Four years ago, Nintendo launched the Wii, a strangely named video game console that didn’t focus on cutting-edge graphics, top-level processing power or high-definition disc playback. Instead, the Wii went in a different direction: motion control.
The console’s controller, the Wiimote, largely freed games from button pushing, allowing players with little skill in such things to jump right in. They simply waved the controller around to simulate playing tennis or bowling. Nintendo’s plan worked – the company has sold 76 million consoles so far, nearly the combined total of its two competitors, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Motion gaming clearly spoke to a much larger market than the hard-core gamers Sony and Microsoft were catering to.
Not surprisingly, it’s a market the two companies want a piece of. Microsoft is coming after Nintendo with Kinect, an Xbox 360 add-on that launches Thursday, while Sony has its PS3 Move controller, which was released in September. So, how do the two new entries compare?
Microsoft’s entry into the motion-gaming world, which sells for $150, is an intriguing piece of hardware. It’s a horizontal bar that sits on a motorized pivot below the television, and features a video camera, infrared depth sensor and multi-array microphone. Together, all of this tech can do full-body motion capture, facial and voice recognition.
The device plugs into one of the Xbox’s USB ports and is relatively easy to set up, but it does require the updated downloadable dashboard released earlier this week. Some of the console’s functions can then be controlled either by gesture or by voice commands. You get the console’s attention by saying "Xbox," for example, whereupon a list of further voice options - such as the ability to play or pause video clips in the video marketplace – are displayed.
Similarly, if you wave your hand at the Kinect sensor, the Xbox will go into motion-control mode. At launch, the number of applications that you can control with voice and gesture are somewhat limited – Netflix is not yet compatible, for example – but this will presumably improve in the coming months.
The games themselves are a mixed bag. Kinect Adventures, the software that comes with the sensor, is a series of mini-games that introduce players to Microsoft’s brand of motion control. One of the games lets two players command a rubber raft as it races down a fast-flowing river, complete with crazy jumps and collectible tokens.
Several other launch games feature more of the same. Kinect Joyride is a kart racing game that is controlled by pretending your hands are on a steering wheel. Kinect Sports has you pretending to bowl or running and jumping in the spot in track and field events such as hurdles and long jump.
It’s good, sweaty fun, but this is where Kinect might make you think: after sprinting against a friend, why not just go outside and actually run? I’ve found this to be the most cogent argument against motion gaming. Whether it’s the Wii, Kinect or Move, in too many cases, the video game replicates something you can do in real life, which seems to defeat the entire purpose.
In any event, Kinect offers some surreal experiences that can’t be duplicated in the real world. When playing online with friends, for example, it’s really neat to be able to chat without a headset. Joyride, in particular, was unique - it’s very liberating to stand in front of a television and race with nothing but your hands held in front of you, chatting away with friends as you drive. You can do that in the real world, too, but you can’t launch your car into the air and do flips while you’re at it.
Video chatting is also neat. The call quality is good and the sensor follows you if you move around your living room. A number of technology companies have unsuccessfully tried to get video calling onto the television – Microsoft may just be the one to do it by sneaking it in tied to video games.
The Kinect sensor’s accuracy itself is also a mixed bag. I found it somewhat wonky on the Xbox dashboard and when controlling menus. When you get into the actual games, though, it appears to do the job with a good degree of accuracy. You get the sense that Kinect doesn’t handle precise controls very well, but it’s good in capturing broad strokes.
Kinect’s fate depends on whether game makers can create experiences that take you out of that real-world "uncanny valley" I mentioned, where you’re not left with a feeling of guilt for playing a video game. Otherwise, I’m more excited about its non-gaming applications – things like the video chat and gesture control of the television. If those features can be refined, Kinect may turn out to be a hit regardless of its games.
Sony has gone a more traditional route – if such a thing exists – with its entry into the motion-control world. The Move, which sells for $100, is a wand-like controller that interacts with a camera that sits above the television.
This is actually the biggest problem with the system – given that most televisions these days are flat screens, there isn’t anywhere on top of the set to place the camera. (I ended up dangling mine over the top of the set by its cable.)
That issue notwithstanding, the Move controller is an interesting hybrid of the Wii and Kinect. It can be described as the Wii with the PS3’s better graphics, but it also opens up new possibilities – especially if you have two Move controllers (a second one costs an extra $50).
One good example is the archery mini-game in the Sports Champions title, which comes with the camera and controller. Shooting arrows with one Move controller is fun enough – you have to draw them from your pretend quiver, then aim at the screen and release your trigger – but it’s more fun with two, as the other represents the bow that you hold in front of you. The same goes for several other games, such as sword fighting, where one controller is your weapon while the other is your shield. The double controllers give you quite a bit of precision and a lot more options than one alone does.
While the Kinect left me feeling like I should be outside getting real exercise, some of the Move games actually felt more natural than reality. It’s possible to go out and shoot a real bow, for example, but it’s certainly not as easy to do as it is in the video game.
The game I enjoyed the most was "disc golf," also part of Sports Champions. It’s like a golf game, only you’re throwing a frisbee around a park. It’s apparently something people do in real life, but the game adds some nifty environments, like canyons and lakes.
Some Move games veer off into absurdity. Kung Fu Riders, for example, has the player ride an office chair down steep city hills while being chased by the Japanese mafia. You have to jump cars, duck under barricades and perform spin kicks to get through. It’s fun, unique and more than a little bizarre, even though the game has some frustrating control problems.
The Move also lets you navigate the PS3 dashboard, although it’s more awkward than using a regular controller and therefore not as liberating as Kinect. The advantage, though, is a more promising games outlook.
There is family fare, such as Eyepet, where the player takes care of a gremlin-like creature in a sort of Tamagotchi-like game, as well as Start the Party, a collection of rapid-fire mini-games that usually involve waving your hands about frantically. But there are also some games on the horizon geared toward actual gamers that will incorporate the Move, such as the platformer LittleBigPlanet 2 and shooters SOCOM 4 and Killzone 3.
These are the sorts of games that older Wii owners have been wanting more of, and ironically, it’s Sony that is promising them. The company clearly wants some of the expanded market developed by Nintendo — but of the three players, it looks like Sony is the one that is most looking to satisfy core gamers.
Peter Nowak is a writer based in Toronto.