I’m waiting in a shortish line on a cold pavement stoop outside an obscure Circuit City on the outskirts of Scottsdale, Arizona. I can’t remember the last time I was this cold, or the last time I saw the sun come up. I feel like I’m 16 again.
I’m waiting for a Wii, obviously, and my ‘getting up a 4:00am instead of staying up all night’ gambit appears to have paid off: including the empty chairs holding friends’ places, I appear to be the 15th person in line for one of the 24 Wiis the Intersweb tells me will be here.
Uneventful. The sun comes up, we get our Wiis, and we shiver our way back to a friend’s house. Apart from hoping that the thing is fun and that it will indeed deliver on its promise of gaming revolution, I’m desperate to find out what the Wiimote means for the future of virtual sensation in games. What will it feel like to control some virtual avatar or agent with the Wiimote?
The potential is, as per Nintendo’s PR, to change what it means to play a game and who does so, to tap the mythical “mass market.” People who watch TV don’t call themselves ‘TVers’, right? Why should games be different?
Honestly, I’m sold on the concept. I’ve watched dozens of self-proclaimed “non gamers” try to master a mechanic, try to master a virtual sensation the way they’ve mastered riding a bike or driving a car. They cannot or will not do so and, for the most part, end up feeling bad about it. Before they do, however, almost every one will swing the controller wildly left or right, trying to get Mario to move a bit faster or jump a bit higher. This movement seems to be as intuitive to non gamers as turning a wheel to steer a car. It had previously occurred to me, while watching this near-universal flailing phenomenon, that if one could build a controller that did respond to flailing, it would change the face of gaming forever. Nintendo, apparently, feels the same way.
So now the multi-billion dollar question: is this little white device I now hold the future of virtual sensation, the very future of gaming?
As usual, observations come in half tones: yes, as they say, and no.
For reference, here are the Principles of Virtual Sensation I outlined in a previous article:
1. Predictable Results – Allowing a sense of mastery and control by correctly interpreting player input and providing consistent, predictable results.
2. Subtlety and Freshness– There are small, subtle differences in reaction each time a specific input is triggered, making each interaction feel fresh and interesting.
3. Traction – Enabling mastery, control, and learning by rewarding player experimentation.
4. Low Skill Floor, High Skill Ceiling – Making the mechanic intuitive but deep; it takes minutes to pick up and understand but a lifetime to master.
5. Context – Giving a mechanic meaning by providing the rules and spatial context in which it operates
6. Impact and Satisfying Resolution – Defining the weight and size of objects through their interaction with each other and the environment.
7. Appealing Reaction – Producing appealing reaction regardless of context or input.
Also, peppered throughout are impressions of and observations about playing Wii by my Girlfriend, Amy, who does not consider herself a gamer (and is therefore, arguably, more the Wii’s target audience than I.) I found them illuminating :).
System and Interface
The Wii interface and system controls make a great first impression. The ability to rotate the cursor is huge. It feels intuitive and right. The subtle vibrations and noise as your cursor touches a button and the nice, jiggly reaction show the tremendous potential of the system and its controllers. It is hot, slick, and very compelling just to navigate the menu. I was surprised to find, then, that few games among the launch titles we brought home take significant advantage of this potential.
Wii Sports: Tennis
There are obvious benefits to combining a device specifically intended as a natural mapping with a sports metaphor, and Nintendo is smartly milking that potential by including Wii Sports in every box. Swing the controller, swing the racquet – that’s about as natural as it gets, right? It’s a perfect physical analogy. Swing the racquet soft for a soft shot, hard for a hard shot. Left for left, right for right. Predictable results from each input, right? Well, sort of. Let’s take a look under the hood.
First, they’re doing some nice, sneaky things to mitigate the inherently squirrelly nature of the Wiimote. Chief among them, they are not using the pointer at all in Wii Sports: Tennis. This is smart –crucial, in fact – because the pointer severely inhibits predictability. On its own, the pointer is extremely effective. Essentially, you have a mouse cursor on a home console, which is fantastic because it represents hitherto unheard of levels of input sensitivity in a home console input device. The problem is this: it is extremely easy for the pointer to fall outside the Wii’s sensor bar, resulting in a temporary and unexpected disconnecting of input, one of the ultimate no-no’s in creating good virtual sensation.
