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Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo – the motion sensing marketing war

Submitted by on Tuesday, 13 April 20103 Comments

The upcoming release of PS Move and Natal, the motion sensing devices from Sony and Microsoft, has marked an interesting change in the way these two gaming institutions promote their consoles. It’s a shift because it’s the first time peripherals have taken centre stage for either company. Sony and Microsoft have traditionally taken a very conservative approach to console development, believing superior graphics to be the holy grail. When it comes to input devices both have been happy to stick with the trusted joypad.

Joypads have been the gamers’ choice since the 8-bit era with the NES. These days they have analogue sticks, built-in rumble, a lot more buttons and they’re significantly more ergonomic, but the idea behind the joypad has essentially stayed the same since the 80s. Other peripherals have featured over the years from steering wheels to light guns, but none have proven to be as versatile or intuitive as a DualShock or an Xbox 360 controller.

If joypads are the best a gamer can get, why does Sony and Microsoft expect Move and Natal to be system sellers? Well it’s all down to the success of Nintendo’s Wii. Nintendo abandoned the search for greater graphics with the Wii to instead focus on producing a new way for players to interact with their games. Their search brought them to the Wii Remote – the definitive motion sensing controller.

Since the Wii’s release in 2006, it has gone on to sell 67 million consoles worldwide. Much of the Wii’s success has come from Nintendo’s uncanny ability to adopt the most unlikely gamers. Everyone knows someone who has a mother – sometimes even a gran – who owns a Wii. They – along with just about everyone else – have bought into Nintendo’s promise; that the Wii Remote can offer a more enjoyable and engaging experience than any joypad could. The Wii is something the whole family can enjoy, it can even get you fit.

Sony and Microsoft have watched Nintendo monopolise this market for the last four years, and they now want a slice of Nintendo’s very big pie. They hope Move and Natal can capture the public’s imagination just as the Wii Remote has.

The introduction of two new motion sensing devices has also given these three gaming giants a new platform to engage their console warfare on. Move has been mocked as a Wii Remote copy, the Wii Remote gets ridiculed for not being precise and Natal has been accused of being little more than a dolled up EyeToy. It’s just another day in the games industry.

Sony and Microsoft are trying to establish their products as the public’s chosen motion sensing device. It’s a crown currently owned by Nintendo. This is how Sony and Microsoft plan to get it off them…

PlayStation Move

Move is stylish and precise

The selling points: precision, flexibility, a wider audience appeal

Price: $100 (£67) for PS Move, the PSEye and a game. TBC

In Move, Sony believe they have a product that can broaden the appeal of the PS3. They want it to be an “extension” to the brand; another selling point that can be put on the box.

It’s a wand-like device which on the surface looks like an imitation of the Wii Remote. It’s a fair accusation; it has a similar rectangular shape, a laser pointer and its sub controller (rumoured to be now called the navigation controller) may as well be called a Nunchuck.

On the surface it appears to work exactly the same, but a closer analysis shows that Move’s technology is significantly different. It contains accelerometers like a Wii Remote, but the controller is tracked primarily through the PSEye; by following the glowing ball at the top of Move, the camera can accurately pin-point the controller’s position in the room. The accelerometers kick-in for those moments when the camera can’t find Move. It’s true 1:1 tracking.

This method of tracking makes it a lot more precise than the Wii Remote. Its high levels of accuracy and low latency makes it an appealing device. If you’re a gamer who wants to genuinely feel like he’s waving a sword then Sony believe Move is the device for you.

Move may be technically sound, but next to Natal, which can do away with controllers altogether, it looks very unoriginal. Sony has two ways of dealing with this problem: play down the innovation of Natal by comparing it to an EyeToy, and by spreading concerns that Natal is too abstract to be applied to mainstream gaming.

The EyeToy was a camera for the PS2 and the precurser to the PSEye. It was capable of gesture recognition like Natal, but on a more primitive level. Sony say that Natal is doing little more than what they were doing with the EyeToy years ago.

“If you really want to get involved in playing with a camera I suggest you go out and buy a $99 PlayStation 2 and play some of the great technology we invented eight years ago.” –  Jack Tretton, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment

Sony believe that gesture recognition is far too abstract for mainstream gaming. It can deliver lots of cool stuff, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty of playing a game, Sony believe what players is want that tactile feeling of having a controller in your hand. As Kevin Butler says in the ad, “it’s also got what we in the future call buttons” – a clear dig at Natal. None of this pretending to shoot an imaginary gun.

