Wii (insert pun of your choice here)

I've finally been able to play the Nintendo Wii, and sure, I want one. I had decided not to buy yet another version of Mario Kart and that the new controller would not yield itself to most games, that it would only work for some very specific ones. After I've tried it, I still think that couldn't be my main gaming machine, but I want one anyway.

The controller works very well. I didn't have the impression that it was any more precise than, say, a Gyration mouse (it was quite clumsy to use on the menu screens), but it reacts accurately to fast movements, which is what matters in games. By the way, Nintendo has already succumbed to the pitfall of thinking the movement detection was a universally good idea. It isn't. The simple design of the menu system would be about a hundred times easier to use with the D-pad than it is with the pseudo-mouse that is the Wii-mote. I was a little shocked that the D-pad isn't even an option. The controller is shaped like a remote, and it should act like one in this context: this is simply what works best on a 10-feet interface. Another incomprehensible mistake is that when the controller points outside of the screen, the pointer goes away with it. Like a mouse cursor, it should always be on-screen. As it doesn't, I found myself confused a number of times, trying to bring it back to the screen. This failure to look at what already works and reproduce it is quite maddening seeing how the rest of the design is pretty well done. Another thing I found interesting is that Nintendo is very explicitly trying to get you to play less. They tell you so when you switch to another game: how about doing something else than play? Wow. I was really surprised at first but it actually aligns well with the whole idea of appealing to different demographics. They're trying to get more people to play, a lot more, and if they play less, that's fine by them because there will be so many of them. Kinda makes sense as a strategy, annoyed me a little as a gamer. But enough bitching. The point is, the system works as a gaming system and that's what matters.

The game that comes with the console, Wii Sports, does a good job at showcasing the potential of the new controller. It is also an excellent party game if you have a very big living room and are extremely careful about your surroundings. I can see how people got hurt: when immersed in the game, it's easy to get carried away and do wide and dangerous gestures. In sports games, the controller acts as a natural extension of the hand. While it is possible to play some of the games with small movements, I think it would be missing the point and is a lot less fun. You'll want to do the actual moves you would do in the real sport, which is dangerous if anything is in your way. The sports I preferred were Golf and Tennis. I wasn't so thrilled about Bowling or Boxing. I really enjoyed the golfing game because it showed me the real potential a better simulation had to help me improve my real-life swing. The Wii Sports version is a joke with its nine holes (not even 18? come on!) and three clubs. It shows only potential but it does that well. Wii Sports as a whole has this problem: it lacks any depth. It is a party game and a Wii-mote demo and that's about it. I can't wait to try a properly done Golf game on this platform (even Mario Golf would do).

Oh, and the graphics can make your eyes bleed. Especially on a HD set. They're really that bad. Even more so if you've been spoiled with a 360 for a year.

All in all, the whole thing is very reminiscent of the Nintendo DS. Great potential because of its control scheme and despite being technologically backwards, fundamentally different from the others, needs games that have been designed for it.

I want one. I know I will still play the 360 a lot more but I want one anyway. Well done, Nintendo.

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Deep thoughts on scientific research

Heard on France Inter the other day about scientific research funding (didn't catch the names of the authors of these quotes though):

"Ignorance will always be more expensive than research."

"Electricity wasn't discovered by trying to improve the candle."

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Will the Wii make you play less (and buy less games)?

Disclaimer: I work for Microsoft and have to admit I'm a big Xbox 360 fanboy so I will not be fully objective on this topic.

Ever since Nintendo has annouced their new controller, I've had very big doubts about betting the console on such a concept. The controller in itself seems to be beautifully executed and more precise than any other previous attempt at a motion-sensing controller, but I fully agree with Peter Molyneux that for most players, the most confortable position to play is lying on the couch with the controller resting on the beer belly. Only the thumbs move, and they do so very little, which enables us to play for extended periods of time (not that we *should* play that long, but we do, and that eventually makes us buy more games). And I call that motion sensing too: the pad is very efficiently detecting very small movements of my thumbs...

