had made for itself. Which would be all well and good if it meant that we, the gamers, were left with any other options for new games than the shovelware which Microsoft and Sony keep trying to cram down our throats.
Why so generic...what went wrong?
Three or four years ago the industry was still diverse: we looked to our Wiis when we wanted to smack around on a few games of Wii Sports tennis; we sat down at our ridiculously souped-up PCs when we wanted to marvel at the latest technical masterpieces like Crysis; and we turned to our 360s and our PS3s when we wanted something in between: racers, fighters, platformers, and even the odd shooter like Gears of War that simply lent itself better to a pad than a mouse and keyboard. But now, with Microsoft and Sony pumping what feels like all of their money and attention into making the motion-controlled phenomenon their own, it leaves our options severely diminished. You probably noticed this at last year's E3 showcases: a good 80% of Microsoft's show was devoted to showcasing the latest Kinect games, and Sony spent a good portion of their show either flaunting the Move or bragging about Killzone 3's 3DTV compatibility.
The last time I checked, teens and young adults – the core demographic for 360 and PS3 – weren't to interested in exploring Sesame Street and Disneyworld, and they sure-as-hell couldn't afford a 3DTV. We just wanted a means of sitting down in our rooms, slapping on a headset and shooting each other silly. And that option is still there – games like Gears and Call of Duty are still among the biggest sellers on consoles. But for the everything-else, the games that don't quite fit into any of the previously-mentioned niches, there just doesn't seem to be anything left. It feels, quite frankly, that innovation has died. Died in favour of optical illusions and tickling make-believe tigers.
Take Braid, for example. This fiendishly-clever puzzle-platformer took the games industry by storm in 2008 when it landed on Xbox Live Arcade, and showed what indie games are really capable of, in terms of design, game-play and narrative. Now, try to imagine that Braid didn't exist until now, and it was scheduled to be released on XBLA tomorrow. I'm sure you wouldn't find it too hard to imagine that it would probably have Kinect compatibility. Is Braid the kind of game that would be suitable to play on Kinect or would benefit from Kinect compatibility in any way? Not really, no. But it would still probably be there. Because hey, why not - right?
And this is the problem. It feels like all of the big names in gaming and all the third-party developers that publish on consoles don't want to try and tread new ground, because they're comfortable just pushing Just Dance 17 out the doors and knowing that it will still sell like hotcakes. It feels like they're either afraid of trying to tread new ground and taking a knock, or they've simply got comfortable retreading the same kind of games for the last two years and think we're too gullible or complacent to notice or care.
It's our own fault - at least in part for letting them get away with it. We're content to buy essentially the same Call of Duty game every year with a few bells and whistles tacked on, so why should developers bother trying to innovate when they know that we'll still hand them our money by the bucket-load?
The beginning of the end
Cast your mind back a few years, and you'll probably remember a little game called Guitar Hero. It wasn't any big deal, just one of the most successful games on consoles. And then there was Rock Band. Which was OK, because it brought something new to the field and it was its own separate identity.
And then there was Guitar Hero: World Tour. And Guitar Hero: Greatest Hits. And Guitar Hero: Metallica, and Guitar Hero: Van Halen. And then there was DJ Hero. And Band Hero. Pretty soon the entire genre of music games was completely saturated, and all of a sudden people didn't want to play any more. Nobody wanted to fork out £60+ for each new instalment of what was essentially the same game with some new tracks jammed in, and after a while people just stopped playing. It was a fad. A huge, billion-dollar fad that netted developers Neversoft and publishers Activision quite a pretty penny. But when people stopped wanting to play, no amount of rockin' new tracks or awesome new instrument peripherals could bring them back. And the genre of music games died.
It's not hard to see motion-control games going the same way. Sooner or later, people will get tired of sitting down in front of their TV only to have to get up and wave their arms around and stamp their feet to get any sort of enjoyment out of a game. There'll probably always be that niche there – in fact, the hopes of just about all of the big players in the games industry is riding on it – but the medium of video games was born with simple button-and-stick controls, and it's not hard to see it regressing into the same field.
And regress it should...
Games were designed to be played with the wiggle of a thumb-stick and the press of a button; with the click of a mouse and the tap of a key. It's natural, almost. Trying to force gaming to evolve into this hybridised version of itself that involves swinging inanely around in front of your TV is almost Frankensteinian. That's why I sing the praises of games like Dark Souls, Portal 2 and Limbo at every possible opportunity: games which simultaneously manage to push the boundaries of innovative game-play while bringing gaming back to its roots in simplicity.
Developers seem to have forgotten one of the cardinal rules with the whole medium: it's OK for a game to be “just a game” - we fought hard for gaming to become its own respectable medium of entertainment - but don't try to dress it up and make it do tricks just to make a bit of wedge. You owe us that much.
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