Friday, September 2, 2011

Nintendo’s Regression

Nintendo’s Wii U is designed around an ill-convinced, regressive, illogical idea of a large, expensive, complicated, touchscreen controller.  I’m sure it’ll be a good game system overall, but the large touchscreen controller is so unnecessary.

Nintendo came up with the concept, I think, because they didn’t know where else to go.  Now that the XBox and Playstation have their own gesture-based interfaces, gesture-based gaming is not a USP for Nintendo anymore.  If Microsoft had not come up with Kinect, Nintendo would have invented something like it, because it would have be a natural progression from Wiimotes.  And of course, creating a more precise Wiimote is what Sony just did with PS3 Move.

So what direction should Nintendo have gone?  I think they should have focused on portable gaming and game development, forgetting about releasing a new living room system.  They should have just became a third-party developers for Sony and Microsoft’s systems.

Keep in mind that the Wii was released 1.5 years after the XBox 360, and is being replaced before the 360 is being replaced.  That’s not how it’s supposed to happen, and to me it’s a hint that Nintendo cannot complete in the hardware business, with portable gaming (which I just don’t care about), being the exception.

But instead, they’re going ahead with a new console.  And because their USP was co-opted, they had to come up with another one, which, as I mentioned, is the large touchscreen controller.

Aside from the regressive nature of the idea, it a bad idea in terms of user experience.  For one thing, most people are going to only have one of the big controllers, due to their expense.  So, Nintendo imagines that there will be one person with the big controller and other people with regular Wiimotes.

It seems to me that that is really going to draw attention to the backwards evolution of Nintendo’s controllers.  One guy will be using this behemoth controller with tons of buttons and it’s own display, with the guy next to him using a minimalistic, gesture-based controller with 3 buttons, playing the same game.  At least it’s a tacit admission that the the big controller is superfluous.

But more importantly, the idea of a secondary display that the user has to regularly reference is just absurd.  Has Nintendo ever heard of HUDs, or Heads-Up Displays?  In cars and planes, they’re an improvement over dashboard-embedded gauges, for obvious reasons.  If you’re doing something that requires close attention and quick reflexes like driving, flying a plane, or, I don’t know, playing video games, it’s better to not have to look away from the thing you should be focusing on.

Nintendo has tried to show instances where a secondary display would be cool and / or practical, and I’d like to address a few of them:

1. The secondary display can displays maps.  How practical is this?  In most games where you would want a map, there’s an in-game map.   Games that require frequent use of a map typically have a mini-map.  But the mini-map clutters up the screen!  Okay, then have the mini-map only come up when the user holds down a button.  Is that significantly slower or less convenient than looking away from the screen at the secondary display?  Nope.

2. Use the secondary display to catch a ball or aim a pitch in a baseball game.  This one is pretty funny.  Look at the screen above.  Why would you want to focus on the screen you’re holding rather than on the main display?  You obviously would not be able to focus on both at the same time.  Okay, if you aim a pitch via the smaller display, you can aim it so that the other player in the room can’t see where it’s going to go.  Okay, Nintendo, you win.  That totally justifies having an expensive monstrosity of a controller. 

3. Put the secondary display on the floor and use it as a virtual golf tee.  A regular Wiimote can be used as the golf club.   I guess this kind of makes sense, because in real golf you’re not supposed to take your eye off the ball when swinging.  So, this would be better for golf simulations.  But simulation games are a niche market, and the people who buy them aren’t Nintendo’s target audience.  In addition, this seems pretty awkward.  How good of an idea is it to put an expensive controller on the floor where it can easily be stepped on?  And using a second controller to swing?  Compare this to Kinect, which can track the user’s whole body and render the movements on screen, without any tactile controller.  Doesn’t that seem to be a more Nintendo-like approach?  Doesn’t that seem much more elegant, impressive, and kid-friendly?

