Behind the Controllers

What the slew of new game controllers means for designers and developers

Ten years after the release of the N64, its analog stick and Mario 64, games controllers are big news again. With Miyamoto conducting an animated orchestra with a Wii controller at E3, games like Big Brain Academy on the DS being made practical by the stylus, and the likes of Relentless' Buzz on PS2 turning a simple quiz game into something people want to touch, the best way to enable players to control your game is no longer the only way.

Of course, it's not just developers who are grappling with this changing climate. Sony's DualShock motion sensing controller revelation at E3 has the Internet pundits in full furore mode, criticising everything from the lacklustre demo and the ditching of force feedback to Sony's apparently rushed dive for the bandwagon.

Has Sony got its controller right? Will consumers prefer the familiar nature of the DualShock to something more dangerously innovative? Or is the whole manoeuvre simply designed to spike Nintendo's guns? Time will tell, but its announcement doesn't make life any easier for games developers working out their own moves.

For a start, it's by no means guaranteed that motion sensing is ‘the new 3D'. Wii's controllers are by all accounts inspiring to use, but not necessarily fully convincing. Everything from a lack of accuracy to the sheer physical effort involved raises question marks.

Physical effort is a very real issue – being weedy, I get sore arms from far shorter sessions of Time Crisis than I'd expect to spend with Zelda.

And while lots of games from the golden era of controllers – the arcades of the late 1970s and the ‘80s – were extremely engaging with their bespoke trackballs, steering wheels and throttles, you wouldn't want to play Super Mario Bros. on them.

As Microsoft's Peter Moore has pointed out, motion sensing isn't exactly new, and on PC its application has proved limited. What makes Wii different?

The answer of course is Nintendo. It's hard (though not impossible) to argue that with the DS, Nintendo is getting people to embrace new kinds of gameplay by throwing its weight and designs smarts fully behind games that use the touch-screen and stylus. Only by putting control in the spotlight is Nintendo forcing the new control method through.

Now it's the same with Wii.

Unlike Sony's almost apologetic approach, motion sensing is at the heart of Nintendo's next-gen strategy. Its hope is other consoles are made to look ordinary. The danger is gamers can't be bothered with the effort.

Finding yourself forced to play your favourite game in a new, inferior way is infuriating, outweighing any novelty factor. Remember the rash of weird and not so wonderful gizmos that tried to replace the FPS' mouse-and-keyboard combo on PC? Even if they offered a commensurate step-up in control (they usually didn't), you didn't want to be fragged 100 times getting the hang of them. Nobody wants to go back to Game School 101 for no good reason.

That's something Sony's approach militates against; you can guarantee most PlayStation 3 games won't bother with motion sensing at all. So should you?

Titles like SingStar, EyeToy Buzz and Guitar Hero have shown the public has an appetite for novelty. But those games are all simple affairs, and they use bespoke bits of plastic and silicon to get gamers around; it's more the emergence of China as a super cheap manufacturer that has made such games viable, by mitigating the need to loss-lead the initial hardware, Virtual Boy-style. (In2Games' Gametrak has achieved success with Real World Golf, with further games to come, but the initial unit was not prohibitively expensive.)

Creating a 3D action/adventure that uses motion sensing (or the DS' stylus) is a different challenge altogether, and one I suspect Nintendo is best placed to tackle. The alternative – inventing games specifically to exploit the new control methods – is ideal, but far easier said than done. DS titles like the Brain Training games and Nintendogs occupy an interesting middle ground, but it's telling that the odd Trauma Centre aside, most touch-screen functionality is being embedded into traditional games such as Star Fox DS and The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass.

Games that can genuinely be realised only by using the touch-screen will remain few and far between, even while playing with the DS reawakens old gamers touch-buds. Invigorating a console is the job of a platform holder, not an individual developer.

If I was making a PlayStation 3 game, then, I don't think Ken Kutaragi's controller demo would change my plans at all. We'll see how common that reaction is on the shelves in 12 months' time.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.