"When are new things good for games?"

David Braben

By David Braben

August 11th 2010 at 8:30AM

David Braben looks at the future of the industry now that motion controls are here to stay

That is not such a stupid question, especially now, as collectively our industry, or at least some parts of it, seem very poor at judging this. There is a part of our industry, perhaps a bigger part than many of us will acknowledge, that is conservative through and through.

Any change is automatically bad, unless it is just an improvement of what we already had before like more polygons, or more buttons on a controller. I can almost hear the rumbles of disagreement, of people discounting themselves mentally from this group, but to some extent it probably applies to all of us.

There are so many clear examples it is shocking. The Wii. Analogue controls on joypads. The mouse. The DS. Giant custom controllers like with Guitar Hero. All the way back to something like “Elite” – which publishers didn’t want, except the newcomer Acorn, who were perhaps too “inexperienced” so they saw change as a very good thing. I’m glad they did.

I didn’t think a $100 giant plastic guitar-controller that only worked with one game would fly commercially, but it did. I loved the Wii (but still hate the name), but I too was scornful at how under-powered the DS was. But they won in the end.

We are not always wrong (Virtual Boy, for example, and I don’t mean Milo), and do occasionally embrace the wrong thing, as I think we are currently in danger of doing with 3D; don’t get me wrong, 3D will come, and will be successful, as I think it will be now on the 3DS, but it needs glasses-free technology to be truly mass market, which is still a year or so away for large TVs - and even then it needs a leap in graphical performance to do full justice to it, without making other compromises in a game, so it will probably only shine across the board on a future hardware generation.

Where we have got it so wrong is where the people that end up buying the devices, games, whatever, are not well represented within the industry. The move from keyboard-and-mouse to controller was the first obvious example of this.

This was our industry’s first step towards the living room and the move to dedicated games devices, but many were reluctant to take it, as for them it changed the experience, and perhaps made it less intense for some types of games. Nevertheless, with hindsight it was the right thing to have done, as without it our industry would have stagnated, and remained in its ghetto. The transition to the Wii was similar.

This year, we are spoiled for choice for new technologies, but there is a worrying undercurrent (again) of nay-sayers in some parts of the industry. Kinect, Move, 3DS are all potential major game-changers, enabling great new ways of playing games we have not seen before. The major hardware manufacturers have stuck their financial necks out to make these possible, and we should embrace them as best we can.

MAKING A KINECTION

At Frontier we are lucky enough to have been working with Microsoft’s Kinect for a long time now, and as always with new hardware it has been both a challenging and rewarding experience. I am very proud of what we are doing with the ‘Kinectimals’ game, but I can also see great opportunities to use the technology in the future in different ways, for games that people would consider ‘core’ as well as in broad titles like Kinectimals.

The whole sitting/standing argument is a case in point. A great new feature of Kinect is you can determine the position of the player’s legs – making genuine dance and yoga games possible – so many of the activities in the launch titles use that feature because it is new, but some don’t, from menu selection (like choosing and playing a film) to using voice chat. I suspect future ‘core’ games will still be made to appeal to the sedentary, potentially using a controller too – but that is the point – it is up to us in development.

Look at ‘Avatar’ – the best selling film of all time - the bastard child of the violence of ‘Terminator’ and the arthouse beauty of ‘Princess Mononoké’.

Many in the film industry privately hate its success, perhaps because James Cameron seems to have made enemies in Hollywood, and possibly out of jealousy – especially as it was widely touted as likely to fail catastrophically by those same people that denied it funding, but it succeeded nevertheless, and those people were forced to eat their words. Sadly, complex, emotionally tangled, beautiful ‘art house’ film creations generally review well, but sell very little, as they only appeal to the narrow ‘core’ within the film industry and people that follow the industry very closely.

It is a lesson for us too. Let’s not go that route. Let’s also appeal to the broad audience as an industry and so keep out of the ghetto. Let’s embrace the new, and make it what we want it to be.