Controllers should generally become invisible as the user familiarizes himself with the controls of a game.  What each button does should become second nature.  The user should eventually not have to look down at the controller at all when playing a game.  The Wii U goes against that completely.  It’s draws attention to itself, and will work against players becoming engrossed in a game.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Converted To Modern Games

Modern games are better and more fun to play than retro games.  That may not sound like a bold proclamation, but for me it represents a complete attitude change.

It’s been about a year since I bought an Xbox 360 and started this blog.  If you remember, I mainly got the Xbox is order to play old school style games.  A good example is Bionic Commando:Rearmed.  At the time, that was exactly the type of game I was looking for (and still the best remake of an 8-bit game ever, in my opinion).

But, if you look over my blog posts over time, I started to be more enthusiastic about modern games.  It started with Batman:Arkham Asylum.  Then it was Transformers: War For Cybertron.  But the final step of my conversion has been Red Dead Redemption.

Early on, I thought that playing the modern games was just a diversion, and that my main interest would still be old school games.  The games I was looking forward to most were Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, Bionic Commando: Rearmed 2, and Hard Corp: Uprising.  Those games are all out now.  They are good games (well, I have problems with Castlevania:HD).  But, I have no plans to buy the full versions.

The reason is, I just find them boring.  The control is too basic.  When I’m used to 3D games with deep, complex controls, I just can’t “switch gears” to enjoy the old school gameplay.  I mentioned this in my assessment of the Limbo demo last year.  At the time I didn’t realize that was I was feeling was not temporary, but a permanent change in my attitude.

Simple mechanics are one of the reasons that many people prefer retro games.  You can pick up and play them without having to learn much or train your hands.  Games with deep controls can have a steep learning curve that can be intimidating.  I can speak to that because that I how I felt a year ago.  But I can now say, the learning curve is worth it.  It seems daunting at first, but you will adapt in time.  And it doesn’t even take that much time.  At a certain point, the controls become second nature and don’t even seem complex.  And when you reach that point, playing the game becomes entertaining and rewarding beyond what’s possible in an old school game.  Here are a couple of examples.

In Batman:Arkham Asylum, you can use Batman’s line launcher to zip-line across a room and knock down a group of henchmen.  Before they get up, you can use a ground takedown move to knock one of them out.  By that time the others will have gotten up and and will most likely be ready to open fire on Batman with machine guns.  At that point you can either retreat by grappling up to gargoyle, stun them using Batman’s cape, use batarangs to knock them down again, or just run at them kicking and punching, hoping to take them out before Batman is critically wounded.  There are so many options – you can let your creativity run wild.  It takes a high level of comfort with the game’s controls to be able to do all that, but the gamer does get to that level, and it happens naturally (in this game, at least).

Another example is from Read Dead Redemption.  You can take something that happens in the game fairly often – a thief steals a horse and a townsperson asks you to get the horse back.  You have a lot of options in RDR, but I like to return the horse and the thief alive.  Here are the steps required for that:
  1. Whistle for horse
  2. Mount horse
  3. Equip lasso
  4. Look where thief is on mini-map and chase after him
  5. Once caught up to thief, ready lasso
  6. Enter dead-eye mode
  7. “Paint” thief in dead-eye mode
  8. Throw lasso
  9. Dismount house
  10. Run to to thief and hogtie him
  11. Pick up thief
  12. Put thief on horse
  13. Mount house
  14. Chase down stolen horse and lasso it
  15. Lead horse back to robbery victim
  16. Dismount horse
  17. Remove thief from horse
  18. Drop thief off ground
That is very complex process, but it’s something that becomes easy to do after a while.  When I started making that list, I included the necessary buttons that need to be pressed for each step, but I couldn’t finish that aspect.  I couldn’t remember some of them, and others I was just unsure about which button.  But when I play the game I can do it easily because of muscle memory.  So, what sounds daunting and complex (and is daunting and complex at first) becomes second nature.

So why is that more satisfying than say, defeating a monster in The Legend of Zelda.  I don’t know.  It’s something that I know experientially.  Maybe I’ll try to think of the specific reasons in a future post.  For now I can only say that I am a convert.