Motion Controls: Everything They’re Cracked Up to Be?

by Steve Bowler on June 19, 2008 · 6 comments

in business,control,critique

A co-worker challenged me to write something about the current trend of motion control/gesture game controls, but I figured there wasn’t much meat there, or that I was just chasing flame bait. But after thinking about it on my drives home, I’m wondering, are motion controls all that we were promised?

I think we all fell in love with the Wii when it hit. I know I did. I just had to have it, like everyone else, and surprised the wife with one for Christmas that year. We played Wii Sports, just like everyone else, and loved it, for a week. We then pretty much didn’t touch it after that except for a few trips to the bowling game, and I still wish someone (cough EA cough) would make a golf game for it that would take advantage of the real swing mechanic.

But. I have to say that from what I’ve seen, this whole accelerometer/motion stuff just doesn’t appeal to me.

Let’s take a look at what we can do with it: We can play Zelda with it, and have a halfway decent time with the sword swingy mechanic. But. Does that make it a better or more immersive game? I’ve heard it’s just as good with the N64 controller. The content and experience of the game doesn’t change at all based on the control scheme. People who beat it with a controller feel just as good about it as those who beat it with the Wiimote. The only real difference is that one version is mirror flipped from the other. So in the “premium” title that uses it, there really isn’t a whole lot of value add there. Maybe a touch of icing on the cake.

Sure, there’s the Trauma Center title, which seems to use the pointer part of the Wiimote to moderate satisfaction, but that was covered better by the DS stylus original version of the game.

We can look at Sixaxis controls, to see if there’s much there in the way of innovation, but other than flying a Warhawk, it’s a bit of a joke. Yes, I can shake my controller to reload in GTAIV, or I can wobble it (hilariously) to change my octocamo in MGS4, but really, all this functionality has done (again) is replace a button or a joystick. As far as true innovation goes, it’s empty.

In fact, the one game that I had high hopes for, a game which I feel unfairly sold a bunch of Wiis in the early days, was Red Steel. Where is the game that allows me to wield a sword with the Wiimote, and a gun with the Nunchaku? Red Steel tried it, and failed miserably. A few games (like No More Heroes) have tried to use waggle controls since then, but honestly, you can pretty much just wave the controller around and get attacks. It’s not like your controller is a virtual sword handle and you’re manipulating your sword in real time. You shake the controller, he attacks.

Frankly, I want more.

Now, understandably, I think one of the reasons why this technology isn’t giving us more is because it’s a glorified singular triangulation device (and a bad one at that), combined with some cheap accelerometers. What basically happens when you wield a Wiimote is that it attempts to take all of your motions and come up with an average of how you’re moving the controller. To see what you holding a Wiimote looks like to the Wii, tape a laser pointer to the side of it sometime and attempt to use it.

Yeah, see how your dot is flying all over the room, and never seems to stay steady in one place, ever? Imagine that data being sent out along six axis (see what Playstation did there?), Positive and Negative X, Y, and Z. It’s taking spastic data across all six axis and attmepting to make some sense out of it, so after it smooths and cluges the data down into something close to what we actually expected, it doesn’t quite resemble anything with any amount of respectable fidelity.

Now, confound this with the fact that the user never quite uses the controller the way the developer expects it to be used. “Swing your controller left to right” works in two ways on the accelerometers. The first way is if someone actually swings it in an arc. This creates a lot of centripetal force on the accelerometer axis which makes it think it’s being pulled towards the player (like how water stays in a bucket when you swing it in a circle over your head; the water is trying to get away from you). But if the player just moves it left and right along a horizontal line, (swinging it left to right), the data is read on the left/right axis, not the forward/backward one which is read if you actually swung it in an arc.

So now the developer has to look at what the data would look like if the player did both of these things, and try and make the case for both to work. With smoothed out data which originally looked like a spastic hairball of a graph.

I’m just beginning to think that accelerometers and an infra red triangulation reader wasn’t the right input for motion controls. With inputs like these, we’re never going to get a virtual sword/wand/crowbar that acts like we expect it to. You can forget about your Star Wars Jedi sword game, or a fantasy dungeon crawler, or even a Red Steel that feels/works right.

I’d love to see something like three RFID chips (with the middle one offset) in the Wiimote, and then instead of the light bar on the TV, you’d have two RFID readers (with more range than your standard ones) which could get triangulation on the Wiimote (especially if a third reader was in the Wii for redundancy). This would not only be able to read where the Wiimote was pointing, it would know where it was in the room, and how far it moved exactly from frame to frame. It’s a form of Motion Capture that isn’t optical (like is mostly used presently), but I’m sure is too expensive (or just unreliable at this point) or we’d see it being used in place of optical Motion Capture today.

What do you folks think? Is Motion Controls (on any system) all that you hoped it would be? Is it the next direction gaming needs to go? Or is it just a gimmick to put units in the hands of the general populace?