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Tech Focus: What Next for Motion Control?

Digital Foundry on next-gen options for Move, Kinect and Wii U

The recent release of Kinect on PC demonstrates that Microsoft remains firmly committed to its "hands free" controller, and actually features a key hardware upgrade over the Xbox 360 - the ability to work with players at close range: essential for a desktop environment. It's the first step in what is believed to be an evolution for the Kinect platform, which will see its true "sequel" released alongside, or even as part of, the next-generation Xbox. Whether we like it or not - and a great many core gamers clearly don't - motion control is here to stay.

"Nintendo's Wii was the most disruptive product of the current console generation - to what extent will motion control define the next?"

As the Wii gradually winds down and its next-gen successor is readied for launch, it's important to step back and take a look at the diminutive console's achievements. Described by many rather disparagingly as an overclocked GameCube (although essentially that is what it is), Wii remains the most disruptive video game product of the current console generation. While Sony and Microsoft embarked on a hugely expensive technological arms race, Nintendo merely refined its existing, modestly successful hardware with minor architectural changes and a big boost in clock speed. The real genius of its proposition was, of course, the controller.

As joypads became ever more involved and complex, Nintendo pared its own controller back, reducing the principle form of interface to a remote - and everyone knows how to use a remote, right? The add-on nunchuck controller added the requisite analogue controller required to make core games feasible and the rest, as they say, is history. Wii succeeded because it was immediate, original, enjoyable - and everyone could understand it and join in. Pack-in title Wii Sports fails as a comprehensive game with lots of depth, but as a sampler for motion control, it is a work of genius.

Nintendo's E3 presentation for Wii U demonstrated once more that the controller is the focus, but its established Wiimote isn't the primary interface.

Were it not for the Wii, doubtless there would be no Kinect, and almost certainly no PlayStation Move, but the problem with these products is that they are add-ons to existing consoles that were never designed with motion control in mind, and the range of games that support each of them is limited. Obviously, in contrast, the vast majority of Wii titles (the likes of Wii Fit excepted) are built with the motion controller in mind.

Sony has faced the bigger problem here, despite having arguably the premier product in the field and the most talented internal R&D team who were literally years ahead of their time. To my mind, PlayStation Move is the most flexible, versatile and potentially exciting motion controller of the lot. It does everything the Wiimote is capable of and a whole lot more, and its level of precision is unrivalled. The genius of its design is all down to the SCEA group led by Sony's Doctor Richard Marks - who was experimenting with motion control over a decade ago, and actually exhibited a wand-style controller for PlayStation 2 at ECTS way back in 2001. Marks was even demonstrating Kinect-style cameras in 2004 during a presentation for Stanford University students, over a year before the Xbox 360 even launched.

Unfortunately, as good as Move is, it doesn't define the PlayStation experience in the way that the Wiimote did for Nintendo: its many qualities are never the primary focus for games developers, and while there have been some great implementations in first party titles, Sony never deployed its best development teams on Move-centric products. The approach is somewhat at odds with Microsoft's Kinect launch, consisting of almost exclusive titles and the positioning of Kinect as a new platform.

More Wii U hardware demos - here we see the ways in which Nintendo believes that its existing motion controllers can actually work in concert with the Wii U tablet in multiplayer gameplay.

But Kinect has problems of its own - perhaps not from a commercial perspective where it is generally acknowledged to be the most successful launch in the history of consumer electronics - but certainly in terms of its technical make-up. It performs brilliantly on a set range of functions which make it perfect for dancing and fitness games, but it is dogged by latency and tracking issues, and its reliance on a relatively large play space (something addressed in the PC update) limits where and how it can be played. Microsoft's attempts to justify the device to core gamers also appear to have fallen short: the Kinect support in Forza 4 isn't so impressive, the Ghost Recon: Future Soldier demo at E3 just looked outright bizarre and far more complex than using a standard controller, while its utilisation for voice support seems somewhat superfluous when headsets (with mics) are integrated into every Xbox 360 package.

So, going forward, where does motion control sit within the platform holders' next-gen plans? Nintendo, of course, has already shown its hand. For its debut HD outing, the controller is still the focus, but the company has combined virtually all major forms of input into its tablet-style offering: there's motion control, touch-screen and conventional joypad style controllers too. Wii U is backwards compatible with Wii MotionPlus and other peripherals such as the balance board, but it's that tablet that's the focus - and what will make or break the success of the product.

Richard Leadbetter avatar
Richard Leadbetter: Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.