Webcredible user experience consultant Alistair Gray explains why the usability of motion controls will define your game's success
The release of the Nintendo Wii in 2005 allowed people who had never played games before to pick up a Wii remote and join in.
PlayStation Move and Microsoft Kinect then went head-to-head with the Wii and reportedly sold an estimated 18 million consoles combined within the few months of their launch.
It’s a huge potential audience, but how do you craft a motion control system that helps you deliver a hit? You can start at the heart of your game’s UI, and learn from the platform holders themselves.
HOME SWEET HOME SCREEN
Navigating menus is a crucial aspect of the user experience of a console. It’s the one interaction that every player has with a system every time they switch it on.
If designed insufficiently it can fast become something that irritates every time you use it. It needs to be smooth and intuitive so that it becomes second nature to the player.
Using the Wii menus is easy as it presents a pretty simple interaction. It uses large button target areas and there’s little complexity. Nintendo is working from a position of strength as the Wii has been designed from the ground up as a motion control console.
Both Sony and Microsoft needed to repurpose their existing menu systems to be compatible to motion controls.
Sony has chosen to retain its existing PlayStation menu interface when using the Move. This menu is highly complex as it was developed for use with a control pad and so leads to a poor interaction when using the Move controller.
Microsoft Kinect users can use either the existing control pad based menu navigation, a secondary gesture basic control menu, or voice controls. Aware of the design issues involved in attempting to introduce motion controls into a pre-existing interface, Microsoft has introduced a secondary Kinect dashboard accessed by waving at the Kinect vigorously, or using the voice commands.
This ensures that Microsoft does not have to completely redesign the existing menu interface for its hugely popular device.
The menu itself is fairly easy to navigate as Microsoft took the brave decision to significantly reduce the functionality available using the Kinect interface, reducing its complexity.
The Nintendo Wii clearly has the best user experience here, as it has been designed to be a motion control system from the start.
Microsoft Kinect does create a better user experience than the Sony Move, as more concessions have been made to motion controls from the initial design.
The lesson? Build from the ground up for gesture control.
Moving on to games themselves, let’s compare and contrast the sports games that have championed each respective motion control platform.
Nintendo’s Wii Sports, released at the end of 2006, is relatively old. Yet it carries its age very well resulting in an enjoyable game with lots of character and few flaws.
The menus are simple yet clear and a real strength is its gameplay. The game’s simple enough for novices to pick up and enjoy after a very short amount of time, whilst remaining difficult enough to master to encourage ongoing play.
This highlights the power of motion control and means the barrier to entry is very low. It’s also very supportive of new players by offering help to those players who perform the wrong motions during play through help/mini-tutorial screens.
The most significant issue is the unresponsive motion sensing that can negatively affect some of the sports.
This is a direct result of the now aging technology used by the Wii, which was relieved but not entirely resolved by the release of a Motion-Plus add-on for the controller now used for the follow up game, Wii Sports Resort. The recent demo of the Wii U at E3 has further raised hopes that this issue of accuracy has been resolved.
The PlayStation Move is able to track movement, including depth to a very high level of accuracy. From a hardware perspective it puts the Wii to shame, but how does this translate to user experience?
The high accuracy tracking of the Move controller means Sports Champions can be a very deep game. It requires real skill to play well, yet once again its use of motion controls means it can be picked up and played by almost anyone.
However, Sports Champions is a very unforgiving game. Mistakes are often punished harshly and as a result the game can be very off-putting for all but the most committed. Each of the sports is sufficiently complex as to require a tutorial, without which, clarity is lost.
Dropping players into levels assuming prior knowledge of the rules of play mean newer players are left unsure what they are required to do. The developers should have considered a simpler model.
Microsoft’s Kinect Sports is almost the exact opposite of Sports Champions. It’s a shallow game made to be played in a group. The barrier to entry is very low so anyone can play.
One of the biggest problems with Kinect Sports is an issue that will apply across all Kinect games; it needs a lot of space.
In order to play with two people, you are required to stand about three meters back from the sensor, which is often very hard to do in the smaller living rooms.
The depth of the game will be an issue for longevity as all the sports are rather simple. Most players will not be entertained for long on their own, so this is a game to be played with others.
Each game offers a very different user experience but it is Wii Sports and Kinect Sports that offer the best user experiences in terms of simplicity and appeal to the new wave of players attracted by motion controls.
THE FINAL RECKONING
Currently the Wii continues to offer the best user experience for a motion control console as evidenced by its strong sales figures reaching the tens of millions.
Its biggest contender will be Kinect as Microsoft has put together a great hardware and software package that will be effective in targeting this same market.
Sony appears to be after a subtly different group of players looking for a deeper experience and likely to purchase more games than those looking for light, easy play. The appetite for motion control games for these players, however, will be smaller.
Perhaps, then, this strategy will prove to be more beneficial in the long-run rather than the immediate.
While Nintendo may have had a head-start, the ever-increasing market of new gamers will always be up for the grabs.
The company that emerges triumphant will be the one that seriously looks to improving the user experience of its games and the interaction required to play these games.