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Playstation Move & Project Natal: Does Anyone Care?

Areala

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No, seriously, ignore the hype Sony and Microsoft have been dumping into the press about their new motion controller Wii-toos for a minute, and think. Do you care about this? Do you know anybody who does? The answers you come up with, after careful consideration, are more than likely, "No," and "No," respectively. I'm not hating on either Sony or Microsoft (I own a PS3), and I'm no Nintendo fangirl (I don't own a Wii). I'm simply asking the question that nobody else in the gaming media seems to be asking: why should we care?

Going back a few years, we can see that both Microsoft and Sony, when asked about Wii's motion-sensing controllers, dismissed them outright. "Gimmicks," the Nintendo controllers were referred to by both companies. In a certain sense, they were right: Wii's motion-sensing controllers are gimmicks, in the same way that the touch screen feature of the Nintendo DS is a gimmick, and the SIXAXIS controller is a gimmick. The main difference is that without those gimmicks, it is impossible to actually play a game on the systems mentioned. The fact that history has borne out repeatedly in regards to video game hardware is that if you want your hardware to be successful, you must bundle it with the system, and then you must have developers who continue to support it with new and interesting software titles.

This is why the Wii-mote works: you get it with the system, and it is the primary way of controlling nearly every piece of current-gen software being sold for the Wii. Game developers don't make titles for the Wii that don't use the motion controls on the Wii-mote because they have no reason to do so. It is hardware that ships with the console, everyone has it, and therefore everyone will use it. To support it is a no-brainer.

Sony and Microsoft, on the other hand, don't have this working in their favour. They both face a long, tedious, uphill battle where they are going to attempt to first sell developers on the hardware, then sell the hardware itself, then games that utilize the hardware, and then continue to sell developers on the hardware to encourage them to make more games in support of it. The problem is that from a developer's perspective, if you don't sell enough copies of your first title to use the new hardware, you won't recoup enough money to develop that second title. And when developers notice studios like Capcom or EA dropping their support for future titles using the peripheral, the other guys start seeing the writing on the wall and pull their support as well; it's amazing to see how fast one can go from having 38 games in development in one year to having 3 in development next year, to zero in development six months later. This is when the hardware fails, and gaming journalists everywhere hold round-ups and interviews with various industry heads to ask, "Why did this happen?" The answer to which is always, "Because it didn't make money, and it didn't make money because nobody cared."

So, instead of waiting for this point in time a year or two down the road, I'm going to make a preemptive strike here on my blog, and state, firmly and decisively, that both the Move and Natal will crash and burn after they are introduced. I don't care how many studios have signed on to develop games, I don't care how much money Sony and Microsoft spend marketing this thing, and I don't care how many demo kiosks get set up in Wal*Mart, Best Buy, or your local game store, Move and Natal are both bound for entries in the Great Video Game Encyclopedia as subsections under the heading of "FAIL".

We can look at virtually anywhere else in the home video game timeline to see cases of hardware that looked amazing and got marketed as the next big thing, only to see it crash and burn. Sega themselves nearly ceased to exist as a company after pulling this mistake one too many times with their very own consoles; after the Sega CD, 32X and Saturn all failed to live up to anything remotely close to their potentials, people were understandably leery about putting their stock in Dreamcast. Not even the mighty Nintendo is immune from this sort of thing: take a look back at R.O.B. and the Power Glove. The Power Glove even had what amounted to a speaking role in a feature film built around video games, and it still failed spectacularly. The failure of the Virtual Boy console itself cost Gunpei Yokoi (creator of Metroid, producer of Super Metroid a.k.a. "The Best Video Game Ever", and the guy who invented the original Game Boy itself for crying out loud!) his job. Nobody at Sega is even allowed discuss what happened to the guy who managed to talk them into developing the Activator (the records will officially be unsealed in 2031).

