usable in any place a human can be used


motion controls and ai

I was talking with a friend today about dj hero (which comes out later today) and he asked a simple question, "Have you heard anything about the next wave of game systems?" I read all kinds of electronics blogs like Gizmodo, Engadget, and even Hacker News and haven't seen anything about a PS4 or a Xbox720.

The PS3 was released on November 17, 2006, the Xbox 360 on May 12, 2005. So we are looking at about 3 or 4 years since the last generation, considering that the PS2 and original Xbox launched in 2000 and 2001, respectively, means that we may not see anything for a little while longer. But the weird thing is that there is no chatter, no rumors about the next-gen consoles, and I got to wondering why.

You may have noticed above that I left someone out, Nintendo's Wii. Hold on, don't get your Mario shaped pitch-forks out yet, I would argue that the Wii is what is causing the current drought in next-gen systems. The old logic of producing a next-gen system was as follows

  1. Release system

  2. Make giant profits

  3. Wait for Moore's law to create more powerful hardware

  4. Put more powerful hardware in box

  5. Increment number after system name

  6. Brag about polygon count

  7. Goto step 1

The problem is 2 fold though. The first problem is that we are approaching the uncanny valley, possible even stuck in it. Have you seen the games little kids get to play these days, they are gorgeous, expansive, photo-realistic dream worlds. Let's compare and contrast

Super Mario (NES)

Gears of War (Xbox 360)

Need for Speed: Carbon (PS3)

Pumping out more polygons isn't really an issue anymore, we have reached the land of diminishing returns. So the idea of just putting out a more powerful machine isn't really going to get most people off of the couches and out in the stores.

The second issue is that Nintendo totally messed everything up, they put out a system that was just about the same power, had some weird remote control thing, and they DOMINATED the market. This decimated the conventional wisdom, you can't put something out that isn't more powerful and have people buy it, what's happening!?!? This can't be happening, deep breaths everyone, Bill Gates just threw up. The news talked about it nonstop, people were selling Wiis for a ton on ebay, the holiday season saw more than its fair share of customers fighting, waiting, and pleading for the hottest new video game system, the Wii. And its actually pretty fun, I've played Wii Sports Resort with my brother for hours on end, kicking his ass at frisbee golf.

Immediately though, people had to know, what is the secret sauce of their success, it must be that goofy remote. Sony quickly tried to slap some motion sensing into their sixaxis controller, with terrible results. Well now both big players have gone back to the drawing board to make some motion sensing controls.

Microsoft's Project Natal

Sony's motion sensing wand thing

Everyone has decided that motion controls are going to be a big part of the future of gaming. The problem is that motion controls have inherent flaws that all the sensitivity and one to one motion sensing in the world can't fix. Motion controls fail in 2 important ways, the first is that motion controls only make sense for certain activities, bowling, frisbee, sword play, gun fights, all can be done nicely with motion controls. But have you ever played a Wii game where the motion controls are tacked on (95%) or confusing (90%) or annoying (90%) or the wiimote is turned into a glorified mouse pointer. If not then you have never played anything but the AAA titles, and that's fine, that's why we have AAA titles, because they are good. They represent a tiny fraction of all games on the Wii though, the vast majority of what's out there was pumped out to cash in on a phenomenon, with motion controls thrown in for good measure, and normally to the detriment of the game.

The prime example in my mind is the Ghostbuster Wii port, a serviceable enough game, but the annoying swinging and shaking and quick-time event motion controls for every single ghost get annoying and unnecessary.

The second problem is that motion controls is a concept that is at odds against itself. On one hand your body is supposed to become an extension of the controller, you should be able to blur the line (in your mind's eye) between your actions in real life and the actions on the screen. The problem is that there is no force feedback, when your sword blow is parried by a wily electronic foe, your arms keeps going but the character's arm on the screen stops. There is no resistance as you shop through a tree, there is no physical feedback for the motion you are making. The fantasy world where you are the brave knight bravely trying to rescue the beautiful princess comes crashing down around you when you and your characters movements become out of sync, and suddenly you are back in your living room in your sweatpants swinging a remote like a jackass.

The Wii was successful because they marketed their machine to the casual gamer, this great untapped resource, and they had a great novelty to get their foot in the door. And it worked, and I will admit that the well made games on the Wii are a hell of a lot of fun, and I do enjoy the little system that could. The point of this post is not to rag on the Wii but to say that it succeeded in spite of the wiimote not because of it, and the new adventure down motion control road will end up being a blind alley.

So where does this leave us, what is the future of gaming? I don't know for certain, but I will finish up with what I would like to see. Improvements in Artificial Intelligence. Artificial Intelligence's capabilities were over promised and underwhelming, this has led to AI Winter. Most people today think that there is something fundamental about AI that it could never work, that the best we can make is not very good at all. And that really is the state of most AI today, especially game AI. When was the last time the game gave you AI teammates and you thought to yourself, "Yea, AI Teammates!" instead of "I wonder if I will lose points for murdering them." Not very often I bet, because AI is horrible, its even worse when its trying to help you. If Sony and Microsoft spent some serious money on developing an AI framework for their developers to use, they could make the games much more fun.

How do I know it would be more fun, look at the rise of MMORPGs. Massively Multiplayer games are fun because your opponents and teammates are smart enough to make the gameplay more enjoyable. MMOs also suffer from various policing issues and behavior, anyone who has been called a n00b by a thirteen year old after he's headshot and teabagged you knows that the fun often comes at the price of dealing with the worst of human behavior. Its not always so bad, and after a while you learn the rules of the world and online gameplay can be great fun, that's why its a major part of almost any AAA title released these days.

Its this drive to have intelligent opponents that don't feel like they are cheating, teammates who can understand strategy and don't need to be micromanaged, and gameplay that is both rich and engaging that has brought MMOs, Xbox Live, and PSN to the forefront. The software AI has failed so we went back to using people, which is great, video game nerds need as much socializing as possible. But if a little injection of intelligence can be fun, much more intelligence can (and I stress can, not will, it could end up horrible) be much more fun. I think this is where the future of gaming lies, not in various wands and cameras.

This post got long and out of control, also it was fairly off topic, I hope to be back on programming tomorrow

1 comment:

  1. Found this on the ol' Gizmodo today. Didn't know there was such a thing as a "Muscle-Computer Interface" group: