After watching Nintendo reveal their new Wii U controller with hardly a nod toward the actual console that plugs into the TV, it’s become clear that how we control our games is a good deal more important than what displays them. Think back to when the 360 and PS3 were announced. Remember the spec wars? How many gigaflops the PS3 could churn compared to the 360 was a big deal. Now companies like Apple don't bother disclosing how much RAM the iPad 2 has, because it doesn't matter. Whenever a new product is announced with more technical specs than user features, you know it's time to back away slowly.
Technology only matters so far as it can do the job and get out of the way.
We’re rapidly approaching parity once again in terms of graphics, sound and online interaction between all the big console makers. What’s left is how we interface with the same games. Exclusivity to a single platform has been replaced with exclusive control features and DLC, because it’s one of the few significant differentiators left if you don't own Mario or Zelda.
Nintendo understands this better than most. They completely rocked the industry with the Wii. And with the new Wii U controller, Nintendo will offer a new interface to the very same HD games you’ve been looking forward to on your 360, PS3 or PC.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has also gone their own way with the concept, and this is the first time we’ve caught a glimpse of what the payoff will be a year into the Kinect’s lifecycle. Microsoft trotted out a bunch of new ways to graft a Kinect experience onto hardcore games. Doing my best Cyrano de Bergerac impression while whispering lines of dialog to Shepard in Mass Effect 3 is a novel idea, but the game is clearly not built from the ground up for it. Better if the main character didn’t speak at all after I was done speaking my lines, and Mass Effect just wouldn’t be what it is without Shepard. If you want me to speak for the character I’m controlling, then get him/her out of the way. The day will come when speaking to your games will be tied to some new and cool. That won’t be today, though, because right now all we’re getting is vocal buttons.
Forza 4 comes closer to worthwhile immersion with tried and true features like head tracking, but considering how far away you need to be sitting for Kinect to work, I wonder if they can find that sweet spot between intentional movement and incidental movement. When I turn my head to shoo the cat away, I don’t really want my driver staring at the trees whizzing by.
Sony continues to push 3D and Move as their own interface tweaks, but neither interface is unique to the platform. The fidelity is there, but Move clearly isn’t enticing developers to throw their DualShock controllers out the window. Ken Levine did a great job expressing his doubt on stage and affirming that yes, Bioshock: Infinite will have Move support, but I’ll eat my hat if there weren’t sacks of money thrown at 2K Games to make that happen. I'll eat two hats if you think it's better with Move.
Nintendo had the most befuddling, odd presentation of the bunch. Half-hearted nods to popular franchises and some vague demos and promises were presented, but there are still plenty of questions to answer in the months ahead. As near as I can tell, they’re keeping all their Wii peripherals (and games, presumably) compatible with the new platform. The Wii U controller will be wirelessly tethered to the new console unit itself, meaning it’s not really going to be something you can take on the road with you. Instead, the controller with its built-in six inch touch screen will play all of the major, AAA releases with the added screen interface. Nintendo knew they needed something to graft onto these HD, non-exclusive games, and this one is definitely unique. Unlike Kinect and Move, a screen can be informational. The Dreamcast controller on steroids is the obvious comparison, but the old Gameboy Advance connection cable to the Gamecube is clearly the forefather of the concept. Did you ever call Tingle on your GBA when you played Zelda: The Wind Waker? I did. It was alright, but not optimal. Something wireless with a touch screen? That’s better. I can imagine the gameplay implications of having that second screen act a sort of ad-hoc, Nintendo DS kind of addition to living room gaming.
But for all their efforts, the big console makers are mostly trying to strap jetpacks and monocles onto the same old pigs. A big part of extending the life of this technological console generation is trying to add wrinkles to long established gameplay concepts. Nintendo has been doing it since the move to 3D with the Nintendo 64 and they’re still tossing out old Super Nintendo franchises with different interfaces and tweaks every year. Sony and Microsoft have wised up and offered the same because for the most part, it’s working. But how long can it last? When every platform has Modern Warfare 6, Uncharted 4 and Gears of War 5, will some new waggle and some 3D really keep the same old gameplay fresh enough?
This push into peripherals that break paradigms and shake up the competition is starting to look like the last stand of an industry that doesn’t quite know how to deal with what’s coming. Free to play, social and mobile games are coming into their primacy, and they’re doing fine with touch screens, mice and gamepads. Their gameplay designs are rapidly catching up with AAA, $60 games. How much are console makers willing to contort themselves to stay on top of the heap and still charge their premiums? Why am I suddenly envisioning Power Gloves and Super Scopes?
When the dust settles, what's really going to separate the wheat from the chaff is whoever can successfully marry their exclusive, custom interfaces with hardcore, AAA games. We're going to hit a wall eventually where fatigue for the current game design standards will outweigh any novelties console makers can throw into the mix. The first device that changes $60 games for the better and pushes new thinking in design will be the real champ of the coming years. Given what we've seen at E3 this year, I don't think anyone has the answer yet.