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Motion Controls and Adaptive Difficulty

[This was a piece I wrote maybe three years ago now. It was my first published piece for Pixels or Death, back when I was the News Editor over there. Even though the main focal point here is something which has largely become irrelevant – that is, motion controls – I still feel like a lot of the points about difficulty and the medium’s lack of an appropriate entry point for newcomers are still valid. So, here’s the whole thing. I did some general edits, but the gist is pretty much identical. Do take this with a pinch of salt because it’s a bit out-of-date in certain respects and the tone is one I don’t tend to use these days, but nevertheless it was fun to write and I think there’s some merit to it yet.] 

Motion controls. Let’s face it; they’re pretty shit, right?

The answer to that question is a resounding “yes”, and anyone who disagrees with me should be hung by their thumbs and beaten with a Wiimote until their eyeballs switch places.

I’m not talking about those games for fat people, either – if Wii Fit offers you a perfectly-tailored workout program, that’s fine, but that’s not a game is it? It’s just your insecurities digitized and plastered all over the TV for your entire family and social circle to point fingers at while giggling at your Body Mass Index.

The unfortunate reality is that the video game industry needs motion controls. Or, more appropriately, it needs the impressionable casual-gaming types that motion controls attract. Those guys and girls we’re laughing at, jumping around in front of their television screens playing tennis with a poorly-rendered, swollen-headed midget – those are the next wave of core gamers. There’s a revolution coming, people. We need to prepare for it.

Don’t believe me? I know it’s difficult to imagine – it’s just a flick of the wrist and one button to worry about now, but pretty soon that won’t be enough for these guys. They’ll need more. Sooner than you think, these young kids and bored housewives will be the ones teabagging your idle corpse in Call of Duty servers. It could be you with a mouthful of pixel penis. Hell, it could be me with a face full of virtual vagina. Well, hopefully.

As someone who wants to see the video game industry expand and develop, I’m worried by this. Sure, I can see the positive side – more gamers means more games sold, which means more profit for developers, more games being made and a bigger team to fight our corner whenever FOX News starts banging on about rape again. But it also means less incentive for developers to actually innovate; if this whole new demographic suddenly starts buying Call of Duty en masse, what reason would there be to make anything except another Call of Duty?

It doesn’t stop there, either.

Right now, everyone in the universe owns at least one Nintendo Wii. It’s a pandemic. Whereas I grew up on brutal, hardcore shit like Ninja Gaiden and BattleToads, these pussies are cutting their teeth on hula-hooping and that ridiculous tank thing from Wii Play.

Do we really want garbage like this to serve as the entry point into the wonderful world of video games?

Aside from games that are specifically designed to make use of the motion control technology, name me one game (not a rail shooter, you cheat) that is significantly improved by being controlled with a wrist, rather than a thumb.

It’s cool, I’ll wait.

While you’re thinking about that, consider this: what about people who aren’t into sports, or dancing, or mini-game compilations? What about all the people who have always wanted to get into mature video games, but lack an appropriate entry point? Where are the games that can accommodate new players, without making them quite literally jump through hoops?

Motion controls are a blight on this industry. What’s worse, they’re symptomatic of a bigger problem.

Video games are hard. Maybe not to people like me, hopeless nerds who have spent the majority of their lives indoors, but to the uninitiated even the most basic control schemes are arrogantly complex. We’ve spent years learning rules and mechanics, watching controllers evolve and develop. The Nintendo Entertainment System controller had four buttons and a d-pad, and you only needed two of those buttons unless you wanted to pause the game. The Xbox 360 controller, on the other hand, has two analogue sticks, an eight-point directional pad, six face buttons, a button in the middle for handling all your multimedia business, two triggers, two atrophied little nubs in front of the triggers, and two buttons that you activate by clicking in the analogue sticks – and those last two you have no way of even knowing about unless you’re specifically told they exist.

Motion controls exist because they are, at the moment, the only way people who haven’t grown up with video games can play them successfully.

As long as the video game industry persists in ignoring this fact, the cycle will be perpetuated indefinitely. People will continue being enticed by the allure of accessibility; brought into this wonderfully unique medium and then trained on low-quality, shovelware garbage. Standards will be lowered to such a degree that anything, anything with shiny graphics and a gun or two will seem like an irresistibly enticing prospect.

Do you know what that means? Let me tell you.

It means that, from now until the end of time, all developers will ever have to create are derivative, space-marine shooters that feature big guns and lots of gore. And maybe tits. That’s what we’ll have forever.

I like tits as much as the next guy, but do you really want to spend the rest of your life playing Iterative Shooter XXX: The Iteration?  I know I don’t.

So motion controls need to go. They need to vanish into the annals of gaming history, taking their place alongside 3D and all the other ridiculous media trends that fucking idiots like you keep buying into. Stop it. You’re not doing yourselves any favours.

What we really need is games which are accessible to everyone; games that are tailored to suit the needs of any player. We only need to look at Flower or Little Big Planet to see that these games do exist; games that eschew the typical ideals of what is “challenging” will ultimately be the games that supplant motion controls as the entry point for non-gamers.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn (which does not require motion controls, thank you very much) requires almost no skill to complete, if you regard “completion” as simply “reaching the end of every level”. But should we all consider the only measure of a game’s difficulty to be how hard it is to simply play through? Is in-game death the only way of measuring failure? Likewise, is making your way from start to finish the only measure of one’s success?

The real challenge of Kirby’s Epic Yarn is beating every level with a Gold Medal, and that’s fucking tough. You can endeavour to do that if you like, but only if you want the extra challenge. If you’re satisfied with just seeing everything the game has to offer, making your way through the various worlds and then reaching a reasonable end, then that’s fine. You’re not required to do anything that you don’t want/are unable to do. More to the point, you’re allowed to see the entire game and feel as though you’ve accomplished something.

These are the games this industry needs; quality games that provide a satisfying, manageable experience for the newcomer and an additional, optional challenge for the more experienced player.

If video games of this ilk were more prevalent, motion controls would be obsolete. People simply wouldn’t need them.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but all of the games I just mentioned are all innovative, unique little titles that succeed in being both accessible and entertaining; offering something new in a package that anyone can unwrap, while showing off to everyone exactly what video games can do.

So what do the countless low-budget, thoughtless motion-controlled games offer in comparison? What do they provide for gamers other than low standards and low expectations?

I’ll leave you to answer that by yourselves.

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