Sony’s first big reveal: Wii-ish controller

Sony had the first pre-E3 presentation, and it unveiled a couple of surprises. First, the much-maligned batarang controller is no more. The PlayStation 3 will come with a controller that looks the same as PS2’s, but is lighter and wireless — and has motion-sensing technology. That was supposed to be Nintendo’s big innovation for Wii. Did Sony steal Nintendo’s thunder?

I don’t think so. It’ll be cool to play games that let you move the character by moving the controller — how many times have you played with an overeager gamer who yanks the controller everywhere as though that’ll do anything — but it’s not the same as what Nintendo is doing. Other than some obvious uses — turn the controller to steer a car or plane or to look sideways, for instance — it doesn’t seem like the motion sensing could be a major part of most PS3 games. You’re still left with a bulky, traditional controller.

Nintendo, by contrast, is building the entire system around its remote-like controller. Games will be geared toward the controller, and it’ll be much more easy and intuitive to pretend-play tennis or sword fight with the wand controller than with a PS3 controller. I can’t see you even being able to do those things with the PS3 controller the way it’s designed. But even if you could, that wouldn’t change the fact that it’s a cumbersome, daunting device. As Lev Grossman writes in his excellent Time story on Wii,

The standard video-game controller is a kind of Siamese-twin affair, two joysticks fused together and studded with buttons, two triggers and a four-way toggle switch called a d-pad. In a game like Halo, players have to manipulate both joysticks simultaneously while working both triggers and pounding half a dozen buttons at the same time. The learning curve is steep. That presents a problem of what engineers call interface design: How do you make it easier for players to tell the machine what they want it to do?

Nintendo isn’t just introducing a motion-sensing controller. It’s introducing a motion-sensor controller that’s simple to use and can be used to entice non-gamers. It potentially changes how games are designed and how they’re played. Here’s Grossman again:

It’s a remarkable experience. Instead of passively playing the games, with the new controller you physically perform them. You act them out. It’s almost like theater: the fourth wall between game and player dissolves. The sense of immersion –the illusion that you, personally, are projected into the game world — is powerful. And there’s an instant party atmosphere in the room. One advantage of the new controller is that it not only is fun, it looks fun. When you play with an old-style controller, you look like a loser, a blank-eyed joystick fondler. But when you’re jumping around and shaking your hulamaker, everybody’s having a good time.

So Sony’s got a good feature on its hands, but it’s nothing like what Nintendo has planned.

— May 9, 2006

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