Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Waggle 2.0: Still for Noobs Only

When Mr. Keeley and I discussed the Wii a few weeks back, I concluded that motion gaming's future looked more promising on the two other systems – Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Sony seems to agree since, last week, they announced Playstation Move. This is not an autonomous system; like Microsoft's camera-based Project Natal, it will serve as a relaunch of sorts for the company's existing system. Because of this, Move has a bit more work to do than the Wii did. It must rope in casual gamers while still appealing to discerning hardcore gamers. In other words, it has to be every bit as inviting as the Wii but offer some genuine depth.

The way Sony chose to unveil this new wand/camera control system to the public showed a clear focus on the former: Wooing the Wii crowd. One of the first games they unveiled is a naked attempt to emulate Wii Sports, but in HD – Sports Champions. Sony claims that the Move controller is far more precise than the Wiimote and that this will markedly enhance the experience. It will be impossible to assess the quality of the gameplay before it is released, but the game's subject matter clearly suggests that the Playstation Move is more an upgrade over the Wii than an attempt to reinvent motion gaming.

That fact only became harder to ignore as Sony trotted out a slew of party games and rail shooters at their press conference. The technology may have been upgraded but the creativity has not.

Naturally, if the motion-centric games are proving hopelessly shallow and derivative, an alternative lies with games that deign to incorporate motion as a secondary form of control. Cue LittleBigPlanet. The demo Sony provided illustrated how this constantly evolving game can grow to incorporate motion control. Users will be able to create levels that are played normally by one person but contain obstacles that require assistance from a second person with Move. It was not entirely organic, with one person controlling the onscreen character and another controlling a disembodied force, but it seemed like it had some potential.

The other entry in this category was SOCOM 4, the latest in Sony's line of military shooters. This game is fully playable with either the traditional DualShock 3 controller or Move. Options are always nice, but this raises a few concerns. First, will the motion control ever be a preferable alternative? It is not likely to prove as precise as the DualShock, especially in a third person shooter. Second, will players using one form of control play against those using the other in online matches? That would create a huge potential for imbalance, as both modes of control will surely have different strengths. Finally, will the added work necessary to implement all of this detract from the overall experience? I cannot imagine that either mode of control will be as tight as it could have been if only one had been included.

Sony clearly wanted to throw serious gamers a bone with SOCOM 4, but I doubt that they will bite, given all of these issues. Furthermore, similar issues will probably plague any other games that try to straddle the line. Sony needs games that are substantive, but still built from the ground up to utilize what the Move has to offer.

Oddly enough, the only game Sony presented that I felt even hinted at this ideal was about as simple as a game could get: EyePet.

Now, this hardly qualifies as a deep game, but I bring it up for the potential it shows. This game illustrates the unique capabilities of the Playstation Move like nothing else does: Nintendo has motion control and Microsoft has camera-based control, but Sony has both. That could result in some surprisingly dynamic and immersive experiences. The number of ways in which players can interact with their EyePet is impressive. There will obviously need to be much more to any games that wish to capitalize on this potential, but EyePet was the only Move game that felt like a glimpse at the future.

Or maybe it was just the pop music.

Even that one flash of excitement I felt was quickly tempered by a dose of reality: This crap is going to be expensive. Sony has promised that a starter pack, including a Move controller, a Playstation Eye camera and a Move-enabled game, will sell for less than $100. Not a bad deal, on the face of it, but when considering the social experience for which these games are clearly striving, one controller simply will not cut it. Some games may even require one person to use two Move controllers or one Move and something called a Sub-Controller (think Wii Nunchuk). So, while experiencing EyePet will only cost $100, experiencing all of the possibilities of Move will cost considerably more.

At the very least, the introduction of Playstation Move represents a renewed commitment to the Playstation 3 on Sony's part. No one wants a new generation of systems anytime soon, and this ensures that it is not coming. At the same time, Move will certainly open up real gaming to new people. It has a unique capacity to bring casual gamers to a system with a deep library, creating a viable path for their growth into serious gamers.

That path will likely lead them to outgrow Move, however. Sony seems to have a weak case for this acting as anything more than a hook for the uninitiated. If that is the extent of their plan, an aggressively priced Move may very well do its job. I would not count on gaining much attention from those who are already on the boat, though; they will see Move for what it is.

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