If I have to be in an upright position and wave my arms around to play, I can assure you that I won't play for more than 20 minutes to half an hour. The Wii controller will certainly work beautifully for a tennis game, or a golf game, or a sword fight game, and you can trust Nintendo to be just as creative with that as they've been with the DS touch screen (why we weren't smart enough to do this kind of games on Pocket PCs years ago and why we're still not doing them is beyond me). Still, I prefer to do my sports outside. Video games, for me, will stay in the couch, mostly not moving for hours. That will make me buy more games, a Wii wouldn't.

So when I saw the PS3 controller, after the initial shock - or lack thereof - (motion sensing? no, they didn't? hey, what's the big round button in the middle of the controller?), I thought that they had actually been pretty smart about the whole thing: their controller will be perfectly fine for any game, even though it won't come back when thrown and it will be somewhat less ergonomic for tennis games than the Wii controller. Then again, the tilting pad was tried before, including by Microsoft. I still have a FreeStyle somewhere in my closet and it was excellent at Motocross Madness and racing games in general (because we already tend to move with the pad in this kind of game) but terrible at almost anything else. So is this just Sony going "me too"? You decide.

But wait a minute... Didn't Sony already have a few PS2 games (mainly sports) that were controlled by the player's body movements? Well, yeah, and by a strange coincidence, the kind of games that work with the Eye Toy is exactly what the first batch of Wii games will be. Come to think about it, this is probably the most sensible approach (and it seems to be the XBox team's approach too).

Another powerful idea is that what seems like such an obvious control scheme may not be as efficient as your intuition will tell you. Here's an interesting comparison... When you think about FPSs and how the keyboard+mouse combination is the absolute best control scheme for them (even though the devices themselves were created for something entirely different), it's just mind boggling because it's so non-obvious. You'd think that detecting eye movement for example would work better for aiming in such games. Well, it doesn't. As a recent study showed, it is less efficient by 25% and just less enjoyable in general. Maybe that's because eye movement is widely unconscious whereas the eye-hand coordination is something that works really well in human beings.

I really like the idea that one controller can't be perfect for all games but that the default controller should be versatile enough to be ok for all games. I've owned a force feedback wheel for the PC for years and it just makes racing games much more immersive; I own a big joystick for flight simulation; an arcade stick will be better for Street Fighter and Pac-Man; mouse and keyboard work best for FPSs. In the same way, the camera will provide motion sensing for those games where it makes sense. But all of these games can be played with a regular controller without a problem, it's just that a special optional controller can make the experience better. The Wii controller just seems perfect for a very small number of games and terrible for everything else. In my opinion, it should be an option because it's just not versatile enough.

UPDATE: the reports from the first people to play with the console for extended periods of time are starting to come in, and it seems like the Wii, like a Gyration mouse, does not necessarily require big movements and can be enjoyed for long periods of time. Well done then. What still needs to be determined is how well the controller will work with "ordinary" games.

UPDATE 2: an interesting account of the first reactions of a person who didn't know about the Wii before.

UPDATE 3: Penny Arcade on the Wiimote.

UPDATE 4: I just read Ars Technica's review of the Wii and they have very good things to say about the system. In particular, "I found the nunchuk + Wiimote combination to be incredibly comfortable in long playing sessions. I was able to rest my hands on either side of my legs while playing Zelda, and that wouldn't be possible with a classic controller design" struck a chord with me. Again, I'm ready to be proven wrong and will gladly admit I was wrong. After all, the DS stylus gaming has been dimissed by some as a gimmick when it was introduced, but it has been working absolutely flawlessly. I'm a big fan of the DS (I have both the phat and the light models), it works perfectly for me, my wife and my three year old daughter who is addicted to Nintendogs. It just leaves me wondering why we didn't get games like those on PocketPCs years ago and why they're still nowhere to be found. If the games deliver on the Wii like they did on the DS, I'm sold, I'll get one and I suppose I'll buy Mario and Zelda. Again. And again. I'll try the Wii at fwends' house and make a first hand opinion soon.