Imagine driving on the freeway. You signal and prepare for a lane change, checking your blind spot. Suddenly, as you begin to steer left, the wheel goes unresponsive. Panic, frustration, and helplessness overwhelm you. These feelings are the result of a lack of predictable results from a given input. Of course, the stakes are higher on the freeway than in piloting your Monkeyball, but the sensation is analogous. This feeling is the enemy of control, of mastery over some virtual avatar or agent. Unfortunately, this input disconnect often occurs during heightened moments of gameplay, when your movement becomes boisterous or erratic. So, they’ve avoided this pitfall in Tennis by using only the gyro and accelerometers. Of course, this poses a new problem: how to achieve compelling depth – a high skill ceiling – after disabling the most sensitive input of your controller.
Low Skill Floor, High Skill Ceiling
Since the “footwork” of your tennis player is handled automatically, and the swinging motions are pre-created using LiveMove there’s little room left for expressivity. Add to this the fact that the ball springs to the character’s racquet if a swing is recognized anywhere close to the ball (watch closely, it’s a subtle effect) and you’ve got very little to build a game of compelling depth with. Still, you are able to guide your shots to various parts of the court, and to hit lobs or stingers (very hard, low, straight shots.) The lob is a separate recorded gesture it’s checking for, as is the serve, so there’s very little sensitivity there. Effectively, the lob is being mapped to a different button press, while the serve is just the same as a serve in every other tennis game: it’s simply two timed button presses, one to toss the ball, one to hit it. It does seem as though the game tries to interpret how hard you’re swinging and respond in some way but, as noted by Matt Casamassina, the gyro responds much better to a flick of the wrist than to a barreling swing. So now we’re down to it: how do you ‘aim’ your shot?
Where the shot is aimed is determined by the direction the Wiimote is moving at the moment the swing gesture is triggered:
Imagine that instead of the wristy swing gesture, you simply had to press the A or B button to trigger forehand and backhand swings respectively. In order to aim with this setup, you’d simply press the button as the Wiimote was moving in the direction you wanted the ball to go. It’s that simple. Assuming you’ve got the correct swing, the only thing that changes the placement of your shot is the relative movement of your Wiimote in the time between when the gesture was accepted and when the shot completes. They’re looking at the direction and speed of the movement of the Wiimote (via the accelerometers) and checking for a triggered swing gesture (via the gyros.) The tricky part, and the part that’s actually kind of cool, is that it’s physically hard to swing forehand, from right to left, while moving the Wiimote left to right (to send a forehand shot to the back right corner.) That said, it took me a relatively long time to figure out exactly what the heck they were doing and to wrangle it into offering any kind of predictable reaction to my input. It’s easy enough to swing the racquet at the right time and in the right direction and to get the ball over the net on the serve, but to get the ball to go somewhere other than straight is a real chore. I’m still trying to figure out how to trigger the power serve consistently.
What they are assuming is that most people will be happy with swinging a controller in the right direction at the right time to get the correct swing and hit the ball. Indeed, when we played Wii with the various girlfriends, they seemed to have enough trouble with that, precluding more advanced strategies and play. Not quite the natural mapping that was promised, unfortunately. And, despite the free-floating analog nature of the controller, there’s just not enough input sensitivity to give rise to satisfying long term depth one might find in, say, Virtua Tennis.
Impact & Satisfying Resolution;
At first glance, Wii Sports: Tennis appears aesthetically sparse. There are no particle effects or scaling (squashing and stretching) on characters, ball, or racquets – not even dust particles at the characters’ feet, a Nintendo mainstay. One might conclude, then, that the game is lacking impact and satisfying resolution between its objects and has little appealing reaction to its input. Fortunately, this is not the case. What is lacking in visual aesthetic indicators is overshadowed by the surprisingly powerful sound effects. While the sound effects in Twilight Princess sound tinny and rather cheap on the rather cheap and tinny Wiimote speaker, the various thudding sounds and racquet reverberations in Wii Sports: Tennis are spot on. The fact that they come from the individual speaker on each person’s Wiimote is a detail that simply can’t be overlooked. It’s quite powerful and goes a long way to establishing a strong feel and sense that you’re really whacking a virtual tennis ball around.
