Wednesday, November 22, 2006


It probably shouldn't surprise me when people call the motion sensing capabilities of the Wii controller a gimmick, but it still kinda does. I find it hard to believe that people didn't see this coming. Were they expecting us to keep using the Dual Shock forever, no matter how complex the games got? This isn't some wild, crazy long shot out of left field here, this is the inevitable, natural progression of how we interface with our games. Granted, it came a lot earlier than I was expecting, and the form it took was also surprising, but I never had any doubt 3D spatial control was coming eventually. All you had to do was look at the history of how we control movement in our games.

For the purposes of this essay, each dimension of control relates to an axis along which the controller has the ability to move (even if games don't neccesarily support movement in those dimensions). I'm ignoring buttons besides those which are designed to control spatial movement, even though many games may use buttons for spatial movement (the ever-present jump button), and spatial controls as buttons (which has been behind a lot of the criticism of the Wii.)

Generation 1
2 Dimensional games with 1 Dimensional control

Seen in: Pong, Space Invaders

Some early games gave you only one dimension of controlling your game. You could only move along one axis (up-down in Pong, left-right in Space Invaders), and that's it. The list of games with 1 dimensional control is pretty short since there's only so much you can do with such a limited control scheme.

Generation 2
2-Dimensional games with 2-Dimensional control

Seen in: NES, SNES, Genesis, etc.

Basically any 2D game where you could move along the X and the Y axis used this control scheme, which is about 99.9% of them. This has been the standard for 2-Dimensional games since the invention of the joystick.

Light guns and mouse control are other forms of 2-Dimensional control in games.

(I should point out here that these Generations aren't necessarily chronological, since Spacewar!, which predates Pong, used this scheme.)

Generation 3
3-Dimensional games with 2-Dimensional control

Seen in: Pre-Dual Shock PS1 controller

In the early days of 3D console gaming, before the introduction of the N64, 3D games were controlled by a strictly 2-Dimensional control scheme. The original PS1 control was basically a slightly more ergonomic SNES controller. It was really a poor way to control 3D games, leading most of them to basically become 3D objects interacting in a 2D space.

Generation 4
3-Dimensional games with multiple 2-Dimensional controls

Seen in: Every post-N64 controller, Mouse & keyboard

Although popular opinion doesn't agree with me, I think the biggest innovation in the N64 controller wasn't the analog stick and it wasn't the rumble pak. It was the multiple spatial controls. To make up for the lack of true 3-Dimensional control, Nintendo took a page from the mouse and keyboard set-up of the PC and put multiple 2-Dimensional controls on the N64 controller. It had an analog stick, a d-pad and the C-arrow buttons, which in many cases acted as another D-pad. Playstation improved upon this by giving their new Dual Shock controller two analog sticks, and situating them in a way that was much easier to use simultaneously than the N64's. Although this technically gave the controller six dimensions of control, due to our limited number of thumbs it was pretty much impossible to use more than 4 at a time (even that was a difficult task for non-gamers).

One nice thing about this control scheme is that it's very backwards compatible with 2D games. You can just use one of the 2-Dimensional controls and ignore the other.

Generation 5
2/3-Dimensional games with 3-Dimensional control

Really, the only games I can think of that fall under this category are games like Wario Ware: Twisted and that Kirby game, that are controlled by a tilt sensor. That's assuming the sensor can detect all three axes of tilt. Much like games with 1-Dimensional control, we mostly skipped this generation.

Generation 6
3-Dimensional games with 6-Dimensional (+ 2-Dimensional) Controls

Seen in: Wii, SIXAXIS

Okay, here's where we are today. This week, both the PS3 and the Wii were launched, ushering in the next generation of game control. Right on time, too. Generally, each of these methods of controlling games lasted two console generations. For a while it looked like the control scheme of the last two console generations was going to last a little longer, until Nintendo announced the Wii remote.

The Wii remote takes all six dimensions of the post-N64 controllers, makes all of them analog and lets you control every one simultaneously, in the most intuitive way possible, with a single hand. That's no small accomplishment. This leaves your other hand free to hold the nunchuk controller, which adds another 2-dimensional thumbstick, and the same six dimensions of motion control. The remote also has a D-pad and a pointing sensor, two additional 2-Dimensional controls. To be fair, the pointing is essentially an extension of the motion sensing. They're used in tandem and aren't discretely controlled, so we won't count that one. But it is important to note that the 6-dimensional control can seamlessly become a 2-dimensional control, something the SIXAXIS lacks.

If we're counting, that's 16 dimensions of spatial control, all controllable simultaneously. Of course, using all at once will be difficult for even an experienced gamer (and rarely useful), but unlike previous controllers using one control will not prevent you from using any other.

On the other hand, the PS3's SIXAXIS has the original six dimensions of control from the Dual Shock controller (2 analog stick and a d-pad), along with another six dimensions of motion control. I was originally under the impression it only detected tilt, but apparently it detects motion as well. Seems like a pretty common misconception too, nobody I asked (granted, a very small sample group) knew about the motion sensing either, just the tilt.

So the SIXAXIS controller has a total of 12 dimensions of spatial control, with 10 of them controllable simultaneously. Like I mentioned earlier, the SIXAXIS has no good way of turning the 6-Dimensional control into 2-Dimensional like the Wii's sensor bar, which makes it less useful as a pointing device.

The increased number of dimensions to control the game across is merely an evolution in the way we already control our games. The really important part of the Wii's control scheme is the fact that the main six dimensions of control are controlled in such an intuitive way, easy for anyone to grasp, and requires very little remembering what buttons and sticks controls what. That's the revolution Nintendo promised.

1 comment:

PD said...

"Generation 5
2/3-Dimensional games with 3-Dimensional control"

Phoenix Wright comes to mind, as the main controls seem to be touch-screen/d-pad and the microphone. From what's been described to me, some of the Virtual Boy games might fit in here as well; I only played the thing at a Sears for a minute or so before getting a really nasty headache, but my husband tells me that the/a Wario game on the VB involved jumping back and forth between the foreground and the background, beside the more traditional Mario-esque side-scrolling.