Motion controls. Touch screens. Rear tap pads. Microsoft, Sony, and especially Nintendo have entered a gaming controller arms race that rivals the famed battle between Blast Processing and the Super FX chip. Nintendo fired the first shot with its Wiimote, the iconic white stick that many a drunken party-goer has enthusiastically hurled through the TV. Not to be outdone, Sony fired back with the Move, a black wand with an array of neon heads. Microsoft’s Kinect sought to clear the ring by removing the controller completely and turning the player into the input device. Sony’s handheld, the Vita, threw down the gauntlet at smartphones, tablets, and Nintendo’s stylus-wielding 3DS by incorporating a touchscreen, an accelerometer, and a rear-mounted touch pad. The recent release of the Wii U brings it all full circle, as it’s once again Nintendo’s turn to drive the next round of copycat hardware.
I can’t help wondering if the input device is the wrong place to focus innovation. Gamepads work, and they work well; everyone that really wants to play video games either knows how to use one or can figure it out. Gamepads are simple, unobtrusive devices that most gamers barely even realize they’re holding. Contrast that simplicity with the Wiimote and its ilk; waving one’s arm might be a very logical way to make your onscreen avatar swing a sword, but is it really better than a simple, lightning-quick button press? Such a long motion seems inefficient.
Regardless of the actual utility of such controls, there’s no denying that anyone developing for a console with these capabilities is doing their damnedest to make the most out of the hardware. Take the PS Vita’s Gravity Rush, for instance; it’s an open world game about a girl who can manipulate gravity and send herself soaring off into the sky. Sounds simple and easy to map a control scheme for, right? Well, when you’ve got a new handheld with a touchscreen, and accelerometer and a touch pad, you’re going to make damn sure you use all those things whether it makes sense or not. The game is great, but the touch and motion controls feel tacked on, like someone wanted to check all the boxes in a list of required features handed down from some boardroom somewhere. The time and money put into making the player character slide by manipulating the touchscreen could’ve been better spent on improving the lackluster story or the occasionally frustrating combat. Gravity Rush is a shit ton of fun, but perhaps it could’ve been better if it hadn’t suffered from so much hardware feature creep.
In a way, it’s no different from Mike Egan’s recent article about tacked-on multiplayer modes. Developers only have a set amount of time, money, and employees; spreading those resources too thin is a great way to limit how good a product can actually be.
And so I look at the current wave of motion and touch controls with a wary eye. We’ve got an input solution that works damn well. Do we really need hardware that distracts developers from broader ideas about gameplay and narrative? Are we losing out on unique experiences because developers need to use every last feature of modern controllers lest reviewers lament their omissions? Or am I woefully over thinking this, and should I just embrace my new motion-controlled overlords with open arms?