"We will look back at this as being a seminal moment for PS3.”
Say one thing for Sony America: it knows how to do hype and hyperbole.
At last week’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Sony unveiled the name and first games for the PS3 Motion Controller, Move. The quote above from customarily aggressive SCEA marketing chief Peter Dille demands gravitas – but while history may not quite remember the unveiling as a watershed moment, it’s clear Sony has chosen a new direction for its console.
Despite some technical differences – see ‘How it Works’ – Move is similar to the Wii’s Remote and Nunchuck in terms of its target audience and games. (Anecdotally, developers at GDC described the device to MCV as being ‘a bit me too’ during after-show drinking.)
But that’s the point – Sony’s pitch is that the set-up is familiar, but also ‘more precise, immersive and responsive’. It effectively tries to beat Wii at its own game, offering not just motion-based gameplay, but augmented reality through the associated PS Eye Camera – thus potentially converting Wii owners and developers to this new ‘higher level of accuracy’. During the brief ceremony revealing the name, Sony said Move’s advanced features bested Nintendo.
“There’s not a higher level of precision [on rival formats],” claimed Dille, and it’s this which “drives the core gamer”. In other words, as well as cutting into the Wii’s territory, Sony is planning to appeal to the cynical core gamers not won over by previous ‘waggle’ technology.
Sony ambitiously describes Move as a “solution for casual and hardcore gamers alike” and that Wii audiences will ‘gravitate’ towards their new controller.
But it’s the software that will really test that claim.
“The core message is that our system appeals to social and casual audiences,” SCE’s Worldwide Studios VP Michael Denny tells MCV. Denny oversees all the Sony studios in Europe, and the XDev team in Liverpool which commissions externally-developed first party games.
“It’s a precise device that mixes vision technology with motion technology – there is no latency, it’s 1:1. So that means we can create experiences in software that are both intuitive for the casual player – and provide real accuracy for full gaming experiences as well. Combine that with the HD capabilities of the PS3 and it will give us real appeal to a broad audience.
“All the developers we have given Move dev kits to so far have been very positive. There has been excitement amongst developers for the technology because of the accuracy of the device – but not just for designing new IP, it really fits well with a lot of established IP.”
So the new SOCOM is being built with Move controls in mind for its otherwise traditional third-person military shooter. LittleBigPlanet will also benefit from Move integration, with a new take on co-op gameplay. Other existing first party games like EyePet and third party titles such as Resident Evil 5 are also being updated to work with Move.
Games will be retro-fitted via a mix of downloadable patches and re-releases, perhaps with bundled controllers.
“Those extra functions mean little extra cost in terms of processing power and development overheads – it’s a quick benefit for getting some great extra functions into a game,” says Denny.
Doesn’t it mean more work for the studios already working on the high-end production a PS3 game demands?
Says Denny: “We don’t see that – with SOCOM, Move mapped well to the experience. It won’t fit for all games, but that’s why we have the DualShock.”
The first wave of games shown last week included inevitable Wii Sports-style game, Sports Champions, a minigame collection designed to showcase all the basic features of Move. Produced by SCEA, that game almost apes the likes of ‘Wii Boxing’ and ‘Wii Tennis’ a little too closely for comfort – but with better accuracy and HD visuals minigames ‘Gladiator Arena’ and ‘Table Tennis’ stand on their own feet.
Elsewhere, Move! Party shows how the PS3 tech goes one better than Wii, using the PS Eye camera to provide augmented reality action – the controller’s on-screen appearance changes to a tennis racket, fan, fly-swatter and other esoteric devices.
Other key productions include glossy physics-based shooter The Shoot from Scottish outfit Cohort and Motion Fighter, produced by the XDev team in Liverpool, which uses both parts of the Move controller.
But so far, so similar – where’s the killer app that sets it apart? It’s early days of course – there’s still more to learn at E3, and Denny says that Sony’s role as custodian of its platforms is to not be too controlling over the content made for it. Sony is providing the interface, and now third parties have the opportunity to take advantage of it.
“It’s no different than how we go about deciding and commissioning any other games – we’re not prescriptive as a publisher or developer organisation. We want the development community to come to us and we take it from there – I’m sure plenty of titles will come that take advantage of what Move can do.”
Plus, he says, Move’s feature set can do more than Wii: “Our system also has a lot of heritage in augmented reality – the EyeToy lineage is clear in Move, and recent productions like EyePet, too.” The PS Eye camera is key to this, adding a new element of accuracy to the now traditional remote control interface.
A smart compromise between Microsoft’s upcoming camera-based Project Natal and Wii, then? Sony doesn’t draw that comparison. In fact, for all the claims of ‘breathing life into new genres’ and ‘creating new experiences’, there’s not much else the format holder will say.
Price is one of those grey areas. Although Sony has promised that an affordable sub-$100 bundle will feature Move, a game, and the PS Eye come launch at the end of the year.
Denny says the firm hasn’t yet decided which game could be in the bundle – but Move! Party or Sports Champions seem the likely candidates. Special bundles that include a PS3 console and the Move bundle seem a given, too.
One thing that is clear is that Move isn’t an attempt to make a potentially risky change towards an untested new user interface like Natal. Instead, Move harnesses the efforts of its R&D tech teams to conquer the established Wii market and reclaim market share.
And who can blame them? Nintendo has faced criticism that it has left the core gamer and many third parties behind as it chases older, younger and newer gamers.
Nintendo refutes it – recent hits like Just Dance from Ubisoft a proof of a sort, and over the coming months the format-holder is making a concerted effort to re-energise its core audience with the likes of Mario Galaxy 2 and Metroid: Other M. But still doubts have remained. And whether you want to criticise Nintendo or not, it’s clear that some publishers, some developers, and even some genres just can’t walk at Wii’s unique pace.
Sony, on the other hand, built its PlayStation business on third party relations. Some of its biggest game franchises were first devised by independent studios.
Move, then, is the answer to a question the rest of the industry didn’t want to ask with Nintendo wearing the crown: What's out there for non-Nintendo developers who want Wii functionality but on a platform that is kinder to third parties?
Move’s similarity to Wii becomes a benefit to developers that cut their teeth on Nintendo, tweaked their game design worldview for pointers and movement, but now want more. Sony has also added a Nunchuck-style sub-controller to Move that Denny says “helps with some of the core games”. It’s easy to imagine those mature games that under-performed on Wii making the leap to PS3.
Denny shies away from saying Sony has reached the same conclusion: “I like to concentrate on our system – for PS3 Move brings a lot of advantages to our platform. I think it will have wide appeal, but the precision mixed with HD graphics makes for a compelling experience.”
But ultimately, it seems the message from Move is to warn Nintendo that not everyone stays top dog in games forever – a lesson Sony itself has learnt.