When Microsoft demonstrated Project Natal, their 'controller-free gaming' experience, at E3 earlier this year, they managed to drop the jaws of everyone present. Stunned onlookers gaped with awe at what they saw – games where the avatar on-screen perfectly mimicked the physical movements of the gamers themselves. A fighting game where the player actually kicked, blocked and punched to deal with his virtual opponent. A skateboarding game which allowed you to scan your own skateboard design, and import it into a game. And the high point for many was when game design legend Peter Molyneux demonstrated a virtual character named Milo, which could use Natal's technology to actually recognize and interact with a real person. 'Milo' was not only able to recognize and respond to the faces and speech of human individuals, he could even detect and identify emotions – through facial and voice recognition. It was all very sci-fi and exciting.
Of course, every self-respecting gamer knows that you can't really take anything Peter Molyneux says too seriously.
Shortly thereafter, the industry, the press and fanboys went into another one of their periodic tizzies. Will this change the face of gaming? Is this the beginning of the end for the conventional controller? Fanboys hailed it as the arrival of the promised land. Naysayers scoffed, saying it was all very well to 'demo' something like this, but it would never work in practice.
As always, the truth lies somewhere in between.
To arrive at it, we only need to travel back to the last time we heard similar rumblings in the gaming industry. This, as it happens, wasn't all that long ago – a mere three years back when Nintendo rocked the world by introducing their blockbuster console, the Wii. The Wii's now-iconic motion controller, the Wii-mote, created an almost eerily similar impact when it first arrived. Gaming would never be the same, they said. The old controllers would become obsolete, they said.
The Wiimote hasn't exactly caused the demise of traditional control systems, not even on it's own console.
Now that the hype has died down, we know the effects that the Wii had on gaming. It broke open the market, bringing millions of new gamers into the fold – first-time console owners who were thrilled by the prospects of the racquet-swinging, jabbing and punching, and golf-club-swinging gameplay seen in the Wii Sports title that was bundled with the console.
It's interesting to see what happened next. While the casual trinity of Wii Sports, Wii Play and Wii Fit remain at the top of the sales charts, games like Super Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid Prime 3 : Corruption, Resident Evil 4, Super Smash Bros, and Mario Kart have sold in the millions, garnering critical and commercial success. And not one of these is a purely motion-controlled game. Many of them feature some degree of Wii-mote control, but would have worked perfectly well without it – surely a case of retrofitting motion control features into gameplay that didn't really require it. Most of these games, in fact, featured conventional control scheme options for gamers who didn't want to bother with the more 'innovative' controller implementations and just wanted to get on with their gaming. Markedly, the game with perhaps the best use of the Wii-mote to date, Steven Spielberg's excellent Boom Blox, failed to set the sales charts on fire.
So, while the Wii-mote managed to appeal to a completely new market with it's more accessible controller, it didn't quite kill off conventional controllers the way people expected it to, not even on its own console. Hardcore games continued to sell millions of units, and even Nintendo's own blockbuster franchises largely continued to use traditional control schemes.
It's likely that Project Natal will see a similar product adoption curve. Sure, there will be a couple of breakout titles that will make intelligent use of the technology to create completely new gaming experiences that will sell millions of units. Many existing game genres will add features to their gameplay that use the motion-sensing, facial and voice recognition capabilities of Natal. It's possible that, once again, millions of new gamers, attracted by the innovation and novelty factor, will buy enough XBOX units to fill a small country.
But our old friend the game controller is unlikely to go anywhere for many more years. Because there's a very good reason why it's so popular.
Imagine trying to actually pull off a move like this using Project Natal. Ouch.
You see, games appeal to us because they let us do things that we simply couldn't in real life. In a videogame, I can run for my life from a pursuing T-Rex, leap across a gorge, acrobatically turn in mid-air and take down the beast with a well-placed crossbow-bolt to the eye. I can roundhouse-kick like Chuck Norris, knock down my opponent, and then follow-up with a flying dragonball headbutt to his chest. I can perform death defying stunts on a dirt-bike or a skateboard or a monster truck. I can do all these things because my controller lets me do them. Press X to jump. Press Y to roundhouse kick. It's easy, and I can do these things sitting comfortably on my bean-bag, without the risk of broken bones or twisted ankles.
If I had to do this stuff by actually replicating movements in real life, I think I, and millions of gamers like me, would pass. Imagine what a session of Street Fighter would be like if you had to turn somersaults, perform cartwheels, and acrobatically kick higher than your head to get Ryu to perform these moves in the game. I rest my case.
Some games are simply played better using abstract control schemes where a button-press simulates a more complex action in-game. And games featuring over-the-top action and thrills are always going to be popular – saving the world, kicking bad-guy butt and attempting crazy stunts are essential and basic elements of adventure and action gaming, which are staples for the industry. They're not going to be replaced by puzzle, painting and casual sports games overnight.
The role of less-abstract input systems like Natal, at least initially, will be to make games more accessible, not more realistic. This will mean whole new kinds of games, as well as more accessible and interesting features in existing games. This will undoubtedly help the industry reach wider markets, and deliver a broader range of gaming experiences.
But it will be a long time before we see the end of gaming as we know it. Don't throw out your gamepads and joysticks just yet.