Motion-control systems: A moving experience

Nintendo got there first with the Wii, now Sony and Microsoft are bringing out motion-based controllers. But is arm-waving action really what players want? Our resident gamers battle it out

If you have ever been a regular player of video games, then there is an experience you will almost certainly have had. It may have been with a tolerant partner or a curious parent, but at some point in your life you will have attempted one of the most frustrating tasks there is – teaching a non-gamer how to play a video game.

Of all the hurdles that have to be negotiated in this situation, the controller is often by far the most difficult. When you think about it, on first approach they are terrifyingly complex. For a start there are all those different buttons that seem to be placed almost randomly all over the pad, something which – as controllers have evolved over time – has only got worse. Before Nintendo's N64 console was released there was normally only one way to move your character; now both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers have two sticks and a D-pad.

It is obvious, therefore, why the Wii has been such a success in attracting non-gamers, and hence why both Sony and Microsoft are about to launch their own motion-control systems. For someone unused to the internal logic of video games, picking up a Wii remote and playing Wii Sports instantly feels natural. When playing tennis, swing it like a racket and it acts like one; similarly, the actions when bowling are remarkable similar to what you would do at an alley. OK, it may still have a few buttons, but the initial experience is far more intuitive.

The positives of the Wii bringing gaming to a new audience have been tempered by the number of cheaply produced titles with appalling graphics and little depth that have been released as a result. But this doesn't mean movement-based gaming should be dismissed as a gimmick. The Wii is merely an early attempt, and, having experienced both Sony and Microsoft's take on motion control – the PlayStation Move and Xbox Kinect – the next generation is set to be an enormous upgrade.

Sony's effort, which goes on sale tomorrow, is the first to be released, and on first play there is one massive improvement that is instantly visible – accuracy. Even after the addition of Wii MotionPlus, Nintendo's controller has suffered from being relatively hit-and-miss in terms of recognising movements, especially subtle ones. The PlayStation Move – which involves a webcam tracking the special controller – is simply on another level. For example, when playing the table tennis game in Sports Champions, if you slightly twist the controller in your hand then your on-screen bat instantly twists as well. This level of responsiveness means you have an incredible amount of control over your shots, and the wider potential of this higher level of accuracy is very exciting indeed.

Kinect's appeal to seasoned gamers is perhaps less clear, but even the biggest curmudgeon must find Microsoft's approach intriguing. Again using a camera, Kinect, which goes on sale in November, involves no physical controller and instead tracks your whole body. The amazing thing is it actually works, and works well. Stand in front of it, and face-recognition software will know it is you and bring up your Xbox Live avatar; on the right games, if your friend steps in front of the camera half-way through, the computer places them in the game straight away. It may seem to offer more opportunities for the type of novelty games that plagued the Wii than the PlayStation Move (one of the launch titles is Kinectimals, a pet simulator), but surely there will be some major developers who will try to incorporate it into grown-up games, perhaps alongside a standard controller.

Do I prefer motion-control games rather than playing with a normal controller? Well no, certainly not at the moment. But this is because of the titles on offer, and not the concept. Motion-control systems offer a completely different gaming experience, and with the technology still in its infancy, we can look forward to them being incorporated into games in the future in ways we can't imagine.

I'm not sure if the metaphor can take the strain, but the problems presented by the rise of the motion controller for the avid video gamer can be understood in terms of apples. I like apples. I like them enough to have actually sampled different varieties at a genuine apple fair, and whether granny smith or egremont russet, they are my favourite kind of fruit. On the other hand, I also like apple-flavour sweets. It's possible that when I first ate sour green apple Starburst, or chewed on atomic apple Hubba Bubba, I was disappointed that they didn't actually taste like the real thing. But pretty quickly I decided I liked the E-number simulacrum as well, and I've never felt let down since.

So it is with video games. It is true, of course, that there is nothing very realistic about the way you play football on your console. Holding down the left trigger and rotating the right stick to execute a Cruyff turn has almost nothing to do with the way you would do the same thing in real life. But the point is this: I can't do the same thing in real life, because I'm completely useless at it. And so the basis for my pleasure in Fifa 10 is my pleasure in the real game; but the specific ways that I enjoy it are all to do with how it is different.

Playstation Move and Xbox Kinect won't, on their own, destroy this pleasure. There are loads of gaming contexts where movement can be a brilliant innovation, enriching and enlivening an otherwise unexceptional experience. Archery with a joypad is a pretty banal prospect; archery when firing an arrow from your phantom bow will obviously be sort of amusing. It's worth noting, too, that PlayStation, at least, has acknowledged the importance of buttons in the promotional materials for its gadget, which happily features a healthy dusting of pressable plastic.

And yet. Put yourself in my shoes, the shoes of a man who plays games more than he likes to admit in social situations, and then look at the games launched alongside Move, many of which seem to have been produced by studios that could have used a bit more motion control of their own. Sports Champions; Start The Party; The Shoot. Look at the careful marketing strategy that Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have all started to employ, plonking happy families in front of consoles in a light-filled living room and nary a pockmarked adolescent in sight.

All those games could be entertaining enough, in their way, and it's none of my business if revoltingly functional family units in brightly coloured sweatshirts want to take imaginary white water rafting trips together. But when they start to impinge on the creation of the immersive, complex experiences that nearly all my favourite games are built on, I begin to worry.

The point is not that these technologies, and these rebranding exercises, make those games impossible, although anyone trying to build a sophisticated game based on how you wave your arms about has my sympathy. The point is that they start from the acknowledgement that casual, social gaming is the most important market there is for console manufacturers, and massively amplify the likelihood that game developers will follow that lead to the detriment of more interesting titles.

The root of that trend is the understandable assumption that the casual gamer won't have the patience to learn intricate button combinations just to step from behind a bush and fire a gun; the end result is the fetishisation of versimilitude and simplicity at the expense of imagination and complexity.

"The most realistic gaming experience," chirrups Sony, and I want to slam a virtual first into a virtual wall. Realistic? Not really, so long as you have to hold what one reviewer described as a "futuristic sex toy" to do it. Realistic? If most of my favourite games were really realistic, I'd be left out of the team, hopelessly out of tune, or dead. Realistic? So what? Would Cluedo have been better if the characters' names were a little less colour-coded? Would Monopoly have benefited from the price of Mayfair being tracked to the property market? I love games, and in particular I love that each one has a grammar and rhythm that is uniquely its own, that unapologetically lays out its own set of rules and then teaches you how to play it until you stand a chance of victory. I just don't understand why anyone would want to ditch that endless idiosyncrasy in favour of a diluted version of another kind of experience. No one has ever successfully marketed confectionery that had the taste and texture and shape and colour of an apple, except a slightly less nice apple than one you can buy in the greengrocers. There is, I would suggest, a very good reason for this.

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