The problem with innovating hardware is that you have to offer gamers a solid reason to use it, and developers a solid reason to support it. A firm, 100% guaranteed install base with that hardware is the best scenario you can provide devs with. Like the DS touch screen, or the Wiimote, it guarantees that their game can be marketed to anyone who owns the console. Unless you make this the primary means of interacting with the console, you still aren't going to have many titles that utilize that hardware as its lone control mode. Don't believe me? The Zapper lightgun shipped with every incarnation of the NES, but games like Operation: Wolf still allowed you to play using the control pad. Revolution X didn't require that you have the Menacer to play on the Genesis. Operation Thunderbolt for the SNES let you play with pretty much anything you wanted, supporting the control pad, the Super Scope lightgun, and even the SNES Mouse. Konami offered one way around this problem by offering the Justifier lightgun used for playing its Lethal Enforcers as a pack-in with the purchase of the game on both the Genesis and Super Nintendo, and even included a mail-in coupon that allowed the owner to send in a small fee (I'm thinking $10, but I don't have the coupon in front of me, so correct me if I'm wrong) and receive a second gun so two players could shoot at the screen.

Of course, you can overdo it as Capcom discovered with Steel Battalion, their $200 video game experiment which managed to not only price itself out of virtually every player's pocketbook, but also required the use of its special controller in order to play it. The controller itself accounted for $150 of the game's cost, was every mech-geek's wet dream, and insured that nobody with anything less than a complete and utter devotion to hardcore game playing would ever so much as think twice about taking it home. Despite creating a sequel to the game which also required the controller to play, Steel Battalion barely broke even, and Capcom probably considers themselves lucky to have made any money on it at all.

Occasionally there are exceptions to the rule that show hardware introduced later in a product cycle becoming successful, and the best examples of this come from both Sony and Microsoft in the form of new controllers. When the Playstation debuted, the controller was a simple design that pretty much ripped off the Super NES pad, added a couple more buttons, and that was that. Three years after the release of the PS1, Sony came out with the DUALSHOCK controller, which updated their regular pad with a pair of analog sticks and a rumble function. It didn't take long for developers to fall for this sucker, and Sony began packing a DUALSHOCK pad with its systems instead of the original digital controller. Ape Escape proved that you could both market and sell a game that required the dual analog sticks to play, and Sony's been doing their thing with the same controller design for three successive generations. Microsoft's success in this area also came from their controllers, as the original Xbox pads were enormous and uncomfortable to use when gaming for extended periods of time. Sales of their "Controller-S" in Japan, a smaller, more ergonomic controller with slightly different button layout, proved to be so successful that they adopted it here as well, and it is the new S design as opposed to the original pad which became the default for the Xbox 360.

So, it can be done. The problem is that the Move and Natal go far beyond simple controller refinements. They don't simply add a tilt-sensor or force feedback, they completely change the way a controller itself works and the way a user interacts with the system. Traditionally, it has been impossible to produce a peripheral that functions in this fashion that has become a success among multi-party developers, especially third-parties, and still make money. Nintendo made it work because the Wiimote shipped with every console they sold. Unless Sony and Microsoft are now planning to bundle the Move and Natal in with their new hardware and offer substantial discounts on pricing for those who were earlier adopters, the penetration level for this new technology simply won't reach a point where developers feel confident in throwing money at it.

I hope I'm wrong. I'd love nothing more than to see Move and Natal make it just as big as Nintendo's Wiimote. And maybe the experiment won't be a complete and total failure; even if the hardware doesn't succeed on this generation, there's nothing stopping either Sony or Microsoft from including it with their next generation of consoles. But to be honest, I don't think there are enough people who will care about Natal or Move. And unless third-party developers make money on the games they want to make for the peripherals right out of the gate, they'll put the kibosh on any further projects that utilize the technology, no matter how cool it may look or what stuff it may let them do. By all means, Sony, try and get me excited about Playstation Move. Just understand that if you can't get me to care about it, then it isn't going to work.



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