Monday, November 28, 2005

The Real Control Revolution

A lot is being said about Nintendo's Revolution controller. has a nice piece in which they talk to third-party developers about the possibilities of moving beyond tech demos into real, fully-fleshed-out game designs. As I was reading the ideas from Foundation 9's Chris Charla and the other interviewees, I realized that the kind of one-to-one interaction that most people are looking for from the Revolution controller is, in fact, the wrong way to approach this new control system. Everyone immediately thinks of sword fighting (or lightsaber duels) as the "killer app" for the new controller, imagining players swinging the controller to hack away at enemies. However, I believe that the real innovation is much more subtle.

Though current controllers can be scary and off-putting in their complexity (at least to the mainstream "non-gamer"), I would argue that they do their job admirably. There's a reason that the Xbox 360 and the PS3 aren't making significant jumps in controller design. After some simple tutorials, most (good) games have their players performing amazing feats and managing complex systems, all mediated and manipulated through the controller. In the best games, the controller becomes transparent, and the player's desires are translated seamlessly into action. Ideally, it's like driving a car; at first, a new driver is aware (sometimes painfully) of the gas pedal, the brake pedal, the steering wheel, and all of the other controls. But with some practice, the car's interface becomes transparent, and the car becomes an extension of the driver's body. Likewise, most players begin a game conscious of the controller but soon become unaware of it as their bodies are extended into the gameworld.

When I look at the Revolution controller, I don't see players jumping around their living rooms, slashing wildly; I see a more subtle shift towards a faster learning curve (ie, players will be getting to that transparency point faster). Players will still sit on the couch as they play most games. The big slashing motions that we're all imagining will probably be more like flicks of the wrist. It's a less flashy picture to be sure, but I think it's still a huge leap forward. Moving the controller is a much more natural and intuitive interface than a joystick (think about all the people who wave the controller around anyway even though they know it won't do anything), and that initial ease will help drop the learning period closer to zero. Even in established genres, this easier control system will help out. For instance, the issue of "look inversion" in first-person shooters will be basically solved.

By making the interface easier to learn, Nintendo will certainly reduce the intimidation factor, opening up new potential audiences for games, which is, of course, their stated goal. In addition, the new controller will facilitate additional types of interactions that are more diffifcult to map to conventional controllers, such as orchestra conducting, surgery, and so on as shown in their promotional materials. I just don't think full-motion swordfighting will be the killer app.


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