Verdict: some nice things going on; wonderful use of sound and subtle controller vibrations to enhance virtual sensation, some surprising depth to be found in serving and aiming the ball. Low skill floor, which is nice, but the skill ceiling is also low, leaving very little long term appeal. This is compounded by some difficulties in the input mapping, a significant disconnect between system image (what the user expects – that they can just swing the Wiimote the same way they would a tennis racquet and get the same result, including speed of swing and perfect position interpretation) and the reality of the underlying system (swing gestures triggered by gyros, aiming dependant on direction and speed of acceleration at the time of the swing.) In other words, the mapping presents itself as a purely positional metaphor, but is not. Wii Sports: Tennis is a good game to play with four inexperienced players who aren’t particularly serious about the outcome and who are happy with swinging the Wiimote to bat the ball around.
“Playing Wii Tennis was not at all what I expected. I was told ‘it’s just like real tennis, that’s how you play it’ but found it to be a poor representation of real tennis. It wasn’t like playing a video game, it was like playing a hamstrung not-as-fun version of real tennis. By contrast, we played a tennis game on Xbox a few weeks ago [Editor’s Note: the game was Top Spin 2] that was a lot more fun. That was like playing a video game, just pressing buttons to do what you wanted. The Wii tennis just made me want to play real tennis.”
Wii Sports: Bowling
Wii Sports: Bowling is actually my current favorite Wii game. In my observation, it has most effectively accomplished the stated goal of the Wii, drawing in and entertaining people who would otherwise not touch a video game. Bowling succeeds where tennis does not because it has a natural mapping, an easy to understand, everyday metaphor, and enough input sensitivity to make it compelling each time it’s played. In short, it’s a hell of a lot like actual bowling.
Again, Bowling ignores the pointer, using primarily the gyros and accelerometer. Also similar to tennis, they’re doing some rather clever things to achieve a certain system image, one in which the player feels like they’re actually throwing the ball. Interestingly, this is not strictly representative of the system’s underlying realities. This time, though, it works. The illusion is complete, and makes Wii Sports: Bowling a very compelling argument for the future of the Wii and its unique input device.
So what are they actually doing? First, the game instructs you to hold the Wiimote up in front of your chest, as you would a bowling ball. This is entirely superfluous and was done completely for effect. You can throw the ball just as effectively if you hold your hand down and press the B button to start your roll. As long as you give it some motion as you’re releasing the ball, it’ll launch that sucker down the lane quite happily. Next, your bowler moves along a predetermined path, swinging their arm with a canned animation. There is some recognition in the upstroke as the Mii swings the ball – it will try to match what’s happening with the gyro a little bit – but if you don’t move the gyro at all, it will still swing back to forwards. You can actually just hold the B button indefinitely and the bowler will stand at the end of the lane forever, waiting for the ball’s release. Ipso facto, the ‘swinging motion’ it recommends is totally unnecessary from the system’s point of view. The control has been disconnected at this point and swinging the Wiimote doesn’t do anything. In terms of the system image, however, the payoff is huge: the motion seems familiar and is easy to connect with.
Once the ball is released, the functionality is much like Wii Sports: Tennis: the only thing that has bearing on the trajectory of your ball is the motion of the Wiimote at the moment of release. The difference is that in Wii Sports: Bowling, the game adds spin the ball commensurate to the amount of rotation in the gyro at the time of release. This is not to say that actually rotating the gyro, being in the act of rotation as the ball is released, is important. You can simply hold the remote twisted at an angle as you swing back to forward, and you’ll get the same curve you would by rotating at the time of release. In fact, this is more effective at getting the curve you want; actually rotating the Wiimote is less accurate than simply holding it twisted. What’s cool here, what really makes the game worth playing multiple times, is the input sensitivity represented by being able to put spin on the ball. You could throw the ball a hundred times and not get the same angle. It’s the messy nature of reality used to great effect. Olympic shot-putters spend their entire lives trying to produce a perfect execution of the same simple motion, and can only do so a fraction of the time. This is the crux, what makes it feel enjoyably close to real bowling. You’re trying to master your own body in a very real, very precise way.
The other place we get nice input sensitivity is the ability to position and rotate your bowler before beginning your throw. The movement and turning is very fluid, allowing an infinite variety of positions to start from and directions to face. Enjoyably, you can even throw the ball off into another lane if you align your bowler properly. Combining these two highly input sensitive parameters, position and rotation, with the highly reaction sensitive ball rotation and shot power (based on the speed of the accelerometer at the time of release) creates a game of surprising depth. Huzzah!