Move has the flexibility to be used with most genres whether it’s an FPS, a beat-em-up or a party game. This flexibility is important because Sony wants Move to reach as wide an audience as possible. Motion controllers are very natural devices to hold – they are tactile and intuitive – even novice gamers can use them. It’s why your gran will play the Wii. Move has this, but it also has high levels of precision which a hardcore gamer expects.

This all means nothing without the games. At Move’s big unveil at the Games Developers Conference in San Francisco, Sony made sure they were catering for all audiences. They had games that would appeal to the casual gamer in Move Party and TV Superstars, games that may appeal to current Wii users. Sony didn’t neglect the hardcore crowd either as they had Socom 4 on show using Move. This joins Gran Turismo 5, Resident Evil 5 and LittleBigPlanet as games that “proper” gamers would play. They even had a Wii Sports competitor in Sports Champions.

Sony’s agenda at the GDC was clear, they wanted to show a line-up that would make the Wii owner say, “Why stick with my Wii when the PS3 has more accurate games and HD graphics?” It was cold and calculated, but effective. Just one problem: while the games on show may have been technically more impressive than their Wii equivalents, neither did they exude the colourful charm that the best Nintendo games have in abundance. But with over 30 developers and publishers supporting Move the quality is bound to come soon. The Wii for all its success is struggling to get third party developers behind their console these days. With the games drying up the natural progression could be for users to move (no pun intended) onto the PS3.

When it comes to distributing Move, Sony are in a strong position. You can expect Move to get plenty of support from the software side of things thanks to Sony’s extensive list of in-house developers and strong third party links. But what about the hardware? Expect a big push on console bundles which will appeal to those migrating from the Wii – a party game will no doubt be included.

The price has yet to be confirmed, but Sony has said that you can expect to see starter packages for around $100 (roughly £67). This would include Move, PSEye and a game. It’s a manageable price, that isn’t out of reach of the consumer. You could obviously just buy the controller should you already have a camera.

The cost of the sub/navigation controller could be the thing that Sony slips up on. Its analogue stick will be key to may hardcore games. This has been emphasised not only by the Socom 4 demonstration, but it has also been shown time and time again throughout the Wii’s back catalogue. If this isn’t included in the starter package, and ends up being an expensive extra. It could end up pushing the total price above what consumers are willing to pay.

Move is just part of the complete package for Sony. It fits nicely with the party line: “it only does everything.” If you want motion control, the PS3 has it; if you want HD graphics with your motion controller, the PS3 has that to; if you want to go online with your motion controller, the PS3 can do that; and if you want 3D, the PS3 has that as well. The PS3 can offer a lot, but will Wii owners really want to spend a few hundred quid upgrading to a PS3 when all they want is to play Wii Sports when their friends and family are around?


Natal promises new experiences

The selling points: innovative, promises new experiences, no controllers

Price: under £50 TBC

For all of Move’s functionality, you can’t help thinking that you’ve seen it all before with the Wii. This is where Natal comes in: Natal uses 3D motion tracking technology developed by Israeli developer, PrimeSense Ltd. It will allow gamers to play any game without the need of a controller. If you want to race you just pretend you have a racing wheel in your hand. Is this innovation, or a regression back to childhood? Microsoft are keen to stress the former.

To abandon controllers is a bold and ambitious move, and Microsoft are keen to use this trump card at every opportunity. Especially at the expense of Sony and their “derivative” PS Move.

“If we’d just come out with something that looks and feels like the Nintendo Wiimote, I think you could have fairly criticised us and said it was derivative. That’s not the path we wanted to go down.” –  Shane Kim, corporate vice president of Strategy and Business Development for the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft

It remains to be seen how functional Natal really is. Sony already flirted with similar tech with the EyeToy but ran into creative dead-ends. We have to wait until E3 before we really see what Microsoft has up their sleeves. At this point, they want the public to buy into the idea behind Natal. The idea is all about new “experiences.”

“Talking about Natal as motion control is missing the point. Natal isn’t motion. It’s a natural user interface, it’s voice recognition, it’s complete mapping of the skeleton – it’s a much different experience, and an experience as opposed to an input device.” – Phil Spencer, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios

At E3 2009, Peter Molyneux introduced Milo, a virtual boy that can apparently react to a user on a deep level. It can recognize your face, and even your emotions. It’s an exciting idea, but very abstract. There are questions as to much depth Milo really has, and how much longevity such a game can give. It epitomises the promise that surrounds Natal but there is also a sense that Microsoft are building Natal up as something it’s not.

