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Family Gamer: Controlling your eMotions

Posted by Paul Govan

This week Paul looks at the state of gaming controls, what can we learn from the success of Wii?

Family games live or die by their controls, and motion controls even more so. Why is it that games like Boom Blox are so instinctive and intuitive, when others like SSX Blur are so forced and laboured? For me it’s that one-to-one freeform movement that brings the magic and makes the games come to life.

Video Games are often at the cutting edge of technology. The latest innovation to sweep the game playing masses is the motion controller. This takes six tiny accelerometers and uses them to work out how the controller is moving in real space.

The first time you take hold of the Wii's TV remote styles control, or the Playstation 3's Sixaxis controller, and play a game just my tilting and waggling the experience is almost magical.

After the success of Wii Sports and Warhawk PS3 a slew of similar games started hitting store shelves. However, these are often less successful as they imitate the real innovations, and lack the investment, of the system selling launch games. After trawling through these various titles the last year, I thought I might try and shed some light on what makes or breaks these gesture based games.

For me the joy of controlling a game by movement alone is the simplicity and directness of the experience. The cause and effect gap that usually separates me from the game starts to disappear. The ball is hit towards me in Wii-Sports, so I simply wait for it to arrive then swing my racket to return it. No buttons, no training, no thinking, just me and the game working together.

This is best delivered when the controller’s motion match real life. Their beauty is that they are flexible enough to be shaped to fit the game you are playing. If these gestures are also in sync with, performed at the same time as, the game world you have a pretty special experience on your hands. Even though the controller might struggle at times, if it generally matches the movements you make you can start to play the game more instinctively. No one has to tell you how or what to play, the freedom of the controls simply invites experimentation.

Games that haven’t had the time and money to develop these nuances usually revert to using waggles in place of button presses and stick movements. For me, this makes a mockery of having a motion controller. What’s more, the game would usually be better without the motion controls. Waggling is a rough science, and one not suited for accurate schemes that have been designed for button presses.

Golf games on the Wii present an interesting dichotomy. Some, such as the recent (and by no means poor) We Love Golf from Capcom provide a swing that is based on the player matching their motion to the on screen guide. This takes the usual button presses and replaces them with movements. Others, such as Tiger Woods throw the old control schemes out and simply ask that you swing the Wii-mote like you would a club.

Both these games provide polished enjoyable experiences and have obviously thought carefully about their controls. But for me the joy of the Tiger Woods free swing mechanic simply eclipses any other golf game controls. So much so, that I ended up selling my graphically superior 360 version simply because I couldn't bear playing it without the instinctive motions. And this is in-spite of the 08 version of Tiger on Wii being a pretty ropey game. Playing with some friends through the winter, we often encountered bugs that resulted in miss-scored holes, inaccurate ball lie and the odd crash. But we were happy to persevere because it was such fun to hit the ball.

This one-to-one real life motion control is few and far between, and for good reason. To produce a game like this requires a team devoted to refining the controls over the life of the development. Many were worried about the added cost of PS3 and 360 high definition graphics and surround sound. Ironically then, it is getting those Wii controls right that will cost the savvy teams most dearly. But make the investment here and the game is simply easier and more enjoyable to play. For a family audience this is invaluable as we can all genuinely enjoy video games together.

You may have noticed that I like to make a bit of a song and dance about games get these controls right in my reviews. Of recent note has been the brush painting in Okami, the one-to-one block nudging wonders of Boom Blox, the well matched motions of Family Ski and the excellent badminton sensitivity of Sports Island. These games are a handful out of the hundreds on offer that simply wouldn’t be as much fun without motion controls. Although they often cost a little more than the movie tie in, or cross platform re-releases, their hand crafted controls create a whole different experience to the tick the box waggling of less devoted developers.

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