The dark side of Project Natal and its cohorts

Will family-friendly controllers cripple the console giants?

There’s no doubt the stars at E3 were the new control devices. Microsoft stole the show with Project Natal, of course, but Sony’s PlayStation Motion Controller and the release of Nintendo’s Wii MotionPlus kept up the momentum.

All this new hardware might seem unambiguously good news. The desire for more intuitive control methods has seemingly been proven by sales of Wii, DS, Guitar Hero and iPhone, and anything that finesses their sensitivity and accuracy can only be welcomed.

New control methods are good news for the games industry, too, since it gets to revisit games or genres to adapt them for the devices, without any of that awkward messing about inventing gameplay.

In this they’re reminiscent of the windfall the music industry enjoyed from the shift from LPs to CDs (although we know how that ended, right?).
As for Project Natal, for all the obvious smoke and mirrors, the demos hinted at genuinely fresh experiences. Lionhead’s spectacular Milo video was particularly special, albeit better described as concept art rather than a demo – it looked more like a spoof advert from a sci-fi movie than anything we’ll enjoy in the next 20 years.


But here’s a contrary take on what even the BBC is describing as ‘The Controller Wars’: what if, rather than innovation, the controllers hint at desperation? What if the focus on controllers signifies not games going forward, but games getting relegated to the level of sideshow amusements?

The inspiration for this suggestion comes from the protracted demise of the traditional arcade business in the mid-1990s. There were many reasons why the arcades waned, not least the rise of powerful games consoles. Yet you could argue that when advanced graphics and sound became available in everyone’s living room, the arcade manufacturers blinked. Instead of continuing to innovate with better gameplay, they let their games stagnate and turned to spectacle instead to draw new punters in.

In place of old-fashioned cabinets, we saw ever more elaborate car rigs, rotational flight simulators, motorbikes, double-team canoe rides, games where you rode horses, and anything else you can imagine doing on a Mark Warner holiday.

All this hullabaloo made arcades grand places to spend an hour or two on a drunken Friday night with friends. But it also turned them into amusement parks – expensive to visit and ultimately unsatisfying. All that engineering was costly, too, and so prices rose. Few of the punters returned with any regularity. Eventually arcades either closed down or were filled out with pseudo-skill games and slot machines. As ‘amusement centres’ they linger on, but they’re a flickering bitmap of their former selves.


Do motion controllers hint at something similar happening to console games? For all Wii’s attractions, few would argue that nuanced gameplay is among them. Its success is built around sessions where you wave your arms in the air like you just don’t care.

Better controllers may reign in that tendency – or they may simply shove more genres towards the fairground bracket. As for Project Natal, we will eventually see very interesting gameplay innovations arising from speech and vision control. But I’ll wager it’ll be decades before FIFA is as playable as with a joypad, if ever.

It goes without saying that I don’t think conventional games are doomed. They didn’t die with the arcades – they and their audience migrated to console. Games (as services) will always be available via computers and other devices, whatever form they take. Besides, I’m playing devil’s advocate: I don’t expect Microsoft to discontinue the 360 controllers (or plans for an Xbox 720, or whatever it is) anytime soon.

But the warning from arcades is clear. The more console manufacturers try to please everyone, the bigger the risk of satisfying no one. They abandon their roots for shallow, mass-market novelty fare at their peril.

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