It’s just under four years since Nintendo first released its Wii onto an unsuspecting market, and Microsoft and Sony have been watching its colossal success with jealous, hungry eyes.
The Wii’s technological underpinnings may have been antiquated even in 2006, but through a combination of clever marketing and an innovative, approachable control system, Nintendo’s diminutive white box sold in numbers that Sony and Microsoft could never have predicted.
The key to the Wii’s success was, of course, its courting of the emerging casual market. The console’s simple, energetic controller attracted a new breed of gamer, perhaps wary of the more intimidating, multiple-button joypads seen on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
To this end, Sony and Microsoft have both been hard at work on motion control systems for their own consoles, and clearly hope that selling their own add-ons will provide them with a slice of Nintendo’s casual gaming pie.
The E3 expo earlier this month was the venue for presentations from both companies, as they revealed more details about their respective systems ahead of their release this autumn.
First up, there’s Microsoft’s Kinect for the 360. Once known under its working title of Project Natal, Kinect is the most radical of the rival companies’ motion control systems, and the science underpinning it is undeniably impressive. Dispensing with handheld controls or remotes altogether, Kinect uses a series of cameras and sensors to detect the position of players’ movements, meaning that controlling a racing car can be achieved by simply holding your hands in a ten-to-two position and turning an imaginary steering wheel left and right.
Kinect’s controller-free motion sensitivity is further augmented by a voice detection feature, which means navigating through Xbox Live’s labyrinth of menus and options could soon be achieved through a series of hand waves and mumbled commands. Microsoft’s E3 demonstration showed a player logging into his Live account through a simple flap of his hand, though the system’s rather spooky ability to recognise his identity without any further interaction was never fully explained.
Inevitably, the technology offered by Kinect comes at a price. While Microsoft has yet to set an official RRP for the UK, the US price is rumoured to be around $150, which will almost certainly translate to at least £150 by the time it reaches our shores this autumn.
Sony PlayStation Move
Sony’s own motion control system follows the Wii’s more closely than Kinect, and as such is both more modest technologically and far cheaper, with the RRP apparently set at about £33 for each controller, with the Navigation Controller (the equivalent of the Wii’s Nunchuck) available for a further £25, and both devices available in a bundle with the PlayStation Eye for around £50.
Move is, we’re told, more accurate than Nintendo’s updated Wii Motion Plus system, with Sony’s wands replicating “every subtlety of motion” and offering true 1:1 movement. The Move controller isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing product Sony has designed, however, and bears more than a passing resemblance to an oversized ice cream, with a chunky black handle with a curious coloured orb for aiming at the television.
Move’s looks aside, we’d argue that Sony’s system poses a considerably lower financial risk than Microsoft’s Kinect, with the Move’s low price point making it more likely to entice consumers looking for a festive time killer.
Of course, the success of either system is inexorably linked to the quality of the software available for it, as companies such as Sega, Commodore and Nintendo can attest, an add-on device can’t survive for long without third- as well as first-party support. Which brings us neatly onto the subject of…
Even the most ardent supporter of Nintendo will admit that the Wii (and for that matter, the DS) is absolutely awash with dozens upon dozens of generic party games, terrible licensed tie-ins and other assorted shovelware.
Worryingly, both Sony and Microsoft appear to be courting the same kind of market, with launch releases all alarmingly similar to the first games available for the Wii.
With Wii Sports currently the best-selling videogame of all time with over 60 million copies sold, it’s unsurprising that both Move and Kinect offer several variations on Nintendo’s theme. For the Xbox there’s the imaginatively titled Kinect Sports, which offers a familiar collection of mini-games, including 200 metre hurdles, where on-screen athletes are harried into service by frantically running on the spot, and other assorted diversions including bowling, javelin throwing, ping pong, football and volleyball.
On the PS3, meanwhile, there’s the alarmingly similar Sports Champions, which offers living room-friendly simulations of volleyball, archery and table tennis.
The majority of Kinect’s launch titles continue along similarly casual lines, with some of them offering experiences suspiciously similar to Nintendo’s. Kinect is home to Joy Ride, a somewhat tepid looking homage to Mario Kart. Then there’s Kinectimals, a pet simulator along the lines of Nintendogs, where a series of virtual mammals can be interacted with via a series of strokes and gestures. More than a little creepy, in our humble opinion.
Then there’s Your Shape, Microsoft’s answer to Wii Fit, which offers the usual assortment of aerobics routines, yoga, and a plethora of fitness goals and statistics.
This doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t a handful of core gamer titles due out for both the Kinect and Move around the time of launch. PlayStation 3 owners can look forward to a motion sensitive iteration of violent racer Twisted Metal, rail shooter Time Crisis: Razing Storm, and tactical blaster SOCOM 4.
For Kinect owners, perhaps the most exciting prospect is the forthcoming motion sensor-enabled release of Forza. Microsoft’s system allows the player to wander around the game’s garage of exotic, expensive metal, and even reach in and open bonnets and doors with a prod of a hand. How the actual racing will fare remains to be seen (we’d wager that more than a few minutes holding your arms aloft will leave you with a horrible aching in your shoulders), but of all the games demonstrated for Kinect so far, Forza is the only one likely to offer more than a few minutes’ diversion.
The bottom line
Whether you think motion sensitive controls are the next rung on gaming’s evolutionary ladder, or that they’re merely an effective way to trash your living room, it could certainly be argued that, over the course of almost four years, Nintendo hasn’t yet created a game which makes both full use of the Wii’s interactive system and provides the player with more than a few minutes’ diversion.
Games such as Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel rank among the very best games of the past decade, yet make only a passing use of the Wii’s wiggle-and-shake controls. Titles such as Wii Sports Resort provide a greater use of the Wiimote and Nunchuck, but their appeal palls rapidly if played alone or for more than half an hour.
At first glance, both Sony and Microsoft’s rival systems appear to follow suit, content to offer a series of bite-sized, shallow (though fun in the short term, we’re sure) experiences, and a mere handful of titles with more depth for the core gamers which surely form the companies’ market.
Games such as Forza and SOCOM 4 may provide some interest for their respective devotees, but without the attachment of big names to Kinect and Move – Halo and Gears Of War for Microsoft, for example – the systems could be a difficult sell to core gamers (though the announcement of Move and 3D compatibility in Killzone 3 may well whet the appetite of PS3 owners).
And while Sony’s Move could be seen as a somewhat cynical attempt to bring the Wii experience to the PS3, their strategy makes perfect sense when one considers the potential loss the system could make should it fail to catch fire. Microsoft is making a huge gamble with Kinect, and although its attempt to bring a truly different control system to the 360 is an admirable one, it could prove a proposition too expensive for its target family market.
Which poses another pertinent question: with both Sony and Microsoft so late to the motion control party, are they vying for a market long since tired of waving their arms around in their living room?
So far, the Wii’s controls have provided an entertaining diversion for parties and family gatherings, but for us, the thought of playing a first-person shooter by pointing at the screen or dodging imaginary bullets is too embarrassing to contemplate, at least without closing the curtains first.
To illustrate our point, take a look at Microsoft’s demonstration of Dance Central, a game that makes its participants dance like a drunken uncle at a wedding. We defy you not to see it and shudder…
The Sony PlayStation Move will be available in the UK from 15 September, while the Microsoft Kinect is set for a 4 November release.