Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Future of Gaming? We'll See.

Project Natal. The Future of Gaming. The End of Controllers. The Biggest Revolution in Gaming Since Dice. You've seen the headlines, maybe watched the demos, and will no doubt see endless information on this system before it makes it to market.

For some genres, this system will be amazing. Wii will no longer be the unchallenged king of party games. It is possible that some sports titles will embrace it, but I am skeptical there for a number of reasons. Can it really detect the fine nuances that separate a curveball from a slider, or a good tee shot from a hook into the pond? Maybe, but it is hard to say as yet. Regardless, no doubt whole new styles of gameplay will emerge to take advantage of it.

And Natal will have no bearing on Fable 3 except, perhaps, as a way to look through menus and inventory screens.

You doubt me? Alright, lets try it out. Get a friend, one who is very familiar with Fable, fire up your XBox 360 and pop in Fable 2. Give your friend the controller and have him sit where he can see you but not the screen. You stand in front of your TV. And go play Fable. I wonder how far you'll advance your blacksmithing skill before your arm falls off. Or how badly your feet will hurt after walking in place that long.

Not a fair comparison you say? I agree. Your friend has much, much more processing capability than that whatever leftovers the XBox 360 will be able to throw at Natal. Your friend will be much better at recognizing your movements and guessing what you actually want to happen than any chunk of code that could be written. Natal cannot compare to the human brain. It isn't a fair comparison at all.

Feel free to come up with as many shortcuts and optimizations to help you play the game with the controller in your friend's hand and he unable to see the screen. Maybe you say "Walk" to walk instead of walking in place. That would certainly help the fatigue factor. Maybe you can call out the names of spells to be cast, or agree on particular hand motions for different spells. With a touch of patience, you can have your fully integrated totally motion controlled game play experience right now.

And no doubt you think I'm a lunatic of even suggesting you try something so absurd. We could improve this scenario greatly by a hybrid system. Place a small controller in one had that you can use for more onerous tasks, like walking or leveling your blacksmithing, and only use the motion capture system for stuff thats fun.

That's called a wiimote, and I know exactly 0 people who swing it like a lightsaber when playing Lego StarWars. If we don't swing our lightsabers, will we really act out changing a tire as part of a pit crew? More than once or twice anyway? I have my doubts. Who wants to play the first Natal equipped version of Madden, where you have to run in place to get down the field and jump to catch the pass? Who is sure enough they won't jump into their TV trying to block a field goal and cost themselves a couple grand in the process?

Natal is not the future of gaming. It is not the beginning of the end of the controller. It is not a revolution. It is an evolution, a logical progression, and nothing more. At the end of the day, motion capture controllers get in the way more than they add to the experience in most games. Eventually, I think all consoles and computers will have a hybrid of motion capture and controllers for gaming control. The future lies in linking them together in ways that add to games and does not distract from the very reasons we play in the first place. Because, at the end of the day, it is all about gameplay. Handing papers to virtual boy might be cool as a tech demo, but is the fun factor really all that significant for long term play? We'll see. Acting out the changing of a tire or fighting in an arena might be interesting as a tech demo, but will you choose to play that way over pressing a few buttons? We'll see.

It is much too early to draw any concrete conclusions. But, as it was with the wiimote before it, I think how we wind up using the device will turn out to be rather different than the original hype surrounding it.

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