Products can be sold under the promise of an experience; Apple have made a fortune doing so. It’s all about making the public buy into an image. Natal has a modern feel, the tech is impressive and caters for an adult audience. It seems the future; people will enjoy feeling like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. It’s something people will buy so they can tell their friends they have it, even if there is no discernible use for it.

Natal is certain to be available as part of a console bundle which will get newcomers on board from the start. It is expected that existing customers will also be able to pick up Natal at the around the £50 mark. It’s an affordable price, but only if Microsoft can sell Natal to developers.

Sony have a head start with Move; not only because developers can look back at the successes and failures on the Wii, but because Move can also be easily patched into existing games. It’s already happening with LittleBigPlanet and Resident Evil 5. Kudo Tsunoda of Microsoft Game Studios has stated that it’s unlikely existing Xbox 360 games will be able to be updated because it involves extensive alterations to the code. Natal therefore is starting at ground zero.

1000s of developer kits have already been sent out by Microsoft, but they aren’t being overly proscriptive with what they expect. Can developers come up with innovative ways to use this impressive but abstract tech? We’ll have to wait and see. If they can’t, Natal could end up being an expensive interface tool for the wealthy; not something the mainstream public will be happy to part their precious cash for.

Wii Remote

The tried and trusted Wii Remote

The selling points: distinctive brand, tried and tested, affordable

Price: It comes with the console, but £20 if you want Motion Plus.

Nintendo are in a different situation from Sony and Microsoft. They are the market leaders with over 67 million consoles sold worldwide. It’s tried and tested, and families love it. Their main threat comes from Sony’s PS Move – a product that promises to do the same but better than what the Wii Remote currently offers, but Nintendo as you would expect are dismissive of the threat that Move poses.

“If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery then I’m blushing I’m so flattered.” – Reggie Filis-Aime, president of Nintendo America

It’s typical executive bravado, but Reggie does have a point. Why should the millions of users who currently own a Wii spend a fortune upgrading to a PS3 for more of the same? In addition, does the public really want high levels of precision and HD graphics. After all, the Wii was dismissed upon release for being a novelty gimmick, but it has stood the test of time. Wii owners don’t seem to care that several of its games look worse than Gamecube games.

The popular games such as Mario Kart, Just Dance and Wii Sports don’t require the best motion sensing technology, but that hasn’t stopped them flooding the charts every week. They get by with a “flick of the wrist”. This phrase is normally used to mock the Wii, but maybe that’s all gamers want. The Wii has the Motion Plus, an adapter to the Wii remote that can offer 1:1 tracking, but developers are hardly rushing to use it in their games because they know precision doesn’t equate to greater sales, at least on the Wii.

Shigeru Miyamoto, The famous Nintendo game designer, summarised the situation succinctly:

“The fact is many people are afraid or scared of gaming technology. Actually it’s very convenient, useful technology and as long as you can have some time to get accustomed there’s nothing to be afraid of at all.”

The public understand the Wii; it’s simple and fun. They like the colourful presentation of the games, and the Ant & Dec adverts. Erm, maybe not that latter. Plus, unlike the Xbox 360 and PS3, it’s a relatively cheap investment for the family.

The only thing the Wii doesn’t have is a constant supply of games. Hardcore games don’t sell on the Wii, and for this reason third parties will likely move over to Move. Can Nintendo bank on the success of Mario Kart, Just Dance, Wii Fit and Wii Sports forever? 2009 was a terrible year for Wii games because none of the in-house projects were ready. 2010 however will have a new Mario Galaxy and a new Zelda is likely. Two massive franchises that get the gaming world salivating. These games will kick some fresh life into the Wii, but they can only come around every few years.

The Wii’s momentum appears to be faded; Nintendo have some big decisions to make. A new console seems inevitable, and maybe one will be announced at E3. If so it will blow the market open. To say how the public will react would be a complete guess. It’s an interesting time for the games industry.

Nintendo are on top, but its crown is being challenged. Does the ageing Wii still have the spark to shake off strong competition from its technically superior opponents? Does it need a new console to fight against the tide? Would the public buy into a new Wii? Only time will tell…