UPDATE 5: Joystiq made a *very* interesting (although unscientific) poll of their readership that kinda confirms the title of this post:
http://feeds.joystiq.com/~r/weblogsinc/joystiq/~3/100490271/

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Gaming 2.0

Think what you want about Web 2.0, it is an unescapable change in the way the web will grow in the future. It is the convergence of several emerging ideas and technologies that individually wouldn't mean as much but that taken together make a real difference. These ideas are (paraphrasing Wikipedia and isolating the technical points from the business ones):

  • "The transition of websites from isolated information silos to sources of content and functionality". This is the "programmable web", which enables a real web or network of applications to share information. It implies the use of open standards such as RSS and XHTML which make the blogosphere bigger than the sum of the blogs.
  • "Open communication, decentralization of authority, freedom to share and re-use". This is the community aspect. It consists mainly of user-provided contents (that can range from user comments to fully user-created sites such as Flickr, Myspace or Wikipedia) that the users own.
  • "A more organized and categorized content"
  • "The resurgence of excitement around the possibilities of innovative web applications"

 

So what does this all have to do with games? Well, when I started developing software more than 25 years ago, I started developing and playing games (which I still do as much as I can). That's where I'm coming from, it's my culture in a way, so I tend to make a lot of analogies in everything I do with the gaming world. About ten years ago, I launched Bad Mood, an open-source project to reverse-engineer and emulate Doom and build a level editor on the Atari Falcon (don't laugh, it actually worked, and that was way before iD released the source code). The goal of that evolved from simply running Doom's WAD files to extending the format. This part of the project never went any farther than a set of specifications but it's the part I got the most excited about, and I think the ideas in there still stand true today (although I'm not claiming to have invented the concepts). Better, I think they make a lot more sense today because of many converging factors, like Web 2.0 is the convergence of several factors.

Doom was one of the first games to develop a real ecosystem of user-created contents. Ever since, many games have tried to reproduce its success, and games like Half-Life have brought it to the point where users have been creating completely different games from the engine. This is very analogous to the Web 2.0 user content principle. With Bad Mood, we wanted to create an open format of game files that standardizes the description of a game's world. You would have been able to run a RPG, adventure, platformer or FPS game on any engine that understood the format. There is another analogy with the Web: like web sites that have to run on multiple browsers and platforms, games have to run on multiple and widely different platforms like the PC, Xbox, Xbox 360, PS2, Gamecube, Mac, PSP, GBA, DS and even cel phones so a standardized description that abstracts as much as possible makes perfect sense.

Another major idea in Bad Mood was the concept of portals. The principle of portals was that any game or map could contain a set of portals that would initially be closed. Anyone could then claim a portal (which could be free or have a price), open it and connect his own world to it. This looks a little like hypertext where a link can lead to another document with the important difference that the target of the link doesn't pre-exist: the link precedes the target. This is also analogous to wiki contents that can get created after the placeholder was created.

In other words, we would be creating a hypergame. The Multiverse concept is of course very close to that idea.

A side effect is that a game aquires a location as it connects to other existing places. This reminds me of a physical idea that I've always loved, which is that geometry can emerge from a network of relations between objects but that's a different story...

The system could be as open as the Web if it relies on URLs where the contents can be downloaded.

A third piece is necessary for this puzzle to exist, and that is the notion of gamer identity. If you're going to travel in a multiverse, there must be a part of your avatar that persists between games. This is probably the hardest part to define because it can heavily influence the gameplay. For example, you don't want Halo's plasma grenades to travel with you to Kameo's world (well, it would be fun in a way). Xbox Live has the beginning of that concept in that you have a unique gamer tag and score as well as a few universal settings. But how difficult would it be to enable the incredibly detailed character appearance editors of Oblivion or Second Life to be used across games so that your visual identity travels with you?

Finally, the emergence of gaming networks like Xbox Live and MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft) are the glue that binds it all together. Having a gaming network that works across games is obviously enabling those scenarios, and MMOGs bring a large number of gamers in the same space. Marry the two and you have huge potential.

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UPDATE: Christopher mentions that Spore, which was demonstrated at the GDC, is a good example of Gaming 2.0. It has almost exclusively user-created contents and it has this interconnection of worlds. It is really an ecosystem in every way. On the other hand, it is still an "intragame" in that it communicates only with itself. These ideas will truly reach their full potential when games start integrating with each other and form what could be called the intergame.
UPDATE 2: Wired had a related piece in its April issue:
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.04/collide.html
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So welcome to Gaming 2.0, a world where all games are connected, users create contents and have a well-defined and persistent identity. It is inevitable :)

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