I do have a few gripes, however, mostly in the area of aesthetics, which tend to be closely tied to impact and satisfying resolution in virtual sensation. The lack of reaction when the ball misses the pins, when it simply hits the back of the lane, is totally lame and jarring. It crosses a single black polygon, seeming to warp out of existence. This is not an issue when the ball actually hits pins, obviously, but it’s quite jarring when a shot goes awry, and it undercuts the game’s otherwise solid sense of mass.
“I liked it. A lot better than the tennis. There was a weird problem with the bowling ball not releasing as you released the button. My brother was having trouble with it and we were all giving him advice but then I started having the problem as well even though I was following my own advice and it occasionally happened to the others too. I liked that the system let me bowl granny-style (between the legs with two hands) and behind the back, like in real bowling. Also, the bowling sounds were realistic and satisfying.”
[Editor’s Note – I believe the problem we (Wii?) were having in this regard was related to a lack of motion as the ball was released. People would either swing their arm then release the ball, or the converse (releasing the button before their arm was in motion.) Again, the game tracks speed and rotation for a few milliseconds at the moment the button is released and at no other time.]
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Earlier I mentioned a problem with the pointer falling outside the screen or sensor bar area, effectively (and, most importantly, seemingly randomly) disconnecting the player’s input until the pointer is brought back into the sensor area. This input disconnect also happens when a game, such as Twilight Princess, switches between a state in which the Wiimote is using the accelerometers and gyroscope exclusively to one in which the pointer is featured. For example, often times you find yourself running around, swinging the sword when, suddenly, you need to pull out the bow for a precise shot (required in multiple boss fights.) Almost without fail, when I switch from running around to pointing with the bow or slingshot, I get a ‘point the remote at the screen’ message in big red letters and a darkened interface. My hands naturally drift to a neutral, relaxed position when I’m running around, so each time I need to point at something, even if I feel I’m pointing properly, it takes a while for the Wiimote to recover positional sensing. This is jarring, frustrating; an extreme flow breaker. Each time I try to point at something, I feel like I’ve done something wrong. Barf.
One thing I greatly enjoyed about Wind Waker was the depth of the sword fighting and the amount of emphasis on mastering it in the game. There is, on the first island, a master swordsman who trains you. There are various thresholds of training, measured by how many times in a row you can hit the master in one on one sword combat without being hit yourself. As you defeat each level of challenge, you are rewarded with new sword techniques that can be used throughout the game. At the highest level, you have to hit something ridiculous like 500 times in a row without being hit yourself. I actually managed to do this, and did it very early in the game. The commensurate reward was a much deeper level of satisfaction and enjoyment throughout the rest of the game because the skills that I as a player had spent time practicing prepared me for success and allowed me to feel powerful and in control for the rest of the game. This sensation is, by virtue of the Wiimote gesture triggered controls, entirely missing from Twilight Princess. Since here’s just no precision in flailing the Wiimote around wildly, there’s nothing gained by it. It is obfuscation of player intent because it uses a highly sensitive input (high input sensitivity) to trigger a very small variety of actions, all of which are prerecorded animations (low reaction sensitivity.) In this way, they’ve effectively removed the extremely enjoyable feelings of mastery that were possible in the sword fighting mechanics in Wind Waker, which are otherwise very similar in Twilight Princess. So this is an example of Wii gone wrong: they obviously felt the need to shoehorn more Wii stuff into a game that was conceived and constructed before the Wii existed.
More on Zelda as I complete more of it (it is a ponderous game.) And, if there’s interest, I’ll work my way through the rest of the Wii launch titles I have access to including Super Monkey Ball, Excite Truck, Rayman, and the other Wii Sports titles. I also plan to continue this series with “Virtual Sensation and Next Gen”, which will delve into my experience playing Gears of War, Lost Planet, and Dead Rising, and why I snort with derision when I hear the term “Next Gen” used in seriousness. Also, I desperately need to further refine my classification of the Principles of Virtual Sensation, making them an easy to use reference tool. There’s just too much there that’s too poorly organized to be of use to anyone. Like, I’ll get right on that and stuff :). Stay tuned!