Motion control wars: Xbox 360 and PS3 are playing catch-up with Wii next year, who will do it right?

It doesn't come as a surprise that Sony and Microsoft are hard at work at motion controls for their respective consoles: Nintendo is eating their lunch. The Wii's incredible appeal with the average consumer -- due primarily to the accessibility and charm of its Wiimote motion controls -- has also created an annoying divide in the industry (real or perceived) between consumers who use embarrassing gestures to control meaningless mini-games, and those who memorize incredibly complex control schemes to control deeper and more "mature" experiences. There's been a small amount of crossover, of course, but since Sony and Microsoft have lacked most of the gestures option, a majority of it has taken place on the Wii -- the inclusion of an accelerometer in Sony's Sixaxis controller has had little impact on gameplay, and Sony's EyeToy 2 has had even less impact on the average gamer.

Of course, that's all about to change next year, with the emergence of the Microsoft's Project Natal and Sony's PlayStation motion controller. Typical thinking would suggest that Sony and Microsoft will be attempting to capture a slice of the casual gaming market that the Wii has so well dominated, while also expanding on the Wii's capabilities at serving the hardcore gamer -- some capabilities which Nintendo itself is attempting to add to the Wii with the even more imminent MotionPlus add-on. So, does anyone here have what it takes to serve up the next generation of gaming controls to everybody, or do cost considerations and the current state of the console wars dictate an ongoing rift in the market? Let's weigh our options...

Wii MotionPlus
Launch date: June 8th
Price: $20 add-on per controller
Current install base: 51 million
Console base price: $250

While Sony and Microsoft are getting all the press this week, it's actually Nintendo that's the closest chronologically to improving upon its existing motion control capabilities. The new MotionPlus add-on adds gyroscope sensing on the X and Y axis to supplement the data the Wii already gleans from accelerometers and the sensor bar. It gives the Wiimote substantially more information about its placement in space, but it's not going to provide perfect 1:1 data -- developers will still need to decide the best way to use this extra info, and build software to simulate 1:1 as they choose. Nintendo, for instance, provides 1:1 motion in its Wii Sports Resort sword fighting game, but to perform blocks correctly, users still need to use the B button. In Ubisoft's Red Steel 2, gun implementation is the same as it was for the original, and while sword play is much improved, there's still a hint of slashes being "interpreted" into particular motions, instead of every motion being perfectly reflected on screen. EA has also claimed it was necessary to "tone down" 1:1 responsiveness to amp up playability.

Our own feel from a brief time playing with MotionPlus was that we could certainly sense an improvement in accuracy and real-life motion, but the games we tried didn't really show it to be a killer feature, or substantially "immersive" enough to justify the upgrade.

Xbox 360 Project Natal
Launch date: TBD, rumored late 2010
Price: TBD, one needed per console
Current install base: 30 million
Console base price: $200

Microsoft said it loud and clear on stage at E3: "This isn't the kind of game you end up on the sofa using some kind of preset waggle commands." It's true, Project Natal really couldn't be further from the Wii when it comes to motion controls. Instead of representing potentially arbitrary controller motions and gestures, Microsoft has its sights set on capturing the motion of the entire body. The technology is certainly impressive, combining an infrared camera and traditional camera to capture motion and 3D location in with glorious resolution and responsiveness -- from furious full body flailing to the subtle motion of an imaginary steering wheel, gas pedal and gear shifter. Microsoft's demos with in-house games show an on-screen avatar that closely mimics your own motions, which seems just a little odd in practice: it's 1:1 movement being represented on screen, but it's still arbitrary in a sense, since the avatar is being moved in a virtual environment. It's more like controlling a really detailed puppet than "being there" -- though this is obviously based on the implementation, since the driving example is very immersive.

Our problems with the tech, however, are twofold. Microsoft was kind enough to point out that you won't "end up on the sofa" for a lot of this. While we're glad Microsoft is doing its part to fight childhood (and adulthood) obesity, we actually really appreciate the option with the Wii to play one game of bowling standing up in a mode of full-on simulation, and one bowling game sprawled out on the couch, making as little effort as possible. We're sure there will be plenty of low-impact games available, but just to get an idea of where we're coming from: the delicate arm waves Microsoft's demo couple demonstrated when shuffling through a Netflix queue did not look like a delightful way to spend an evening. The other problem is with the idea of arbitrary controls. Most of what we do in video games are precisely the things we can't do in our living room. We're sure Microsoft is hard at work at this problem, but our fear is that we'll end up trading arbitrary Wiimote gestures when piloting a robo-mech tasked with eradicating laser-equipped dinosaurs from the moon, with arbitrary "body gestures" that will feel just as fake and a whole lot more tiring. Our biggest concern: how do you work a FPS? Of the options of either buying an extra gun-simulation accessory for Natal to interact with, using a regular 360 controller in a shooter stance, or making imaginary guns with our fingers, we can't decide which is the least desirable. Chatting with Milo, however, sounds like a real treat.

Check out our hands-on look at Natal here.

