The FPS conundrum

Got you in my sights...When the Wii controller was first revealed to the world, it seemed as though it would be the end-all-be-all for first-person shooter controls. Many even claimed it would be superior to the industry standard mouse and keyboard (causing many PC gamers to violently explode). After countless debates in message boards and chatrooms between legions of fanboy armies, E3 2006 rolled around. Surely, this would put our doubts and fears to rest. The show was all about the Wii: hardware, software, and six hour lines. Perhaps the greatest desire of all, however, was to finally feel how wonderfully games like Red Steel and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption handled.

While there were many differing opinions on how well each game controlled in relation to a dual-analog or mouse-keyboard setup, there was a surprising turn of events. As revealed in an issue of Game Informer some weeks earlier, there was a new control scheme implemented for these two games. Instead of the Wiimote innately mimicking a mouse on the screen, a new setup was implemented for not one, but both games on the floor. The controller acted as a mouse within a predefined box on the screen, invisible to the player but covering most of the display. If the player left that box, however, the view would begin to rotate. In other words, aiming at enemies would generally not alter the viewpoint in any way, creating a light-gun type feel to the game. What was going on? This was functional, certainly, but not the silky-smooth control people were expecting to find.

The truth is, the Wiimote is a far cry from a standard mouse. A mouse will only send input when it's in contact with a smooth surface; the player has the ability to lift the mouse and reposition it so that his or her wrist can stay in a small area. This allows a player to very quickly move his reticule in a 360 degree fashion without wild motions or exaggerated movements. The Wii, however, is always sending information. If one wanted to turn around, in a traditional FPS setup, you would quite literally have to turn around, as in, face away from the television. This is obviously unacceptable. Developers looked for a way to combat this inadequacy. 

In a first-person shooter, there are actually three analog control movements that must be accounted for: movement, looking, and aiming. A human can do all three at the same time quite naturally, but attempting to implement this in a game is almost impossible. So, since the dawn of the FPS, looking and aiming have been fused into one. There is a static, unmoving reticule on the center of the screen, and where you look, you aim. Automatic. As previously mentioned, however, the Wii is unable to quickly move anywhere in a 360 field of view. Also of consideration is the fact that since a player is most likely unable to keep the Wiimote perfectly steady in the air, as one could do with a mouse, the constant shaking of the screen could cause disorientation and confusion.

One option could be to reduce the scale of the movements so that a full 180 degree turn could be done with, say, a 45 degree turn of the Wiimote. This would perhaps be acceptable with a surface-based control scheme, like a mouse, but the Wiimote is handled by a human wrist with nothing to steady the motion. Even a relatively steady shooter, with his movements amplified by a factor of 4, would find the shaking and inaccuracy unacceptable. With older, shakier gamers, this problem would be magnified even more. Furthermore, this would not allow a gamer to make a full 360 degree rotation.

Perhaps another option would be to use a button on the Wiimote to "lift up" the mouse, or conversely, "put it down". The Wiimote would function normally, but at the press of a button, it would literally cease to function, allowing the player to reposition. This would effectively simulate a mouse, but seems counter-intuitive. We have to press a button to do "nothing"? In the other option, having to press a button to "activate" the controller's functionality is simply ridiculous. Nintendo is aiming for simplicity of controls, and furthermore, such a setup would reduce the amount of buttons available by one on an already slightly starved controller. First-person shooters are notorious for requiring many input commands, and developers have had to struggle enough with the Wiimote as is.

Another interesting facet of the control schemes that have been implemented is the lack of "pointer" functionality that the Wii apparently wields. While moving the Wiimote corresponds to movement of the aiming reticule on the screen, you are not directly pointing to that spot. Adding this to a game would require an initial calibration to one's TV set, but in this setup, there is once again no way to turn the player. While this could be used in conjunction with the "box" approach (discussed in a moment), players with smaller TVs might find the precision necessary to be beyond their reach. However, this could be enabled in an options menu to cater to gamers with larger sets who want a more realistic experience.

And so, both Retro Studios and Ubisoft (at the suggestion of Nintendo themselves?) managed to come up with the same solution: the invisible "box". While many players said they had trouble adjusting to the new setup, most who had longer play sessions (Metroid Prime 3 gave players up to twenty minutes) said they began to feel comfortable. The setup is touting a 360 degree turn time of 1 second, as opposed to the (supposed) .25 seconds of the mouse and 3 seconds of the dual-analog setup. While that seems reasonably accurate, is there no way to improve? To get something which feels completely natural?

I, of course, have no real experience to gauge exactly how effective these setups are. I was not in attendance at E3, and have no real right complaining about a setup I haven't used. Retro Studios and Ubisoft have probably been playing with different setups for months upon months, and I don't doubt their ability to come up with the best control possible (though I think they should ditch the box, and just have the view rotate when a screen edge is reached). But what options will be available for the player? Will other upcoming FPS for the Wii, such as the more traditional Call of Duty 3, use a similar setup? And am I missing another solution, so obvious to you readers out there? Let me know, and thanks for reading. We'll all find out come November. Ish.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.