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Winning Friends through Greater Control
Posted on Wednesday, January 16 2008 @ 17:32:07 Eastern

With the introduction of the Wii, Nintendo has finally broken the quintessential video game controller form. Over the years this beast has gone through a number of iterations, with a few major jumps from digital to analog control (D-pad to sticks, analog buttons/triggers), but generally little development aside from adding buttons. The current 'standard' controllers have no fewer than 13 buttons and three directional controls, which has more or less completely alienated the casual gamer. My dad can still kick my ass in Civilization IV because it requires little more than the left and right mouse button, but give him a 360 controller and he's lost- there's just too many things to keep track of.

This is exactly why the Wii is currently making Nintendo's shareholders very, very happy: it does away with all those buttons for an intuitive motion-sensitive control scheme, bringing the casual gamer back into the picture. Sony's obviously thought this might be a smart idea, so they tacked motion control onto the PS3 controller with a built-in accelerometer, not that it makes the system any more useful to someone unaccustomed to using 13 buttons, two sticks and a d-pad.

But what of controllers in the future? What can we expect for an evolution of the Wiimote? My money's on haptic feedback. This is a term being thrown around a lot lately to do with touchscreens: how do you create a touch screen that gives touch feedback to the user (haptic, of course, meaning affecting your sense of touch) to simulate pressing a key or a button, for example. In game controllers, I think we'll start seeing implementations of a more substantive feedback system, much more like today's racing-game steering wheels that provide resistance as well as the standard rumble. Imagine, for example, swinging your Wiimote as a tennis racket, and having a bit of kickback resistance when you connect with the ball. Obviously this would have to scale to the force you put into your swing in the first place, but how you would go about creating something light and comfortable to hold that could provide the amount of kickback necessary would require a fairly strong counterweight. Arcade-machine guns have got around this and give kickback by means of springs: the top part of the gun casing recoils with each shot, which is enough force to move your hand a bit, but these are loud and not particularly durable. I've got no concept of how it will work, but I expect feedback beyond a bit of motor rumble is the next major leap we make.

But there is another way (which isn't necessarily mutually exclusive). I've always thought the Dreamcast VMU was on to something, and so the potential of PSP-PS3 interaction has excited me. In typical Sony fashion, it's a lot of promise with little delivery so far, but there's so much there to exploit. Particularly in cross-platform games- why has nobody made a game for PS3 with some component that you 'took on the road' with you on the PSP? Developers for Dreamcast did it all the time with little minigames on the VMU (though VMU batteries lasted shorter than this sentence), and it could be a good mechanism for the PSP as well, especially given the Remote Play ability. Better integration of handheld and console gaming seems to be another likely control future.

Better still is the concept of making 'you' the controller, and not just in the "hold-this, touch-that, shake-this" Wiimote concept, but more similar to Metal Gear:Portable Ops for PSP. For those who don't know, MGS:PO has a recruiting function that searches for nearby WiFi signals- if you get close enough to the source, or boost the signal if you're just nearby, you get a new recruit for your team. I've no idea why this wasn't better recognized for the innovation that it is, because as far as I know it's the first game that has you search around to complete a task. I can imagine something along those lines where you have to find other PSPs (and play a mini-game against them by game sharing, or something), or something similar. So maybe, the future is that we become the controllers, and games finally get us moving out of the living room (if only for an instant).
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