McGinnis: Traditional game controllers are the bestWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | email@example.com
Like most gamers, I grew up in an era where we had a simple, wired controller hooked up to a console to play our games. They didn’t have a lot of buttons — the Atari 2600 had only one, the Nintendo Entertainment System only four. The controllers were clunky to hold, often awkward to use, and limited in function. But because we didn’t know any better, that’s the way we liked it, gosh darn it.
I’m not the kind of gamer who insists that things were simply better back then. I genuinely think that gaming improved tremendously as technology advanced. Designers became capable of crafting new and exciting worlds, taking players on journeys that no one who designed “Pong” could have ever envisioned. Games became a form of virtual wish fulfillment, and a large part of the appeal became the ability to lose yourself, just for a moment, and feel like you were somewhere, or someone, else.
Thanks to games, I have wandered the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic landscape trying to find my father. I have been an assassin in ancient Italy. I have visited the remarkable city of Rapture and swung through New York City as Spider-Man. I have escaped Aperture Science’s devious maze, I have searched for El Dorado, I have been a Ghostbuster. All these experiences I had with just a simple controller in my hands.
Ever since the first days of gaming, consoles have tried to find ways to change how players interact with the game. Clunky first steps like the NES Power Glove or Sega’s Activator all came with grandiose promises about how they would revolutionize the experience, and give players an all-new sense of interactivity. In every case, though, the limits of the technology were too large to ignore. Gamers simply preferred the simple, but far more accurate, abilities of a basic controller.
Things started to change in 2006, with the announcement of the Nintendo Wii, and its wireless, motion-sensing controller. On the surface, the Wii remote promised much the same as its kin had years before — “revolutionary” new controls, giving the player an unprecedented level of immersion. What set the Wii apart was a genuinely improved level of technology, and hype that appealed to a whole segment of the public who had never played a game in their lives.
The Wii hit, and hit big. A whole new classification of players — the “casual” gamer — was lured into the fold. People started having friends over to play Wii. For one of the few times in history, video gaming became a cool thing to do, and gamers weren’t seen as anti-social nerds. Everyone was playing. And everyone was playing so much, almost no one seemed to notice that the Wii was woefully underpowered technically and the console’s games, by and large, sucked.
Now, Nintendo’s primary competition, Microsoft and Sony, are cashing in on the craze by introducing their own motion controllers — the PlayStation Move and the Microsoft Kinect, which comes out this week. They both come with grandiose promises of new, exciting levels of control and technology. They
stand poised to make grabs at the wallets of “casual” and hardcore gamers alike.
But here’s the odd — and counterintuitive — thing. The more basic a gaming control scheme is, the easier it is for players to lose themselves in the experience. The Wii succeeds as a social event because you’re not really playing a video game at all — you’re flailing your arms around with friends, laughing and having fun. This is why the system’s substandard games and only marginal control capabilities have gone unnoticed.
This is one of the cases where being simple is a real benefit. When you play a well-designed game with a traditional controller, you have far fewer things to keep your mind on — and as such, it’s much easier to just let yourself go and become involved with it. When I think of “Bioshock” or “Uncharted,” I think of the worlds I experienced and the stories I was involved with. When I think of Wii games, all I really remember is the controller.
Maybe motion controls will improve with time. Maybe the Move or Kinect will tap into a formula that allows casual and hardcore gamers to find a common ground. But for now, I’ll be more than happy to stick with a standard controller. After all, the less I notice how I’m playing, the easier it is to forget that I’m playing in the first place.
E-mail Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.