Five inherent problems with motion control

Miyamoto Holding WiimoteIn just 10 months, Nintendo’s Wii has given the gaming industry much to think about. The sales have been phenomenal, but many long-time gamers are struggling to find games that fit their existing habits. Many of the Wii success stories are about games that were designed from the ground up with Wii in mind. Developers who are taking existing games and trying to make them into Wii games are running into some walls with the control scheme. It’s up to consumers to purchase the games from the developers who get it right. As for the ones who don’t, we simply wonder “what happened?”

1. Inaccuracy
The Wii Remote is a wonderful piece of technology, but it’s not perfect. Moving the remote too quickly for a gesture makes it hard for the system to pick up on what the gesture is supposed to be. When you’re moving the pointer through 3D space, without the system having any way of reading the space around it, you’re relying solely on the remote’s sensors to be 100% accurate, and after 10 months of playing Wii games, it’s plain to see that it’s not 100%. No matter how close to 100% it gets, gamers have been used to button precision for decades. Buttons are 100%. Another problem lies with the Wii’s pointing device. Many have compared it to a mouse, but the key difference is that you cannot lift your hand to reset the remote to a “default” position, like is easily done with a mouse. In addition, lighting differences in different homes make it difficult for the Wii Remote to work properly. Candles near the television, or sunlight streaming through an open window can make the Wii practically unplayable.

HOW TO FIX IT: This will come in time if Nintendo continues down the motion control path for its next console. As Nintendo studies the remote and how consumers use it, they will get the feedback necessary to improve the accuracy of the remote for the next generation of the technology. Perhaps Nintendo will release a more reliable Wii Remote later in the life of the existing console, but to do so would require them to admit that the original was flawed. That is unlikely to occur. Only if the new revision is couched in a new design, or some other tangible positive, would Nintendo take this approach. Nintendo had very little market research on which to base their original design and technology for the Wii Remote, and it shows. Next time out, you can bet that Nintendo will take care of many of these difficulties.

2. It’s All Relative
Everyone uses button controllers the exact same way, but motion controllers are different. People have different arm sizes, leading to longer or shorter swings of the remote in a golf game, or shorter, quicker strikes in a boxing game. People move the remote at a variety of speeds and this leads back to the first problem. This is also a problem for gameplay habits. When playing Metroid Prime 3, I was supposed to pull the remote toward me, but it was already next to me, so I’d have to push it out first, which confused the game. Sometimes when ripping an energy shield from a Space Pirate, I would yank the nunchuck back to me, but unfortunately a second too early. By the time the game was ready for me to yank the nunchuck back, it was already in the “yanked” position. When playing WarioWare, I constantly have to remind my guests to stand an additional foot back from the TV and aim slightly lower, toward the sensor bar. I have seen very few first-timers get the pointing games right on the first try.

HOW TO FIX IT: Developers need to write code that accounts for these discrepancies. I have yet to see a game that properly deals with this. Perhaps in future revisions of the Wii’s firmware, the system could ask for the arm length of its primary players, giving developers the variables they need to properly implement swinging motions into their games. Other motion sensing calibration techniques could be utilized as well to gauge the gameplay habits of the system’s owners. Some of the inaccuracies I’ve seen in Wii games are no fault of the technology, but of lazy programming. In most other software design fields, this would not be acceptable. If Nintendo intends to prioritize the user interface, as seems to be the case with both Wii and DS, this needs to be improved.

3. Tired Arms
Recently the developers of Rygar have said they intend the game to be physically taxing. Is this a good thing? Many gamers have said they don’t want to be tired after playing games for 20 minutes. The counterargument, of course, is Wii Sports – a game which by its very name and intent is physically taxing. Some microgames in WarioWare are taxing, some are not. Some of the minigames in Rayman are taxing, some are not. Which does the gaming community prefer? Are we playing standing up, or sitting down?

HOW TO FIX IT: Market research. Determine what types of gamers want to play games that require physically taxing movement and make games for them. If the typical Metroid gamer doesn’t want to wipe sweat from his brow, don’t make Metroid games that require taxing movements. The types of motions that a player must make to succeed in the game must be fun to that gamer, and not uncomfortable. The fishing minigame in Zelda: Twilight Princess felt very out of place because it was extremely taxing compared to the rest of the motions in that game. Not all physically taxing motion games are a bad thing; they simply have to appeal to the right kinds of people.

4. Overzealous Developers
With Wii’s success, the library of games now has a glut of titles that use poor implementation of motion control. Sometimes the developers want to do too much and assume that the player will adapt to the control scheme. Games that require the player to adapt to the control scheme rarely do well for themselves. Why does a game like Prince of Persia really need motion control? Does Madden do too much? Is motion sensing control truly a superior scheme in Metal Slug? All of these issues are debatable, but the topic remains an issue: how much motion control is too much? Do developers know when to stop?

HOW TO FIX IT: Eventually developers will see what types of Wii games sell and will make games that function similarly. We’ve seen lots of fishing, golfing, and bowling games on Wii already, based on the success of Wii Sports. This is good marketing (regardless of the quality of these games), and will eventually lead to success for these developers. By comparison, the DS was filled with awful touch screen games in the first year. The problem never really went away from the DS, but you did eventually see a few successful formulas emerge after the first year, and these were adapted into other titles by competing developers. One hopes that in time Wii will follow suit and we’ll see developers begin to understand how to use motion sensing to make games BETTER, not just different.

5. Marketing
Wii has made it difficult to demonstrate new products to potential consumers. In brick-and-mortar stores, there are demo kiosks for major consoles, even the PC platform, but for Wii we only see a video, with a pleasant-faced woman talking about how much fun you COULD be having with the system if you were lucky enough to own one. With online retail, consumers are faced with the problem that the motion sensing aspect of gameplay cannot be demonstrated through videos or screenshots. Nintendo has solved this problem by showing videos of people playing and enjoying the product, intertwined with videos of the game itself. This is a sufficient, but somewhat problematic marketing technique, because it doesn’t focus on the product itself, rather on the consumer.

HOW TO FIX IT: I would certainly not try to convince you that Nintendo has had a marketing problem over the past year, but in the future Nintendo’s strategy may not be as successful. Once the idea of Wii is firmly implanted into consumers’ brains, they will want to see less of people playing the system, and more of what types of software is available. Unfortunately, without any kind of a physical demonstration, there is no way to avoid having to show the person playing the game. Nintendo is still selling Wii on the potential of great future products, as evident by the apparent lack of need to demo current software. There will come a time when the majority of potential customers will have already experienced Wii Sports and will be ready to move onto new software, but will be unable to play the software in stores, instead relying on video.