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Motion Control Speculation: 3rd Parties and Exclusivity

Since Sony and Microsoft unveiled their motion control schemes at E3 there has been no shortage of speculation about the impact these new interfaces will have on the gaming industry. Most of this speculation has fallen into two very limited categories: 50s news reel-esque semi-factual attempts to imagine the grand, glorious future of interactive entertainment (flying cars and all) and "Why Console X Will Be Victorious in the Motion Wars" fan fiction. Both of these topics are fine (and inevitable), but tripartite motion control will have ramifications that are at once more pragmatic and more impactful than the current crop of Amazing Stories and console war arms race articles indicate. This is particularly true when it comes to 3rd party developers and software exclusivity, issues that are already significant points of contention between the three primary console manufacturers.

Console exclusives, particularly from 3rd party developers, are becoming increasingly rare. Development costs are high and the expense of porting a title between the current HD systems is nominal compared to the opportunity for increased profits that a dual system release provides. Since the Xbox 360 and PS3 have similar worldwide sales numbers, releasing a title on only one system means exchanging a largely insignificant decrease in costs for a loss of about 50% of a title's potential market. This makes exclusives financially unattractive for third parties. (Yes, I know. I haven't mentioned the Wii yet. That's not an intentional slight. However, the situation for porting onto the Wii is different. This will be discussed later.)

However, motion control have the potential to upset this entire model. Why? Because the vast differences in interfaces offered by the Wii Remote/Motion Plus, Project Natal, and Sony's Wand/EyeToy will make porting software between the three systems vastly more difficult than it is currently.

Before motion, adapting the control interface was a relatively simple affair: you just remap the buttons. Yes, if you were a perfectionist you might spend hours toying with different button configurations until you found the most intuitive combination. Still, controllers were relatively similar, so no changes to the fundamental design of the game were necessary.

But after motion control it's not that simple. Now instead of three controllers with slightly different shapes and button alignments you have a remote with an optional balance board, a wand controller with a camera, and a controller-less camera/IR projector with a voice/noise recognition system. Not only does this mean that you will have to do far more than just remap buttons in order to transfer the control interface from one system to another, it also means that game scenarios that are possible on one system will be difficult to impossible on another. This could lead to significantly increased development costs, which in turn could make porting one game across two or three systems less attractive.

And how will third parties react? I have no idea, but here are a few possibilities:

No motion controls. Let's get the worst case scenario out of the way first. Developers, already overburdening by the ever-increasing cost of creating competitive software, could simply decide that motion controls are not worth it. Mind you, 1st party developers will certainly try to exploit the new control opportunities. With only one system to develop for, they have no reason not to. But 3rd parties may decide that the ease of programing games for traditional controllers may be greater than the potential new audiences provided by motion control. If this happens, expect little change and lots of missed opportunities. Oh well.

Limited motion controls. The waggle option. Developers could opt for simplicity, replacing button presses with broad, generalized movements. This is how many developers currently handle ports of PS3/PS2/360 titles to the Wii. (Remember I said I would return to this.) Button presses become wrist flicks. Goofiness follows. I'm not sure how exactly this approach would be adapted to the newer motion interfaces (particularly Project Natal), but if there are corners to be cut, don't expect developers to leave the scissors in the drawer.

More effort, fewer games. Developers, particularly those interested in preserving the quality of their games, could simply begin producing fewer games per year but releasing those games across all available platforms, having optimized them for the motion controls of each console. This is the [url=http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/When+It's+Done]Blizzard/ID/Valve approach[/url]. Finish the game, make sure it is perfect, and then release it, release windows be damned. This option may seem ideal, but there are some problems. Most notably, how will developers and publishers recoup the costs of having fewer games released, each with more time (and thus more money) spent in development? $70 titles instead of $60 titles? More in-game advertising? More features that would have been on the disc release transformed into downloadable content? All of the above? Yes, probably all of the above.

More small downloadable games, fewer massive epics. Small developers are already taking advantage of XBLA, PSN and WiiWare to produce games for mass consumption on a limited budget. A similar model might allow larger developers to adopt motion control without hugely inflating development costs. Titles of a limited size and scope, focused on exploiting one particular motion-based conceit, might begin to proliferate, while the contemporary premium titles with huge worlds and numerous options might begin to enter decline. This doesn't necessarily mean that games will decrease in quality, just in size. Or, in other words: More World of Goo, less Zelda. More Flower, less Resident Evil.

More exclusives. And here is the final option. Developers could simply opt to focus their efforts on maximizing each game for one system's control interface without accepting the burden adapting it for other consoles, hoping to get more out of a smaller market. This is already occurring on the Wii (see: EA's commitment to make more Wii exclusives). This would allow developers to guarantee higher quality games without significantly increasing development cost and length. However, it also means a smaller potential market for each game. Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft might be able to overcome these losses by offering bonuses and perks to developers who agree to develop content exclusively or primarily for their motion controls. You may also see some new variant on timed exclusivity, with one of the big three paying for a game to be released several months in advance on their console, while developers use the period between releases to gauge the success of a title, to decide whether it is worth porting, and, if they decide it is, to implement the changes necessary to adapt a title for release on other consoles. This will almost certainly lead to more contention between gamers and an increase in fan forum flame wars, but at least it will allow for games to thoroughly utilize each system's new technology.

So which will it be? Well, in reality, developers and publishers will almost certainly mix and match these approaches, searching for a combination that will protect their profits and still allow them to appear progressive and innovative. But regardless of the choices they make, third parties will be a major deciding factor for the fate of motion control, perhaps moreso than the technology itself. Technological optimism is fine, but ultimately it will be corporate pragmatism that decides what we are playing two Christmases from now. Or: We may live in the world of the future, but it is still ruled by the pictures of past presidents.
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About Nuganone of us since 10:18 PM on 08.15.2008