On the Wii and Controls

The following is a comment I posted over on the latest GameCritic’s podcast. It may seem a little rantish, but that’s why I’m going to expand on it at the end.

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You said during the podcast that Nintendo had revolutionized gaming. I have to respectfully disagree. They have only revolutionized it superficially. What they have done replaced button presses with Wii-mote waggles. The idea is to simplify gaming with simple controls that can make sense. And for Wii Bowling or Wii Tennis its perfect. But as soon as you take the control outside of that simple one type movement control you up the complexity of the game. There may only be one button, but if you translated each movement to a button press or analog stick movement you’d realize how equal the complexity is for anything other than the mini-game compilations. Given the nature of motion control at present and its impreciseness it makes the controller even more complex and frustrating.

It has been proven with testing that for an abstract action a button press that stays consistent within the game, i.e the same button for the same action, makes more sense than trying to emulate the action, mainly because it is easier to replicate input with a thumb press than it is to move the entire arm in the exact same manner.

I have no doubt that motion control can offer a different experience, but developers are still treating it as a standard controller and are having to make up for the loss of button with waggle. Then there are the games that do not need it, but add it in out of some necessity of being on the Wii. Twilight Princess comes to mind where you had to act out many of the actions, where the Gamecube controller used a few simple button presses to perform the same actions.

Yes the current gen controller are prohibitive, as were last gen. In fact there is a high learning curve for new gamers, but kids some how manage it. That’s another issue of cognitive age response and learning, but the NES has a D-pad and 2 buttons. Some games now can work with that. The idea is not to simplify the machine, but the in-game system. If you gave a newcomer a game on the 360 or PS3 that only utilized the d-pad and two buttons there would be no problem in getting into it.

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I should add some testimonial I hear about the new Wii Motion Plus. I cannot verify the validity of these comments, but it sounds truthful to me. That yes it does change gaming on the Wii, but does come with some problems. Namely, when the Wii first came out people were waving their whole arms, because that is how they thought and were told it would work, but then people adapted to only moving their wrists, for it was the basic movement not the degree that mattered. Now Wii Motion Plus changes all that because now you have to control it like you first thought it would work and will cause people to re-adapt.

It is a minor concern yes, but it is worth saying. It also attaches to my argument of the Wii-mote’s movements being a replacement for button presses. Now with full motion recognition it is supposed to have 1-1 replication. The thing is you can only replicate simple motions. If you design something too difficult people would not be able to replicate the action in their own house. The basic idea of escapism that most, not all, games are based upon would suffer with this idea. Sword, tennis racket, baseball bat swinging are all basic motions that we all understand in real life and replicate on the Wii. However if you want any finesse with those motions or to do more complex motions like rowing, driving, etc. you will be sorely disappointed. One problem is that it does take some practice or practical knowledge of those activities to do them correctly. Secondly, there is a certain amount of resistance required to do them properly. Without that resistance, with the new fine motion controls you are going to overshoot what you were doing, it is going to look ridiculous and immersive breaking on screen and more than likely you are going to fail. I can see scenarios where the motion breaks the experience instead of immersing you.

Example: Say you are rowing a boat the Wii-mote and Nun-chuck are the oars. But you speed up because you get into it and there being no real water resistance you suddenly see your character flapping the oars around like a chicken with its wings. A real person cannot row like that and yet you are seeing it. Immersion broken.

It wasn’t understood when it was first created, but the control is much more than an input device. It is a blank slate of iconography. Each button, each analog stick is a symbol for an action. It is different for every game, so the controller is a blank slate. The player learns and know that the icons (buttons) are, but they have no meaning on their own. There are basic principles that people understand about the buttons, because they generally hold true through all games and if not there is a reason for it. In North America anyway on the Playstation, X is ok, O is cancel, left analog stick for movement, right analog stick for camera. This works for First Person shooters as well. In Japan X and O are reversed, but they remain the same for all games in that region. The only exception I can think of is the Metal Gear Solid series that does that for specific purposes, but that is getting a bit of topic. The controller is a bunch of icons. The game than tells you what those icons and symbols mean. You then associate when you need to do something with that icon for the rest of the game. Humans are very iconographic. We associate people, concepts, countries and ourselves with icons and symbols of the greater whole.

The Wii-mote in the name of simplifying the control removes that iconographic interface. People get sucked in by meaning and association, its why we can read, because letters are nothing but icons to sounds. Movement however is not an icon. You cannot be shown a picture of it and understand what the motion means to the game world. You may know to move the Wii-mote left will aim left, but there is no mental association going on that allows your conscious mind to focus on the interactive area, but rather on the interactive motion of your avatar. It forces the mind to think about what you are doing step by step rather than as a whole experience. That is not how people function in the real world. We do not think about every step we take, we just walk. We do not take into account every letter in this sentence you are reading right now, we just read it and comprehend what it is saying.

Simplification is needed for new gamers in the current market, but the Wii and everyone copying them is the entirely wrong approach. Simplifying means cutting away complexity, not replacing it. Most of the Wii games, use the classic Wii controller, which has the same amount of buttons are a Gamecube controller. If you want it to be simple, create games that could be played with an NES controller. Everyone got that back in the day. There is only a D-pad and two buttons to worry about, but the association will stick and it the representation can be understood by the player as he immerses himself in the game.

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