Wading through KinectMovePlus

After long salivating after the casual market that Nintendo has maintained a chokehold upon for the last four years, Sony and Microsoft finally unveiled their answer to Wii Motion at the 2010 E3… to the surprise of nobody.

Sony’s Playstation Move ad Microsoft’s Kinect (formerly Project Natal) had been teased and promo’d for the past year since their announcement at last year’s show. All the while, Nintendo furthered the gap by launching Wii Motion Plus to retail at the end of ’09.

Three different companies. Three distinctly different approaches to motion control.

Nintendo, always the innovator, struck gold in 2006 when the Wii was first launched with the motion sensitive remote/nunchuck with the IR sensor bar. Further underlining their focus on interactive peripherals, Nintendo released the Wii Balance Board in 2008. Scoffed at by the more traditional plans of Microsoft and Sony, the public ate up the Wii thanks to its simple control scheme and accessibility, reestablishing Nintendo at the forefront of the console wars. Nintendo had successfully captured the unpredictable casual gamer market.

It’s not to say that Microsoft and Sony got burned by opting to focus on HD gaming and online connectivity; in fact, their efforts hardened their audience with the absence of Nintendo in the “hardcore” or traditional gamers market. Save for the occasional noteworthy release, the Wii was largely seen as a platform overflowing with shovelware, a representation of the audience the Wii catered to.

So is it envy that drives Microsoft and Sony? Do they truly believe that accessibility and simplicity is the way to capture the casual? What are they doing right and where are they completely off the reservation?

Of the two, Sony’s approach is the strangest. On one hand, using motion tracking wands similar to the tools used for motion capture in software development, is a nice take on the interactivity that Nintendo’s IR sensor provides. Similarly, including traditional buttons is a great design choice to not alienate the traditional gamer, who often cite controller input as a reason to avoiding the Wii.

But here are the concerns. Sony already had SIXAXIS, a motion sensor in their wireless PS3 controller that, even back during the PS3’s launch, reeked of Nintendo knock off. To date, only a few games use SIXAXIS and only one game, Lair, truly revolves around the scheme.

Also, Sony executives publicly criticized Nintendo’s controller style, calling it childish. Unfortunately, karma can come back hard.

Lastly, and this might kill the Move out of the gates, the launch titles for move look mediocre at best and awful at worst. Move, being a hybrid between traditional controls and motion sensitivity, stands to benefit greatly from franchises and action games built around the scheme. Imagine a God of War catered to the Move, with contextual motion controls, movement varied combos and custom finishes. It would be a success much like the Wii version of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Instead, all the Triple-A titles PS3 gamers are excited for: God of War, KillZone 3, will not be ready at launch. Instead, the Move enabled EyePet, a Wii Sports clone and a clunky brawled are all Sony is bringing to the table.

The most innovative take of the three and potentially the riskiest approach belongs to Microsoft and their motion sensitive control formerly known as Natal. The Kinect uses no controller and relies on body motions and a special depth perceiving camera to control its software.

Natal blew the doors off of E3 2009, but had a much quieter 2010 as Microsoft focused on their upcoming game releases for the extension. While the E3 presentation teetered the line between pretentious, annoying and fake, there was no denying the potential the scheme has.

Of course there is the obligatory Wii Sports clone in Kinect Sports and the disappointing decision to make Joy Ride a full fledged Kinect title instead of the free Xbox Live Arcade title Miceosoft announced it as. But two games stood out as bona fide games that take advantage of the Kinect Ubisoft’s Your Shape: Fitness Evolved and Harmonix’s Dance Central.

Your sShape: Fitness Evolved looks at first glance like an attempt to copy Wii Fit, sans the Balance Board. But it looks like a piece of software that took a lot of time to develop and a great deal of thought in making exercise routines challenging, accurate and fun. That’s not to say Wii Fit is a bad piece of software, Yourself Fitness appears to have the depth that Wii Fit lacks.

Leave it to Harmonix, the original studio to revolutionize the music rhythm genre, to create a dancing game that is a true evolution to the DDR formula. Dance Central uses the Kinect system to recognize dance steps, poses and positions all choreographed expertly with Harmonix’s signature attention to authenticity. Just don’t call it the second coming of Para Para Paradise.

It may be true, as Sony vice president of everything Kevin Butler says, that sometimes games need buttons. Kinect is banking on the fact that their product is truly unique. Sony has opted to give gamers familiar controls paired with motion sensitivity. I believe that neither Sony or Microsoft will ever abandon the traditional control scheme in the way Nintendo has, which is something to appreciate.

At the end of this new console war, it is doubtful that either company will make a significant dent in Nintendo’s stranglehold on the market, bit at the very least, we can all take a look at three truly unique approaches to the same style of gameplay.

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