Before 1983, video games controls were clunky. Instead of thumbs and fingers to play, palms and entire fists were used to push, pull, and jerk joysticks. The interface worked, but it wasn’t ideal.
Then along came Nintendo with a thumb-friendly joypad (or gamepad), and everything changed. Controls were more precise. The competition realized this, then followed Nintendo’s lead within a few years by abandoning the joystick altogether.
Fast forward to 2006. Nintendo shuns the joypad in favor of a gesture-based controller. It and the console it controls sell millions in record time. Shortly after, Microsoft and Sony announce similar motion-controlled devices for their respective consoles. As a result, all three console makers will be in the motion control business this year, leaving many to wonder: Is this the end of the joypad?
Not at all, according to Microsoft’s game division. “Project Natal is meant to complement, not replace, the experiences on Xbox 360,” a spokesperson assured me. “The traditional Xbox 360 controller will continue to be fundamental for our lineup of games.” In other words, motion controls are a viable alternative.
Sony says the same. “While [motion controllers] have significant advantages and ushered in a new way to interact with consoles, they’re clearly not designed to replace the incredibly broad gaming experience [traditional controllers] provide,” says Patrick Seybold, a spokesman for Sony. “PlayStation Move was designed to live in harmony with our DualShock3 controller, and offers developers and consumers more options for the type of content they want.”
When asked if motion controls would soon replace the joypad, Infinity Ward’s Robert Bowling, a game developer, remained skeptical. “I think it’s going to be awhile, if ever, that we get away from a solid control pad, especially with our game,” he told the Associated Press in February. “In a first-person shooter, you have to have that accuracy, so I don’t think we will ever move away from having that stick control and using a control pad.”
Indeed, even Nintendo seems to agree. Why else would the company sell a companion “Classic Controller” and the newly released ‘Classic Controller Pro’ (pictured above) for Wii if it were no longer the ideal way to play games?
The obvious answer is that it sells. Gamers still want to play with thumbs. At least for now. “Motion based gaming only offers gamers a snack, something to tide them over between major releases,” says Jesse Divnich, an analyst at Electronic Entertainment Design and Research.
“Thumb based controllers will always play the dominant role in our industry because as of right now, no motion based system can offer the level of complexity that is needed for today’s core shooter and action based games.”
But if the once sold-separately NES Advantage joystick is any indication, continued demand doesn’t necessarily mean existing technology will prosper. What’s more, it’s important to distinguish primary controllers, such as the Wii Remote, from secondary controllers like the Classic Controller and NES Advantage.
And therein lies the fundamental difference between Nintendo and competing motion technologies. Sony and Microsoft are releasing their motion controller as expansions to the joypad; secondary to it, in fact. They haven’t given up on joypads as the dominant input this generation. Unlike Wii, if you own an Xbox 360 or PS3 and never want to control a game with motion, you won’t have to.
For the time being then, motion controls haven’t obviated the joypad—at least not across all genres like the joypad did the joystick. Yes, motion controllers offer a lot of exciting opportunities, but they’ve also shown to underwhelm while controlling veteran genres like shooters and action games when compared to more precise thumb-based controllers.
The real question then becomes: If not now, will motion controls ever overtake the joypad?
“We really won’t know until the next round of consoles,” says Jeremy Anderson, an independent developer. “If Sony and Microsoft use motion as their primary controllers next time—as Nintendo will undoubtedly do—then say goodbye to the console joypad.”
Companies: Eedar, microsoft, nintendo, Sony