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Bodies In Motion

New controllers are the talk of the show at TGS - with the divide between Sony and Microsoft becoming increasingly clear

Following the upheaval in the console market which attended Gamescom in Cologne last month - with price reshuffles for Sony and Microsoft, not to mention the introduction of the long-awaited PS3 Slim - it's little surprise that this week's Tokyo Game Show brought rather more muted headlines.

Nintendo's Wii price cut for the US and Japan (but not Europe, although the trade price in the UK has finally returned to its pre-price hike levels) is arguably the biggest news to emerge from the show, representing one of the final re-adjustments in the line-up before the three companies commence their Christmas battle for hearts, minds and wallets.

A new Wii bundle is expected for Europe in the coming weeks, packaging the MotionPlus accessory and Wii Sports Resort with the console, and Microsoft is expected to join Sony by offering 250Gb premium bundles, but the basic prices are now fixed in place until the new year.

With the lines already firmly staked out for the Christmas battle, then, Sony and Microsoft's focus at TGS turned elsewhere - to what was arguably a retread of their last competitive heat at E3. For both firms, motion control was back on the agenda - each keen to outdo the other as they hurtle down the trail Nintendo has so successfully blazed.

It's easy to characterise both the PS3 Motion Controller (which is in desperate need of a snappier title) and Microsoft's Natal as being me-too products, the creations of companies badly stung by Nintendo's unexpected success - but looking more closely at each one, it's fascinating to note the philosophical differences between the approaches taken by Sony and Microsoft.

At TGS, Sony had several games to announce, and restated its firm commitment to a Spring 2010 launch for the device. The company is moving in leaps and bounds into the showing, rather than telling, phase of the motion controller's development - while for Microsoft's part, its Natal presentation consisted largely of getting respected game developers such as Hideo Kojima and Keiji Inafune to waffle at length about the huge potential of the technology.

The reason for this disparity is simple - Sony has adopted not only Nintendo's interface idea, but also its technology development philosophy. Where Natal is a vast, ambitious technological undertaking, demanding the creation of brand new solutions to extremely complex problems, the PS3 Motion Controller is essentially a collection of broadly well-understood and mature technologies (including the PS3 EyeToy camera and accelerometers not dissimilar to those found in the Sixaxis pads) strapped together with clever software.

In other words, the PS3 Motion Controller looks, for all the world, like a disruptive product - in this instance, applying old, robust and crucially, cheap technology to create a new user experience. What's most intriguing is that philosophically, this is brand new ground for PlayStation. With Ken Kutaragi at the helm, PlayStation has always been a technology-led brand - culminating, one could argue, in the over-expensive and over-engineered PS3, whose technology-led approach lumbered the firm with spiralling costs and sealed Kutaragi's own exit.

By comparison, PS3 Motion Controller is a distinctly un-Sony piece of kit. Having watched the market it utterly dominated for a decade being usurped by Nintendo's disruptive Wii - not to mention seeing the technologically superior PSP being outsold by the DS - Sony would appear to have performed a timely volte-face, taking an approach to motion control which keeps both costs and timescales well under control.

As a result, today Sony can talk about launch games for a system which will be available early next year - and even about patching motion control support into existing titles such as Flower and, interestingly, Resident Evil 5. The integration with Resident Evil will be watched especially closely to evaluate the potential of the system for core games, of course - but the simple fact of being able to name so many products in development, even if some of them are mere patches for existing games, is reassuring for consumers and industry alike.

Microsoft's counter-argument, voiced loudly and clearly in its developer session at TGS, is that Natal is a step ahead of anything either Sony or Nintendo is doing in this space. Technologically, the idea of modelling the 3D space and tracking the motion of multiple people through the space is, indeed, a generational leap over what either the Wii or the PS3 is attempting. The potential it opens up for videogames is, in theory, entirely different to that of the Wii and PS3 controllers - but with that comes more technological complexity, with the baggage of higher costs and tougher development timescales.

This is shaping up, in other words, to be yet another face-off between disruptive technology and cutting edge technology. This time, Sony has switched sides - its solution is cheap, disruptive and will be on the market quickly - but there's no guarantee that the disruptive tech will win over consumers.

Microsoft's challenge may be a tough one - it will be the last company to market with motion controls, and its solution may well be more expensive - but if the latter half of this console battle is to be a battle of the motion controllers, then Natal's high tech may yet set it apart and wow consumers in a way which Sony's solution cannot. Before we can judge that, however, Microsoft will have to move from gathering rooms full of top developers to sing the system's praises, and instead start gathering rooms full of top developers to show off some games.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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