VIDEOGAME CULTURE: THE CONTROLLER WARS ARE COMING

THE CONTROLLER WARS ARE COMING

So much news has been tumbling into the gaming media over the last month or so that it's hard to keep up with exactly what to expect from next Christmas' most important purchase(s). Digital Foundry seems pretty convinced that it's already in possession of the specs for both the next Xbox, codenamed Durango, and the PlayStation 4, codenamed Orbis, and everything they've found seems to be backed up with a certain amount of believability. Some rumours seem to have gathered so much traction that it's hard to imagine them not being correct, for example the much expected use of off-the-shelf hardware to form the core components of Microsoft and Sony's next gen offerings.

Another trend that seems to be gaining weight is speculation about new input devices. The suggestion that Microsoft will bundle an enhanced Kinect 2.0 device with its new console seems entirely logical, but the one that really caught my eye is the rumour that Sony are apparently dropping DualShock controllers from the next PlayStation in favour of a new design sporting a touch screen and biometric sensors.

There is a precedent here - Sony has already 'dropped' the DualShock controller once, when the original PlayStation 3 model was released. Nintendo was enjoying remarkable success with the Wii, and that was largely put down to its unique control scheme as well as its affordability and clever marketing push (Look mum/dad/gran/cat, everyone's playing computer games these days!). Naturally, Sony wanted a piece of that market, so they developed the motion sensing yet rumbleless SIXAXIS controller. The problem was that hardcore gamers, i.e. the main demographic of people that will happily spend over £400 on a new console, weren't too interested in motion sensors in place of good ol' reliable force feedback, and third party developers that were also making Xbox 360 versions of their games didn't seem interested in making use of the key difference between the SIXAXIS and the Xbox 360 controller. 12 months and a notable amount of criticism from early adopters later and the DualShock 3 was released, contradicting Phil Harrison's earlier rationale that "rumble was the last generation feature."

Regardless of what Sony's plan for their next controller is, the thing that worries me the most about this broader pattern of revised input methods is the diversity it looks set to introduce to the market. In the current gen the Xbox and PlayStation controller mappings are essentially the same, minus a couple of tweaks. The one that stood out was the Wii; a console lauded for its excellent first party games but bemoaned for its general lack of quality 3rd party games. Given its market share the Wii should have received a lot of 3rd party focus, and yet it failed to do so because a) its hardware, while original, was dated and b) because its unique control setup meant it required a different design method that couldn't be scaled to the 360 or PS3. Basically, the fact it singled itself out so dramatically from the pack meant that games had to be designed specifically for it in order to get the most out of the tech.

Fast forward to now and if these new controller rumours turn out to be true then we're looking at a situation where each console manufacturer is going to offer unique control methods from day one. From a first party perspective, that's great - we'll hopefully see in house studios doing plenty of really cool and unique things with interesting new tech. Kinect may not have gone on to be the game-changing development that many felt it would be (so far), but it's hard to deny that the possibilities it holds aren't interesting in some way.

Third party developers might see things differently though. Remember, this isn't about peripherals that come later in the console cycle; we're talking day one fundamental differences in the way games can be controlled amongst the three main consoles. Can you imagine how much of a nightmare that could be to design around? Ultimately, it just means that third party publishers that want to release on as many consoles as possible (which is most of them) will end up focusing on exploiting the ways each console is similar rather than looking to draw on their unique features in a way that's not going to feel tacked on just for the sake of an extra bullet point on the back of the box. Just look at how well designed ZombiU is, a game build specifically for the Wii U tech, in comparison to Arkham City: Armoured Edition and you'll see what I'm getting at.

Publishers like EA, Ubisoft and Activision will ultimately find a way to publish their games across all consoles because their business models demand it. The big players aren’t going to be happy to only create certain IPs for certain consoles when it's wider fan base want to play their games regardless of their console choice. Therefore, I can't help feeling that touch screens, motion detectors and biometric sensors won't find a mass appeal unless they go on to be adopted universally, so that all developers can build their capabilities into the core of their game designs. Rumble is actually a classic example of this; tech introduced by Nintendo with the N64 that soon became the norm when Sony developed the original DualShock controller. By the next generation Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all had force feedback built into their controllers and developers could easily factor it into their games as a result. That kind of universal adoption tech-wise looks like it won't be true of the next gen, and I feel that these rumoured new control methods will probably not be fully utilised outside of the first party developers as a result. I await Sony’s much expected PlayStation 4 unveil on the 20th February with bated breath.

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