Can touch, motion controls win over console gamers?

At E3 2011, announcements from gaming hardware makers and publishers have an objective in common: bringing nontraditional ways of interacting with games to a very traditional gamer audience.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
4 min read
Star Wars
At E3, a Microsoft demonstration of Star Wars with Kinect shows how a player can say "lightsaber on," and then, using motions, swing away with the lightsaber. Sarah Tew/CNET

LOS ANGELES--People who prefer to play Wii Tennis and those drooling over the upcoming Madden 12 have traditionally been treated as two distinct audiences. But at E3 2011, hardware makers and game publishers alike seem to be trying to blend the two groups.

Microsoft spent a lot of its stage time on Monday talking about incorporating its motion control accessory Kinect into not only kid-oriented Disneyland Adventures, but its biggest titles this year and next, like Fable: The Journey, Ghost Recon Future Soldier, and Star Wars.

Sony is similarly pushing game makers toward PlayStation Move, as well as toward making use of not only traditional control sticks and buttons with its next-generation portable PlayStation Vita, but a touch screen as well.

At its press event Monday evening, Sony's senior vice president of Worldwide Studios North America, Scott Rohde, described the concept of using Vita's regular controllers and touch screen and the ability to switch back and forth between them in the same game, on titles like Uncharted Golden Abyss, ModNation Racer, and Little Big Planet as "playing however you want."

There's a distinct challenge in persuading those who've grown up playing shooter games with a controller to fire guns by opening and closing their fists, swing swords by making actual chopping motions, and start swiping a path on screen for their race car track.

OnLive CEO Steve Perlman shows how Ubisoft's From Dust will incorporate touch controls when played on a tablet.
OnLive CEO Steve Perlman shows how Ubisoft's From Dust will incorporate touch controls when played on a tablet. Erica Ogg/CNET

It's not a question of whether motion control or touch-based games have any appeal. The Kinect became the fastest-selling consumer gadget in history after its fall debut. And the Wii and its funky Wiimote, of course, revitalized Nintendo as a company.

But Kinect made its killing with games with broad appeal, like Kinect Adventures and Dance Central, and the Wii hit it big with Wii Sports. The twist this time around is incorporating these ways of interacting into games that traditionally appeal to hardcore gamers.

Part of convincing them means you have to start with the people who make the games.

Sony seems to have turned even professed skeptics into motion-control fans.

Ken Levine, creative director of Irrational Games and maker of the very highly regarded Bioshock series, acknowledged before the audience at Sony's press event that he'd been quoted earlier this year saying "uncharitable things" about motion control.

"We don't do that," he said he recalled thinking about motion control.

Now he's changing his tune, and bringing PlayStation Move interactivity to Bioshock Infinite.

Nintendo, which garnered the most buzz of the show with its Wii U tablet console combination is also pressing publishers to adopt its new (albeit potentially complicated) outlook on console gaming.

And it's got the big ones lined up. Nintendo brought Electronic Arts President John Riccitiello, whose company makes some of the industry's most popular games, up on stage to talk about how the Wii U console concept will be in EA's big games next year, including EA Sports titles.

Others outside of the trio of big hardware makers are catching onto the same theme. OnLive, which is known for its subscription cloud-based gaming service, announced a new twist this week. It'll bring console-based multiplayer shooters like Homefront to tablets, including the iPad and Xoom. OnLive will enable those games to be played with its own controller or by touch screen.

In one case, Ubisoft's From Dust, which debuts later this year on several platforms, will specifically be tailored for an OnLive experience, adding touch controls on screen.

"This is where this industry is going," said OnLive Vice President of Engineering Joe Bentley.

Convincing gamers choice is good
But will the people who buy these games go for it?

Some are indeed interested. Michael Robb, attending E3 on behalf of an educational gaming company, said he likes the idea of more interactive ways of playing. He thinks the content coming out at this show is dictating new ways for people to play games and not the other way around, which he prefers.

"Otherwise you have games that are just made to show off technology. And it always pays to think about the story first," he said.

But Robb says he prefers Nintendo's Wii in general as a gaming platform.

E3 attendee Eduardo Rivera, 16, who plays Xbox 360 only said he didn't see himself playing games with Kinect, even if the games themselves appealed to him.

"I'm not a Kinect person," he said. "I'd rather sit around, relax with a controller. Moving around a lot (when using Kinect) seems tiring."

Octavio Garcia, 18, agreed. "I'm just a controller person," he said, standing outside the entrance to the LA Convention Center's South Hall. "I'd rather control games with my hands."

Microsoft, Sony, and the rest will have to convince people who don't consider themselves "Kinect" or "Move" kind of gamers that these new methods of controlling games are somehow better than a regular, ergonomically designed controller.

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata admitted that making everyone happy is hard. With so many new ways to interact with video games, he wants to see boundaries between who plays what kind of game change, he told the audience at the Nintendo event here yesterday.

"But what we haven't achieved yet is a platform equally satisfying for all players," and that's what his company hopes the Wii U will be.