Gimmicks

Prior to playing Hotel Dusk on my recent trip, the DS stylus was just a gimmick to me. For all I know it may continue to be a gimmick outside of Hotel Dusk, but all it took was one title which made excellent use of the stylus to inspire me to reconsider. I’m hoping that, with my interest in the DS rekindled, I find other games which, in my mind, justify the inclusion of the stylus with the DS.

This makes me think about the PlayStation Move and Project Natal motion controllers coming up for the PS3 and XBox 360 respectively. The Wii was designed around motion control, in keeping with its positioning as a “casual gamer” and “family friendly” system, to wean people off control pads which could be overwhelming for non-gamers. The Wii never really needed to “justify” motion control…it started convincing users of its worth straight from the outset.

The Wii serves as a primary console for one sort of gamer, and a complementary console for the others. Brilliant! My grandmother’s retirement community has no less than three Wii systems in their games room, and apparently they recently had a “Wii Olympics” with other local retirement homes. The use of the Wii in physical therapy is widely known. I don’t own one, but I have great respect for the system.

Natal and Move, however, both look like gimmicks to me.

It is the day before PAX East, and I attended a PlayStation Move event at the Colonnade Hotel in downtown Boston. It ran from 5:00 – 8:00 p.m. I arrived at 4:45 and got in line in a waiting room with 60 other people. It didn’t take long to snake out of there, and then into the line of 30 waiting to get into the room the event was held in, with 150 people in it.

I bypassed the “Community Check-In” and went straight to “Media Check-In.” “Who are you with?” the woman at the desk asked me. “Punching Snakes dot com,” I said confidently, getting my name tag and skipping past the Community line.

Hey, she asked if I would be blogging about the event tonight and here I am, so my ethics served perfectly intact. 😉 Skipping past the “make it yourself Slider bar” and eschewing the open bar, I proceeded to queue up to get my hands on the PlayStation Move.

The first offering was a fighting game, “Gladiator Battle” I think it was called. There were several tall gentlemen in the way every opportunity I had to view the titles of the selectable games from the main menu. Suffice it to say the game looked a lot like Tekken, only you were in 3rd person iso mode behind your fighter, a gladiator-type with a shield and a large hammer.

I met Chip from The B Team at the gladiator game. He thought he’d broken the demo because during a match the system asked him to calibrate the Move controllers by holding them steady and pointing them at the screen, which he did, and then two windows popped up, “Calibrate” and “Quit;” so of course he went to “Calibrate” thinking that the demo was asking him to calibrate the controllers again because it didn’t take.

He handed me the controllers and I started to go through the same process until someone noticed that there was a graphic for the Exit button in the lower right-hand corner of the screen…I guess the guy from PlayStation had to be elsewhere but we figured out that “exiting” was going back to the game, and then I got to try it out.

I don’t want to have to make drastic movements with a motion-controller. I want subtle movements to produce the actions I think they should. In this case, it was using the Move controller in my left hand to position the shield of my fighter. It sort of worked. Sort of. The motions I had to make were more exaggerated than the corresponding movements the fighter on the screen made, so it was not very intuitive; but I was able to just move the shield for a while and successfully block the incoming attacks from the computer opponent.

I got tired of that and then just pounded the crap out of my opponent with the hammer. According to the directions on the screen, the amount of damage you did to your opponent depended on the location you hit them on, and the speed of the swing. I didn’t really get a chance to notice, as I felt like I was fighting the controls a little; but swinging diagonally from right hip to left shoulder or vice versa did produce corresponding swings from the shoulder by the gladiator, straight up and down motions produced corresponding attacks…when it came to making a jumping attack, holding both controllers straight up in the air and then right back down, I couldn’t get the hang of it.

I kind of feel bad for the demonstrators because learning to use motion-controllers like this is going to take some adjustments from anyone, and these aren’t the finished products. The Gladiator game was clearly marked as an Alpha build, for example. I recognized that I had to take this into account and filtered my perceptions of the tech accordingly throughout the evening.