PlayStation motion controller
Launch date: Spring 2010
Price: TBD, needs PlayStation Eye ($40) and a new controller per person
Current install base: 23 million
Console base price: $400

Rarely a one for compromise, it's rather odd that Sony has ended up striking a bit of a balance between Nintendo and Microsoft in this space. Its new "PlayStation motion controller," which appeared fairly early along in the development process in comparison to the competition, though it will theoretically launch before Natal, combines a Wiimote-like peripheral with Sony's existing PlayStation Eye camera. As far as we can tell, most of the tracking takes place between the camera and the magical glowing ball at the end of the controller (which changes colors for particular actions). There also might be some accelerometers and gyroscopes on the inside, along with buttons on the face of the controller and an analog trigger -- making this an odd amalgamation of a Wiimote, a Natal-style camera-based tracking system and a traditional controller.

The upshot is that the controller has some of the benefits of Natal's "perfect" 1:1 tracking in real space, along with a traditional controller's capabilities to map arbitrary actions to buttons. Sony mentioned, for instance, that there isn't much of a substitute for a trigger button when it comes to shooting a gun virtually. The downside, naturally, is that the system appears limited to basically tracking two points in space per person -- one controller in each hand -- while Project Natal is tracking 48 joint points on the body, from head to toe. With a camera-based controller, we also fear Sony might suffer slightly when it comes to more arbitrary motions. It's a whole different story when moving around in an epic video game as opposed to moving around in a virtually-represented living room. Again, we're sure this is something Sony is aware of and working on, but it's something that Nintendo's waggle has down pat -- for better or worse.

The elephant in the room here, of course, is that Sony already has an iPhone-style accelerometer in its existing PS3 controllers. Unfortunately, the lack of a Wii sensor bar-style frame of reference for the controller, along with horrible implementation in the majority of games that use it for anything more than a quick shake now and then, mean that it was hardly surprising that Sony completely failed to mention Sixaxis during its presentation.

Other controllers
This isn't the main thrust of this article, but it's worth noting that the number of game-specific accessories has skyrocketed of late, with Rock Band, Guitar Hero, DJ Hero, Wii Fit and now even Tony Hawk all involving a specific controller for game play. Many of the inputs they provide (like weight and precise button mashing) aren't accurately reproduced by any of these other methods, and they show some of the limitations involved in building any sort of catch-all motion control system.

Tony Hawk Ride feets-on

Of the three, however, Project Natal seems best suited to working alongside and augmenting existing control schemes -- tracking your general body movements while a guitar controller tracks your fingers, for instance, or measuring your arm flails while the Tony Hawk controller picks up the subtleties of your virtual kickflips. Sony has the opportunity to do this to a lesser extent with the PlayStation Eye, and the Wiimote has already been implemented to some extent in conjunction with other controllers.

Hardware to back it all up
Developers will probably be looking at two main things when it comes developing their titles for motion controls: how many people have it, and what can they do with it. While Nintendo would argue that the only place where truly "next-gen" gameplay is happening right now is on the Wii, it's clear that expansive worlds, involved storylines, online multiplayer and (especially) high end graphics are much more traditionally associated with the PS3 and Xbox 360. Several games have even had "lite" editions built for the Wii, which really demonstrates the rift between the types of consoles.

The opportunity is certainly there for developers to build something extra next-gen with the blend of modern hardware and advanced motion controls, but the higher development costs on the Xbox 360 and PS3 discourage experimentation. Mix in the fact that neither console is shipping with these new motion controls currently, and potentially slow adoption once they start, and there's very little incentive out of the gate for a developer to design a truly blockbuster title around these new peripherals. Nintendo has had good results in selling its Wii Fit controller, and it seems imperative that Nintendo and Sony build some amazing first party experiences to make these motion controllers must have items.

Our greatest hope for third parties out of the gate is that there will be some easy to implement "alternative controls" that developers will be able to tack on to traditional titles (Microsoft showed us some racing controls that give us great hope in this department, and Sony seems dead set on the FPS and RTS space), but it seems likely that we're a few years or perhaps even another console generation from a real fulfillment of all this technology in a truly great game. Our mini-game experience index, however, is likely to skyrocket in the near term.

The scary thought, for Microsoft and Sony at least, is that like Sony's PlayStation Eye experiments in the past (Sony even goes so far as to call the PS2 EyeToy its "first" motion controller), this new functionality could be ignored by the general public and leave both manufacturers without a compelling presence in the casual market. It all comes down to games, and it'll be important for both technologies to sell at a reasonable price, come bundled with really compelling casual gameplay out of the box, and then to get strong third party developer support in the long run -- the last of which Nintendo is still struggling with in some ways.

As odd as it seems, it's hard to say anybody has a real edge right now. Nintendo is quite obviously winning financially, has the most units on the market, and also in some sense pioneered this space -- how many times did you and your parents pretend to play tennis against each other in the living room before the Wii came along? -- but as far as who will deliver the best and most immersive gaming experience this generation, it's still up in the air. In many ways you could claim the community and connectivity pioneered by Xbox Live has done more for progressing the industry than the Wii's waggle, but any way you slice this wild, cutthroat, three-pronged competition, we'd say the consumer is winning.

Further viewing
While words are great, the best way to get a sense for these various technologies is to see them in action, so we've embedded a few videos below to give you an idea of what we're talking about.

PlayStation motion controller

Project Natal


Mysterious "glove" tech from unknown manufacturer