I asked Chip what he thought. I can’t quote him directly, but to paraphrase: “Feels like a gimmick.”

Next I tried a game called “Sliders.” It looked a hell of a lot like Crazy Taxi in terms of graphics and color scheme, and the gameplay was reminiscent as well. You played a geeky, male office worker type, or a woman who ostensibly was a secretary but who looked like Chun-Li; and sat on either what looked like a cooler taped to a pushcart for the guy, or an office chair for the girl, and slid down a long hill with twists and turns to escape from the Yakuza.

Don’t ask me anything more about the story.

“Sliders” showed the potential of the Move much more effectively, in my opinion. Shaking the controller slightly downward kicked out the character’s leg to make them push the cart or chair, and the rhythm of their leg in relation to the motion of the controller felt right. Moving the controller side to side would make them lean one way or the other, and incrementally more so the further out you extended the controller. A sharp “up” motion made you jump.

The trigger made you bend backwards to slide under construction barriers and such, and the action button made you spin around which would knock Yakuza or obstacles out of the way. Thrusting forward quickly made you push your cart or chair forward very quickly in a “dash” move. Trying the “dash” had me moving closer and closer to the monitor until the friendly gentleman from PlayStation had to move me back, as the Move is calibrated to around 8 feet, apparently. The Gladiator demo also made it clear, during the calibration, that you had to stay in full view of the camera.

I interviewed two people to ask what they thought of Sliders. First was a friendly individual who identified himself as “Hip-Hop Gamer,” and had a replica WWF championship belt on. He agreed with the Crazy Taxi comparison, and I quote, “The cool thing about it is you have a fly girl in the game, and the graphics, being that it’s high definition…and not the Wii…you get to see the butt jiggle a little bit.” He raised the point that the controls need to be calibrated to the individual player, which was something else to fairly consider as I appraised the Move’s responsiveness.

I also spoke to Meghan Ventura from Mygamer.com. She thought the controls were a little bit difficult but it might have been her, but they seemed to respond to subtle motion “Much better than the Wii-mote.” I threw these comments in here because they are representative of what I got from most everyone I spoke to at the event tonight.

I am on the verge of picking up a PS3 just so I can play Heavy Rain. I’ve never picked up a console in the middle of a generation for a single game, but when Peter Molyneux is proclaiming Heavy Rain as representing the future of gaming, and when Penny Arcade is saying that anyone with a son may have trouble playing through the narrative, ostensibly due to the dramatic power of the story, how can I resist?

Owning a PS3 will give me a chance to try out the Move if I feel so inclined, but I didn’t purchase a Wii specifically because motion control is not enough of a selling point to get me past the lack of hardcore titles. Unfortunately SOCOM 4 was not one of the games at the demo tonight, because I really wanted to give that a whirl, as it is going to answer the most important question I have about the Move: will I ever choose to use the Move instead of a regular control pad, if given the option, when playing a hardcore game?

When I first saw the Move I had the reaction most people, including Nintendo, did: it’s a cheap attempt to tap into the casual, family-friendly audience of the Wii. The other title I saw on display tonight was a cutesy art game where I saw people filling in shapes and tracing lines, using the Move to control a “brush” on the screen, and that about said it all to me.

Right now, I agree with Chip. The PlayStation Move is a gimmick. Based on the demo tonight, were I to play either the Gladiator game, or Sliders, I’d prefer a control pad to be honest. I think this is the hump that Sony has to get over. The PlayStation 3 audience is not about “family friendly.” They’re hardcore. Unless the Move can amply demonstrate that it can act as a preferable control system for hardcore games like shooters, perhaps especially like shooters, I don’t see many people adopting the system for $100; and even if the Move does act as a preferable control system sometimes, it will take more than one or two great games that utilize it to make an adopter out of me.

I’m not going to make the same mistake I did with the SNES Super Scope that I only used for Battle Clash and Metal Combat: Falcon’s Revenge, and otherwise found totally extraneous.

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